The People Could Fly

Virginia Hamilton’s 1985 collection of American Black folktales can be read as children’s literature. Audible certainly does, as it lists the collection in its Children’s Audiobooks section, and Andrew Barnes reads the tales like a grandfather entertaining a pack of toddlers. Yet the book also includes notes about the origin and development of these tales, making it a viable ethnographic study. I was hoping for more of the latter when I downloaded this book, and while I didn’t get what I expected I still found it valuable.

The tales are divided into four thematic chapters. The opening chapter focuses on animal tales, and I found it a bit disappointing, mostly because the stories about talking rabbits, bears, lions, foxes, and alligators reminded me more of Uncle Remus than Zora Neale Hurston. Barnes’ often over-the-top exuberance reinforced the impression that the tales were being told solely for entertainment, without any appreciation for their underlying meaning or significance.

Subsequent chapters, however, left a better impression. Hamilton provides good notes on the origin of the magical and exaggerated reality tales in the second chapter, and Barnes’ reading, while still spirited, no longer dominates the stories — he doesn’t need to alter his voice much to show the scariness of the Hairy Man. The third chapter, supernatural tales, demonstrates the complex role of the devil and forbidden magic, and the final chapter on slave tales of freedom is a triumph, ending in the magnificent title story.

It’s a book more for kids than for scholars. If you can accept that aspect, as well as Barnes’ hyperbolic delivery and the unspectacular bluegrass musical interludes, you’ll find it enjoyable.