Song of Solomon contains many allusions and references to both African and African American folktales and folk traditions, many of which are tied together by an interest in flying. Most obviously, the Angola legend of slaves who can fly out of bondage and back to Africa plays a crucial role in the beginning of the story and reappears at several points throughout. The tale was first collected by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps in their very influential work, The Book of Negro Folklore. As Naomi Von Tol notes in her essay, “The Fathers May Soar: Folklore and Blues in Song of Solomon,” the Angola people whose descendents probably told this tale were widely regarded as possessing a special rapport with the supernatural. Their tales were cherished and preserved both by their own people and by other slave populations. Thus Morrison, in using the story, simultaneously continues this tradition of preserving the traditional tales and also enters into the parallel academic tradition of Hughes and Bontemps. In other words, she uses the folktale both as a creative artist and as a cultural historian. These two roles seem inextricably linked in her vision of African American heritage.
In the original tale, we are told that all Africans once had the power to fly, but that their wings were taken away due to their transgressions. However, some Africans retain this power, though their wings are not apparent and they look like anyone else. One day, a woman who has just given birth collapses in the fields from exhaustion. Her master beats her mercilessly. Upon a signal from the eldest slave, the woman escapes this beating by flying away suddenly. When the whites go after this elder, he too escapes, along with the rest of the slaves on the plantation, who fly away like a flock of crows, back to Africa. In this story, and in Morrison’s novel, the sheer absurdity of African Americans’ realities – the punishing economic and social conditions – lead to the embrace of a fantasy of flying. When reality grows too surreal to bear, such creative re-castings of one’s powers may help to relieve the burden. Indeed, in this light, the whole of Morrison’s creative effort might be likened to flight. We use the phrase “flight of fancy” to mean something frivolous; but a creative flight like Morrison’s, and like Milkman’s at the novel’s end, captures a kind of catharsis out of despair that might be said to follow from the absurdities of the African American condition.