Classic African-American tale about the undying belief of slaves that they would one day fly back to Africa in the face of brutal oppression. Written by Veronica Byrd
I got wings, you got wings —All God’s chillun got wings. When I get to heaven, gon’ put on my wings, gon’ fly all over God’s heaven, heaven. Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven, ain’t goin’ there, heaven.
I bet you always thought those songs were about dying and goin to heaven didn’t you. Well, I’m here to tell you different. Those songs and many other Negro Spirituals were actually secret songs. They sounded like one thing but they actually meant something else. For instance, during slavery time “flying away” actually meant running away or stealing away late in the midnight hour when Ole Massa wasn’t paying his slaves no attention. Whenever one of the slaves would start to sing that song, that was a message to the others that somebody was gonna run away that night. But long before slavery time, before the slaves were brought over from Africa, that song was really telling the truth.
You see, long ago, when Africans were still living on the continent of Africa, they had a special God given ability to actually fly. Oh yeah, what I’m telling you is true. It wasn’t until just recently here that black folk lost their ability to fly.
I remember this story my great great granddaddy used to tell me. There once was this old slave master down in south Georgia, down by the coast, by the name of Jessup. Now Ole’ Massa Jessup was the meanest man you’d ever want to meet. He worked his slaves so hard he near bout’; killed them all off, and those that were left were so worn out from the cruel treatment that they weren’t able to do the hard work that needed to be done in the fields. He decided he was gonna get him “the real thing”, not these “domesticated” Negroes from America, he called them. He went right down to the dock and brought him a whole company of native Africans, just off the boat from Africa. He figured they were much stronger than the “watered down Americans.”
He wasted no time. He took them on back to his plantation and put all of them straight to work in the cotton fields. He worked those poor folks so hard, it was inhuman. He’d have them working from sun up to sundown. Now he wasn’t just working the strong ones, no siree, he worked the men, women and children equally as hard. That man was meaner than a stirpped snake.
Whenever they would get to the end of a row of cotton they would try to take a rest, but Ole Massa Jessup had an overseer who was equally as mean as he was. He would ride to the end of the row and if he saw one of the slaves slow down he’d pull out that big old black whip and snap it in front of them to insure that they didn’t even think about stopping to take even a moments rest. Nobody wanted to catch the wrath of that ol’ whip, so they just kept on going. Now the human body can only take so much, and there were more occasions than not where the poor slaves would drop from sheer exhaustion.
There was this one young girl who had just given birth to her first child. I can’t rightly remember her African name, but folks just called her Mimi. You would think that Ole’ Massa Jessup would give the girl time to recover from childbirth; but no, he had that girl right back out in the field the next day. So there she was trying to tend to her baby as well as do her chores in the field. Well, that baby started to cry, as all babies do, and that overseer hollered “shut that thing up a’fore I come over there and beat the both of you.”
Well, Mimi tried, best she could, to stop the crying. But she was a new mother, she didn’t know what to do. That baby kept crying and sure enough, the next thing she knew, that old black whip was slicing through her back. She fell to the ground, baby still strapped to her hip. But she got up as quick as she could so as not to get hit again. She managed to stagger to an old man who was working a few feet in front of her. She whispered something to him and he immediately shook his head as if to say “no.”
She went on back to her place in the row and started back to picking. The hot sun beaming down on that poor child, and the fact that she still hadn’t regained all of her strength back from giving birth, that child’s knees buckled and she fell once again. And that old overseer laid that whip on her quicker than you could imagine. This time she didn’t even take the time to whisper to the old man, she just called out, “Is it time yet father, is it time yet?”
That old man’s voice sounded as if it were coming from the sky, the ground, and even from the thicket of trees that stood just beyond the cotton field. “Yes, daughter, yes indeed, now is the time!!”
With that, that girl slowly rose to her feet and just kept on risin’ and risin’ and risin’. And before you know it, she was flying high over the cotton fields. And that baby that had been crying all along, was just as quiet and calm as could be.
The other slaves looked at one another, and even though they were tired beyond measure, there was a sudden glimmer of hope in their eyes. The old man called out in some unknown tongue, “Kuliba — Kuliba!” As if obeying his command, the workers dropped their bags full of cotton and raised their arms to the heavens, and faster than you’d believe, they too start started to slowly rise off the ground until they were all hovering right above the cotton field.
Now Ole Massa Jessup and his over seer didn’t know what to make of all this. “I don’t’ know what kind of African hoodoo you’re trying to pull here, but all of ya’ll better bring yourselves back down here, a’froe I take this whip to ya.” With that the slaves rose higher and higher until they were nearly out of sight.
The overseer and Ole Massa Jessup started towards the old man, with that whip ready to give him the lashing of his life. But all at once the old man let out a sound that sounded like it came all the way across the water from Africa. Then he too rose into the sky as fast as could be. He began to mumble something in an unknown tongue right at Ole Massa Jessup, and then he laughed and laughed. He caught up to the others and they began to sing and clap their hands, and flew off into somewheres where I can’t even imagine. Not one of those slaves was ever seen again.
I hear tell there’s a few of us that still have the ability to fly, we just can’t remember how it’s done. But if ya’ll ever run across one of those flying’ folks, let me know. I’ll be the one hovering right above your imagination.
– THE END –
Coastal Georgia Slavery and Gullah Culture
All God’s Chillin Had Wings – Story Credits
Written and Told by Veronica Byrd
Directed by Craig Dominey
Photography by Craig and Connie Dominey
Sound Design by Henry Howard
This Post Has 14 Comments
I first read this story in Hughes’ and Bontemps’ Negro Folklore, and have come across a few variations. Here’s a link to the Caesar Grant original http://www.whittedq.weebly.com/uploads/3/5/4/2/3542765/aa_folktale.pdf
It’s strange, I know this story, but a much different version of it, the one I knew was in Gullah originally so maybe that explains the variance. In the one I know Kuli-ba wasn’t what he told them to fly, (what he told them for that was something forgotten), Kuli-ba was what he said to the slavemaster just before leaving.
Still it’s rather interesting to come across another version of the story. I didn’t think the tale was very well known.
Last sentence…..So happy to find this reference. Please correct. Thank you.
My Bigdaddy (grandfather) told me this story when I was a little girl. When a baby was born in our family he would look intensively at the child and ask “Are you the one with the Word?” So happy tind this reference.
that was an amazing story and the song
Now I want wings, sweet story! 🙂
ID LIKE TO KNOW WHO WROTE THE SONG ‘ALL GODS CHILLUN GOT WINGS
In a lot of folk lore stories there is a grain of truth. Espeically if you’ve read about the flying men of Haiti, Catholic saints and Buddist monks floating off the ground.
i read a chidrens story once about this. in it, the africans had actual wings, but they were forced to shed them to fit on the slave boats. in morning of their brotheren, the africans back on the continent shed theirs too. i forget what it was called, or who it’s buy, i just remember the beautiful artwork of africans with lovely wings
Great story, hope it endures!
I had to do this peace in a debate tourament I really enjoyed it so did my judges so much so they sent me to the finals round with it
awww…a happy ending.
I would love to kow about the background of this story–it is wonderful!
great story/folklore.. i like it.