Wet Woods was unwanted. The swampy daughter of a glacier from the Devonian-Period, this swath of land in south-central Louisville, Kentucky was deemed uninhabitable by white settlers. Because they considered it unliveable—undesirable—Wet Woods was the only land that freedwoman Eliza Curtis Hundley Tevis was permitted to buy in 1851. After the Civil War, more freedpeople established homes and farms in the marshlands. (I imagine us trying to make sense, make home on this slavewreck, maroon/ed on land-that-is-not-quite.) A little over a hundred years after that, I was brought home from the hospital to this same floodplain, sculpted by the glacial retreat that occurred during what is sometimes called “The Age of Fishes.”
Maybe that’s why I dream of water every night; yet when I dream of a boat, it is not without flight. Ships carried by kite strings, a ship with dark children riding parachutes over the hull. Close your eyes and see: flying sea turtles. A garland of white owls circling over a long-dry river bed. One of my favorites, from decades ago: a housebound Pegasus, wings as wide as the room—an aerial horse as blue as the first sea.
You see, it was white desire that conveyed my ancestors to this corner of Turtle Island, and pushed the Shawnee and Cherokee, among others, to present-day Oklahoma; it was that same vessel that determined where I was born, insisted that Wet Woods was only good for niggers. So I can’t escape the gravity of water and ships even in my dreams; perhaps the best I can do there is gain the air like Icarus, and waver not because I flew too close to the sun, but because slave ships weigh down my ankles.
When white desire isn’t a ship, it’s a force of nature. What else could have powered the Middle Passage, the largest forced migration the world has ever known? Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being pronounces the slave ship as weather itself; the “atmospheric density” of slavery was inescapable, then and now. It has been proposed that slavery and genocide were some of the major triggers of the Anthropocene, the ongoing geological epoch that is defined by major human impact on geology, ecosystems, and climate. Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None places anti-Blackness at the center of eco-apocalypse. As Macarena Gómez-Barris wrote, “Colonialism and the consequences of trans-Atlantic slavery are not an afterthought of the Anthropocene: they are its very constitution.”
I can’t escape the gravity of water and ships even in my dreams; perhaps the best I can do there is gain the air like Icarus, and waver not because I flew too close to the sun, but because slave ships weigh down my ankles.
for five hundred years the essence of being black is that you can be transported. anywhere. anytime. anyhow.
— M. NourbeSe Philip, from “Black W/Holes: A History of Brief Time”
The Wanderer was deviously named. In its belly this slave ship held captives—thwarted wanderers, all—from present-day Nigeria. John Couper and Thomas Spalding purchased 75 of the Igbo people at $100 each at a slave market near Savannah, Georgia. The captives were then chained together and packed like inventory onto a smaller vessel. The slave dealers thought their destination was St. Simons Island in Georgia, where they planned to re-sell these thwarted wanderers, all to local plantation owners. But at Dunbar Creek, the Igbo chose eternity over estuary. They overpowered their captors, and in what was called “the first freedom march in the history of America,” the Igbo marched into the marsh rather than live enslaved. The rest is mythistory. Some say that they drowned, triumphantly, while some insist that it is more accurate to say the water spirits took them home. (Some bodies were never recovered.) Still others say that they were heard crying, we will not be lashed to this land, before turning into buzzards and flying back to Africa. I wonder if they launched over the Atlantic to Atlantis, and wait for me to join them still.
White whim, white winds blew us here. Ever since, our folklore has been testifying to the certain, secret updrafts that can return us:
I heard about the flying man up in Arkansas, at Jonesboro. The polices went up to him, and the faster they walked the faster he walked, until he just spread his arms and sailed right on off. And they never did catch him. Said he was faster than the planes.
–J.D. Suggs as told to Richard M. Dorson, American Negro Folktales, 279.
Toni Morrison left us in 2019, but not before leaving flight instructions in works like Song of Solomon. Other than my own dream-time travels, that novel was my first introduction to the Flying African body of lore. One of its contexts is the Great Migration, when Black people moved North (again) to escape one form of levitation—lynching. The book begins with a Black man attempting to sail-suicide from the rooftops on “wide blue wings,” and ends with yet another Black man leaping into Elsewhere. And in between? A song. A variation on the following lyrics keeps threading through the text:
Solomon done fly
Solomon done gone
Solomon cut across the sky
Solomon gone home…
Suspend disbelief: after all, Black reading and writing after years of state-enforced prohibition is already a miracle. Literacy was rightly understood as levitation, so no floating for us. Except John Berry Meachum had other ideas. Formerly enslaved, he founded the first Black church in Missouri, where he taught the free and enslaved. However, when Missouri banned educating Black people in 1847, Meachum moved his school to a steamboat on the Mississippi River, and thusly beyond the jurisdictional reach of the state. And the name of this haven for Black education? The Floating Freedom School.
Our sacred stories say that Black people can fly—float—away from Black bondage, Black death. Fly away home. Set sail for another shore, or so said the flying man last spotted over Ark/ansas. Fly away, toward the North Star. Canada was the North Star, twinkling above the Kármán Line—terrestrially known as the U.S.-Canada border, which must have represented to Black bondspeople the boundary between bitter earth and unfettered sky. But be wary, wrote M. NourbeSe Philip: “the space that is canada … linked to the black world, the african world as a space of refuge, hope and new beginnings, all too often unrealized.” Even “free Blacks” were subject to the Black Codes, a set of laws to circumscribe seemingly every move of a Black-mind-and-body throughout the U.S. South and North. According to the Black Code of Washington, DC, we were legally barred from flying kites.
There are limits to transcendence. The video to Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright” seems to speak to this tension. A suspension bridge—the iconic Golden Gate Bridge spanning the strait connecting the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific—opens the video. (“The curving cables of a suspension bridge are in tension, experiencing pulling forces.” –GoldenGate.org) A few minutes in, Lamar and three other Black men are sitting in a car that is seemingly hoisted in the air by unseen strings. As one of the car’s occupants pours out libations, the camera pans out so we can see the vehicle is being carried by four white police officers.
Our sacred stories say that Black people can fly—float—away from Black bondage, Black death. Fly away home.
The rest of the video features Lamar riding the air like it’s aqueous. Finally he is perched on a street light, high above the cityscape. Rapping like royalty, nothing can bring him down. We gon’ be alright, he keeps telling us. But as the camera pans out, we see a white cop emerge from his car, training an invisible gun on Lamar. We see the blood arc when the bullet hits its target. We see Lamar falling back from his height, interminably, like a chalk outline in slow motion. But will those pulling forces have the last word? When he hits the ground, dirt flows upward. Black screen. The video returns, if only to show us Lamar opening one eye and smiling impishly. Did he die? Is this what resurrection looks like? Is he still dead, smiling at us from the other side of his airborne dreams? A decisive ending to this story may be as fugitive as the ones from Igbo Landing.
Night. A park in Philadelphia, studded with telescopes. A local astronomical society has set up telescope stations for curious passersby. I stopped to investigate, because who doesn’t want to see a sky swarming with stars? It was then that a Black astrophysics student pointed to the sky and taught me about fluid dynamics, which is the study of fluid movement—liquid and gas, flow and wave. It covers the laws and principles governing everything from the currents in the Mariana Trench—the deepest trench in the ocean—to the motion of stellar systems and galaxies.
Since aerodynamics is a subdiscipline of fluid dynamics, I learned even more when I embarked on an obsessive, years-long dive into the annals of airplane crashes. Of course, this research did little to assuage my fears as I was soaring above the Pacific Ocean in a twin-turboprop commuter airliner. As this too-small plane flew out of Los Angeles toward my destination of Monterey, California, I was uncomfortably aware of every twitch of the plane. To my right, I saw the snow-capped mountains and below me, the more restless mountains of the white-capped ocean waves. A storm. The wind jostled the plane so mercilessly that it felt almost personal; I was simply a particle in a jar that wouldn’t stop shaking, a message in a bottle that I was convinced would never see shore again. Even the flight attendants sat down and strapped in, sneaking nervous glances out of the window.
Before my trip left tarmac, my spirit guides had pressed visualizations into my palm to salve my flying anxieties. Carry these when you’re afraid, I was told at my altar back home. The images were not unlike my dreams; see them: corona, cloud, a black-wingèd guardian backlit with gold who won’t let go of my hand. Now, too many miles above the earth, there was no question why I had been given these visualizations. This plane was going to crash into the wine-dark sea, I figured, and they were to be the last things I would ever see. Parting gifts.
Still my dark guardian didn’t let go. When our hands touched, a burst of indigo light. Nuclear fusion at the meeting of palms. Focus on the light, I told myself, remember gravity is just another word for love story. The plane isn’t trying to kill me, I whispered to myself, it’s just the earth—the water—wants me back. Pulling forces. Is that what Black aerialists in those tales told themselves when the tightrope could beam them up no longer? But I didn’t die—drown—that day. The aircraft made it down to Monterey, where I left shaken and hardly believing I had made it. Thanks to the science and strength of the ancestornauts in my bloodline, I learned that there was, indeed, some kind of life after flight.