This is a story about a slave named Toby and how he led his people to a land called Freedom.
Kim Harris lifted a toca-seed shaker above her head. She jostled the short stick and the shells’ rattle carried throughout the large worship hall at the New Garden Friends Meeting house in Greensboro.
“Now they say that in Africa, there were some people who could fly with beautiful, black shiny wings,” she said. “You could see them floating in the air the way you or I might walk up a set of stairs. But somehow… a few of them had gotten caught. A few of them were chained, a few of them got marched to the west coast of Africa… a few of them endured the middle passage and they forgot how to fly. But there was one who did remember. One who found himself enslaved… and the master called him Toby. Now, Toby had been enslaved in the same place for many years, he and the master became old men together.
One day, the master said to Toby ‘We’ve gotten old together.’”
The master took pity on Toby and left the man to his own devices.
When slaves couldn’t organize an outright rebellion due to the societal powers that kept them marginalized, they turned to the symbolic messages within music and storytelling to spread their ideas of liberation, Harris said.
Last Sunday, the New Garden Friends Meetinghouse in Greensboro held a concert to honor the 200th anniversary of the Underground Railroad in Guilford County. The organizers invited Harris, associate professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, who sang old spirituals and informed the crowd on the beginnings of black activism in the United States. The concert also celebrated the life of Logie Meachum, a Greensboro blues artist, teacher, activist and storyteller who died in December.
Toby walked around the plantation. He chatted with the blacksmith and spoke with the gardeners about their day. In the afternoon, he got a bucket of water and a ladle to quench the slaves’ thirst.
“[He did this so much] that people began to sing about him,” said Harris. “They’d sing, ‘Bring me a little water, Toby/ Bring me a little water now/ Bring me a little water, Toby/ Every little once in a while.’”
There was also a woman by the name of Sarah. She’d just had a baby.
“Sarah heard the stories of Toby,” said Harris. “And when he walked down her road, she stood up and said, ‘Toby, please, I hear that you remember how to fl—.’”
Sarah couldn’t get the word out. The overseer was within earshot and the master sat on his porch with a cup of iced tea.
Virginia Hamilton, an award-winning author born in 1934, adapted an African-American folktale to write The People Who Could Fly in her anthology by the same name. Hamilton wished to preserve the stories she heard from her relatives in text while still retaining a colloquial tone to the prose.
“I wanted the sound of a teller, as if the stories were spoken by somebody, because that’s the way they were told,’’ said Hamilton in an interview with The Chicago Tribune.
Harris’ adaptation of Hamilton’s adaptation brings the story of Toby and Sarah back to its oral roots.
“[Spirituals are] important for remembering and learning African American history,” said Harris in an interview during the intermission of her show. “They’re also important because they still carry so much emotional intent. There are people now singing, ‘I feel like a motherless child,’ and they’re thinking of the child migrants who’re locked up in cages. They’re singing these songs as ways of promoting activism,” she said.
Sarah knew that Toby heard what she’d said and she packed up her things that night. Toby came down the road the next day. The overseer and master were preoccupied. Sarah asked if today was the day she’d learn to fly.
“Toby nodded his head and whispered [a few words] into her ear,” said Harris near the end of the story. “Sarah couldn’t quite understand what he said but something inside of her changed. She grabbed her baby tight, left her things behind and the next thing you know Sarah began to — ” and on the word “fly”, Harris shook her toca seeds. “Higher than the cotton, higher than the fences, higher than the trees, floating to a beautiful land called Freedom.”
Toby freed more slaves in the following days. The master and overseer knew he was the one behind all of this. When Toby learned of their newfound knowledge, he whispered to himself and flew towards the sky.
“You don’t have to be in slavery,” said Toby. “You may not have wings to fly but you can use your feet and take that railroad under the ground. I never want you to forget about the people who could fly, and I never want you to forget about that beautiful land called Freedom.”