Fly Free, Always: Images of Black Freedom in Children’s Books

As a young child, I was fascinated with flying. 

No, that’s not right. It is truer to write that I was fascinated with images of people flying and the freedom afforded to them. I found my heart soaring with seeing Black folks cut away from the cruelties and dangers that only found them in this lifetime. 

I was a child who devoured nearly any book that I could get my hands on. I am ever grateful that my mother first and foremost, before any teacher or librarian, made sure to gently push books created by Black creatives that centered Black people to me and my reading piles. I never felt like I couldn’t be the hero of my own story. I could always find a book with someone who looked like me from my picturing books to chapter books to novels and beyond.

Two books that stay on my mind when I think of these visuals that showcased Black liberation and freedom on the page were two faves by Black women: Faith Ringgold and Virginia Hamilton.

Historical Folkore in The People Who Could Fly

Written by Literary Sage Virginia Hamilton, Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillion, Published in 1985, Distributed through Knopf, Distributed by Random House

I have a BIG love for fairytales and folklore that originated in my childhood. Hearing and reading adaptations and retellings still hold my interest after all these years. When I was fairly young, The People Who Could Fly by Storyteller Supreme/Beloved Griot Virginia Hamilton with illustrations by the ever talented husband and wife team Leo and Diane Dillion was a fave book of mine. First published in 1985, these two dozen folktales are spirited retellings of tricksters, brave children, foolish adults and of course, the feature story of those in cruel bondage escaping to freedom by air.

This children’s book would go on to win several awards, including being a Horn Book Fanfare Book in 1985, a Coretta Scott King Award author win in 1986, and being a 1985 New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book winner. The legacy of this book includes inspiring Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room, a 2021 Installation Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition centering people of the African Diaspora with an emphasis on historical significance and storytelling. Fun Fact: an audio book version in the form of CD (remember those?) was created with voice acting royalty James Earl Jones and  Virginia Hamilton, herself, narrating.

I was always looking for myself and people in the books I read. I grew up on both Hamilton’s books and the Dillion’s art as did other 80’s and 90’s babies. Reading Black folktales washed over a place in my heart that helped cement that Black lives mattered through stories passed down–both orally and written. There were stories that were way older than me, than my parents, than my grandparents. I was, and still am, so fascinated at how accessible these stories are in the hands of those who put this book together so long ago. Timeless, really. I am so emotionally overwhelmed with stories by and about Black folks never dying and finding new ways to be retold and reinvented. To simplify: We outchea, and we’ve been here before. 

Written by Literary Sage Virginia Hamilton, Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillion, Published in 2004.

After Hamilton’s death in 2002, a version of The People Who Could Fly was lovingly made in the form of a picture book containing just this particular tale, whereas the original book contained twenty-four stories in total. This newer book contained only the titular story and pages of colored artwork that set this version apart from the original book that had only artwork in black and white with the exception of the cover image.

Seeing the artistic decision by Leo and Diane Dillion to add folks with hues of brown and Black with angel wings still feels like a bold, revolutionary measure given the whitewashed versions in most religious paintings and artwork. On the cover image, they stand out as statuesque, regal beings, on a cover deserving of your awe and attention. Eartha Kit’s cover of, Angelitos Negros by legendary Mexican singer Pedro Infante (perhaps better known by its English title, “Paint Me Black Angels”) comes to mind when I think back on the artwork of this version. 

Angels have different representations and descriptions that vary from religion to religion, but the best understanding that I had growing up in the Baptist faith is that they were basically the right hands of God. They were in fact, his creations but also those who carried out important tasks on this plane of existence and the heavenly one. Perhaps the most popular Biblical story of an angel is the one telling a young woman that she would carry the light of the world, the Savior Jesus Christ. In other biblical stories, angels were tasked with telling God’s chosen people important information and even standing guard with fiery swords.

Here in the beautiful artwork left to us by the Dillons, these angelic depictions of those of the darker hue show them being free in beginning of the tale, happy before the mass enslavement that our histories tell us separated souls from their homes as they disappeared on the slave ships to the new lands that broke their backs and hearts. Towards the end of this, they regain the ability to fly, even without their wings, and they soar in the blue skies, grabbing the hands of others, creating a beautiful image that is both lovely and hopeful.

(More) Modern Fantasy in Tar Beach

Tar Beach, written and illustrated by Faith Ringgold, is a children’s picture book published by Crown Publishers, Inc., 1991

Another childhood fave came in the form of Tar Beach written and gorgeously illustrated by  Faith Ringgold. A true powerhouse in the art world, Ringgold’s work includes all that of: painter, writer, speaker, mixed media sculptor, performance artist, and more. She is perhaps best known for her unique quilted artwork which were original textile pieces photographically reproduced for the books she made. The book set in late 1930’s New York tells the story of Cassie, a little Black girl whose dreams are to be free. Free to get up and fly over the city or wherever she wants, especially at night, over the rooftop of the apartment building where she and her family live in located in Harlem.

As her first book, Tar Beach went on to win over 20 awards including the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King award for the best-illustrated children’s book of 1991. The book itself is based on the story quilt of the same title from The Woman on a Bridge series, 1988 by the artist.  The original painted story quilt, Tar Beach, is in the permanent collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City inspiring and influencing future generations of artists to come. Fun fact: Later, an animated version with Natalie Cole as the voice over was created for a program for children’s books for television. 

Seeing this little Black girl with skin like mine out flying among the cityline made me feel like I was limitless. Untouchable. Cassie flew above all the grownups, the buildings, and anything that might make her feel bad or uneasy. I felt so blown away as I looked over the pages again and again. She was above it. All. And being so carefree as she told her story, her truth. 

Cassie’s freedom and ownership of the city and the bridge feels so brilliantly affirmative, even reading after all these years. I loved how she took up space and did not shrink. She soared. This little Black girl is bold and unafraid, fearless, really. All the qualities I want every Black child to have, especially little girls as the world, seemingly anti-Black as it is, will try to beat it out of them soon after they are delivered into this world.

As a more modern tale set after the times of slavery, I still implicitly understood the weight of being Black in this country as I started to connect what life was like for Black folks in picture books. Cassie, our narrator, speaks of her father having many difficulties finding work and not being able to join a union, partially due to race. As I got a little older, I learned about the precarious state of the world but especially the worlds of African Americans during The Great Depression that started in the 1920’s and carried on into the next decade. 

In Ringgold’s later work, on the success of Tar Beach, she made more short books featuring Cassie for younger readers, and they all capture the visual mastery of the artwork of the original books in bite sized books. On the covers, young Cassie is featured, still in flight against that gorgeous background of Rinngold’s starry night with twinkling stars.

 In 1992, following the publications of Tar Beach, the author released Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad, another children’s book that once again features Cassie and her little brother Be (look, the Faith Ringgold Literary Universe is a stunning one if only you are to explore it) are separated at a gathering of people near a train. With Harriet Tubman as her guide, Cassie has to retrace the journey that escaping slaves took on the real Underground Railroad to be finally reunited with her brother.  This book also carries over the same visuals of flight and freedom, closer aligning it to my other favorite The People Who Could Fly, which I appreciated. 

As with having enough childlike wonder or a pure heart to see fairy folk or see paths unseen by the common eye in folktales across the world over, as a child I somehow connected the people who were oppressed and could fly like young Cassie and her little brother as something secret that only Black folks could pull off.

It was a great comfort to me as a little Black child slowly but surely developing and coming to grips of what it meant to be Black and exist in this country. When I caught angry whispers of the grown folks of offenses big and small when shopping, in the workplace and dealing with authority figures like police officers, I would go to bed with one of these books with a smile on my face like a secret charm against the bad things happening.

As Black folks are not a monolith and none of us are the same, none of us cook the same versions of dishes, wear the same clothing, have the same upbringing, or even speak the same language or even dialect. I know that none of us learn about racism and the history and impact of Africans turned slaves upon American shores and other places in the same way as well.

With The People That Could Fly, I felt an almost spiritual connection of deliverance that was later amplified by the additional artwork of the later version by the creative team of Hamilton and The Dillons. With it came one of my first books illustrating to me that Black people’s stories mattered and stayed with us and will always be with us. While slavery days seemed like a lifetime ago to younger me, I could almost feel how it changed people in the snippets of stories of the older folks in my family: who and what they escaped from.

With Tar Beach and other related work by Ringgold, I felt an affirmative connection that told me it was okay to dream and hope and that I was valid in doing these as a Black child. With it came a feeling of victory and agency not always afforded to children, especially those who looked like me. Looking back, I remember never not being able to not feel wonder when reading, and young Cassie was the one of the closest versions of someone that I wanted to emulate, then, now, and forever.

The current landscape facing literature, especially children’s literature, in our country today in the libraries and schools is a threat to both creatives and young adults everywhere. Censorship by more conservative leaning folks has resulted in the banning of classics and newer titles championed by educators, parents, and children alike. 

It is with my greatest hope that books such as these, but especially these two, remain unmoved from places of learning and reading. 

It is one of my deepest desires that both The People Who Could Fly and Tar Beach continue to be literary treasures for Black children that help them connect the possibilities of what freedom looks like visually and on the page–to inspire them to fly in their own ways, always.

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  • Carrie McClain

    Reviewer/Editor/Magical Girl

    Carrie McClain is writer, editor, social media maven and media scholar. Other times she's known as a Starfleet Communications Officer, Comics Auntie, and Golden Saucer Frequenter. Shuri is her favorite Disney Princess. Nowadays you can usually find her buried under a pile of Josei manga. She/Her

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