16 December 2011

Hamilton’s ‘The People Could Fly’

During the 1992 election campaign, I was taking calls in the newsroom when a viewer called to protest not something any CBS personnel had said (whew) but an inappropriate remark by one of the candidates. Ross Perot’s reference to a difficult situation as a “tar baby” was, she said, bigoted.

The conversation struck me. Sure, the core problem was that she didn’t want Perot — an old white guy with no particular track record on civil rights — using black folklore to his own purpose. And yet it struck me as sad, on purely literary-aesthetic grounds, that such a vivid metaphor might be off-limits.

Virginia Hamilton

Already in 1992, the author Virginia Hamilton had devoted much of her prolific career to reclaiming black folklore, beginning with some of her earliest books in the mid-1960s. She stripped the stories of their Joel Chandler Harris–Walt Disney-accented minstrelsy, restored them to parity with the traditional tales of other cultures (much as the Grimms had done for Germany), and most importantly, placed them securely in the hands of a new generation, who might draw upon their wisdom and build a sounder future.

Her best-known collection, The People Could Fly, beautifully illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, won a slew of awards in the mid-1980s, and fully deserves the status of a classic. I returned to the book recently, and found joy there.

One of the illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon

Here is the Tar Baby, and right off the bat we see what Virginia Hamilton is up to. Harris’ exaggeration of black speech — so thickly rendered that as a boy I couldn’t make sense of it — is gone. Instead, she gives us lucid prose that reflects but doesn’t overdo the oral tradition: “Brer” Rabbit is now “Bruh,” for example, and while he’s still the wily Trickster, outwitting his foes but sometimes undone by his own foibles, he’s presented now as a character, not a cartoon.

The stories are still fun, but they’re treated with respect — and so, in turn, is the reader. In like fashion, Virginia Hamilton follows each tale with a few paragraphs of background, to satisfy the curiosity of older readers, tracing the roots of the tradition throughout North America and Africa.

Several other tales depict scary-comic devils and the resourceful heroes who oppose them: one of the book’s greatest achievements is the constant evocation of the importance of intelligence in surmounting even the worst predicaments. Some of these heroes are boys, some are girls; some are princes, others are slaves.

Indeed, slavery, diaspora, and poverty enrich the stories: you get a clear sense of people sticking together and enduring hardship through the use of imagination and language. And the real whammy is saved for the last, the title story, one of the most poignant I know of.

The very phrase “the people could fly” is a poem, a complete story in its way, a signal of aspiration and redemption. For a time, it entered my everyday speech, and Dan Rather’s, too: for example, when Michael Jordan retired (for about ten minutes), Dan shook his head and said, “He could fly.”

On a school visit

I was inspired to return to the book at a party in Paris last year, when the friend of a friend mentioned that her mother was a writer. When she told me just who her mother was, I nearly fell over: I could hardly have been more surprised if she’d told me that her mother herself could, in fact, fly. Returning to New York and unpacking my books, I discovered that my copy of The People Could Fly had disappeared, probably given to one of my godkids. (“Of course I didn’t forget your birthday! See, I have a present for you right here.”)

So I went out and got a new copy, and look forward to reacquainting myself even further with Virginia Hamilton’s work. She was the first African American to win the Newbery Medal, for M.C. Higgins the Great, and her mystery novel The House of Dies Drear was a favorite among the girls I knew. There’s a lot to rediscover, and a lot I have yet to explore.

Leigh Hamilton

I won’t have the honor of getting acquainted with Virginia Hamilton herself; she passed away in 2002. But that daughter of hers? Leigh Hamilton is a knockout (literally — she boxes) who is also a very dramatic soprano.

She can fly, baby. I’m immensely pleased to know her — and looking forward to hearing her in person, instead of relying on YouTube clips!

NOTE: Among the pleasures of Virginia Hamilton’s website is a whimsical collection of facts, pictures, stories, and jokes about frogs. Even as you’re admiring her career and her œuvre, do take a minute to check out the fun.


arnoldadoff said...

dear william:
what a great pleasure to read your cogent and loving presentation here...leigh has been "singing" your praises to me since you all met in paris last year....
I am virginia's husband and leigh's very proud father...
virginia and i were quite a team for over 40 years...
and i will also direct you to my own career...more than 40 books of poetry for young readers "and their older allies...."
(roots and blues: a celebration...clarion/2011...is my latest...i'd love to send you a copy if you'll be kind enough to send me your physical address in nyc...)
i can only add my great appreciation of your passionate commitment... and wish you all the best for this holiday season....stay well: arnold

William V. Madison said...

Dear sir, I am delighted to hear from you! And I'll send you my contact information posthaste.