This paper explores the effects of aviation technology on the Flying African myth by examining several examples that span from the height of the Golden Age of Aviation, the civil rights movement, and the present day. Traditionally, the Flying African myth has reflected the desire for freedom and cross-Atlantic return shared by generations of African descendants who inherited the trauma of forced displacement and enslavement throughout the Americas. Though strikingly, since the Golden Age of Aviation (1919-1939), writers and storytellers in the United States have readapted the tradition of the Flying African myth to variously express a rejection of cross-Atlantic return, a distrust of Western technology, or have focused on the barriers to socio-economic ascension within the nation. But what unites all of these transformations is the redirection of desire from the collective memories of an African homeland to resolving the internal struggles of the United States. Ultimately I argue that these new technological possibilities converged with civil rights integration efforts so as to transform the mythic desires for physical escape into aspirations for socio-economic ascension.
During the Golden Age of Aviation, in the period between World War I and World War II, flight became a very real possibility for those living in the industrialized world. Ironically, countries with a history of institutionalized slavery were often first to acquire aviation technology due to further developed industries and economies— particularly in the United States. Thus, for Blacks sufficiently wealthy, travel by aircraft became a popular form of ancestral return. For some, this new reality intertwined with ancient myth to form an Afro-centric political ideology. For others, physically connecting with the estranged African continent merely frustrated racial solidarity. What emerged from modernist Black mythology was a tradition of African flight complicated by the possibilities and technologies of a new era.
As modernity progressed, the Flying African myth turned ever inwards, directed at the social problems continually faced in America. In the United States, it began to signify not only the original meanings of escape and return to Africa, but also paradoxically, socio-economic ascension within the nation. Some of the transformations in this period include the following: a change in the perceived truth status of the myth from matter of fact to metaphor; a response to this growing skepticism that included both a harsh critique of Western technology and a narrowed range in represented modes of flight; and the widespread omission of sea imagery. So too, crashing flight has become more prominent and positively represented in recent versions of the myth. This trope may alternately reflect the limitations of technology, the historical failures of cross-Atlantic escape, or the more assimilationist versions that envision social and economic ascension within the United States. Ultimately then, the Flying African myth was produced under the conditions of slavery, but altered under the possibilities that were generated by the very technologies of flight for which it had expressed an impossible desire.
"From Escape to Ascension: The Effects of Aviation Technology on the Flying African Myth,"
Criticism: Vol. 57
, Article 7.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/criticism/vol57/iss2/7