In 2018, there were 143,518 library workers in the United States, according to data collected by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. While newer data isn’t available, the number is probably lower now, and recent history suggests more library jobs may be on the chopping block in the near future.
During the Great Recession, the economic downturn between late 2007 and mid-2009, thousands of librarians and other library staff lost their jobs. As local governments cut spending on libraries, the size of that workforce shrank to 137,369 in 2012 from 145,499 in 2008.
Unfortunately, many of the Great Recession’s job losses were never completely overcome. There were about 2,000 fewer library workers in 2018 than in 2008, at the height of the crisis.
Library workers are again losing their jobs despite the important roles that libraries are playing today. According to preliminary data and news coverage collected by the Tracking Library Layoffs initiative, it’s clear that not all of the library workers furloughed since March 2020, when virtually all U.S. libraries were closed amid lockdowns, have been brought back on staff.
In May 1803 a group of enslaved Africans from present-day Nigeria, of Ebo or Igbo descent, leaped from a single-masted ship into Dunbar Creek off St. Simons Island in Georgia. A slave agent concluded that the Africans drowned and died in an apparent mass suicide. But oral traditions would go on to claim that the Eboes either flew or walked over water back to Africa.
For generations, island residents, known as the Gullah-Geechee people, passed down the tale. When folklorists arrived in the 1930s, Igbo Landing and the story of the flying African assumed a mythological place in African American culture.
Though the site carries no bronze plaque and remains unmarked on tourist maps, it has become a symbol of the traumatizing legacy of trans-Atlantic slavery. Poets, artists, filmmakers, jazz musicians, griots, novelists such as Toni Morrison and pop stars like Beyoncé have all told versions of the tale.
They’ll often switch up the story’s details to reflect different times and places. Yet the heart of the original tale, one of longing for freedom, beats through each of these retellings. The stories continue to resonate because those yearnings – whether they’re from the cargo hold of a sloop or the confines of a prison cell – remain just as intense today.
Sourcing the story
As an academic trained in literary history, I always look for the reasons behind a story’s origins, and how stories travel or change over time. Variations of the flying African myth have been recorded from Arkansas to Canada, Cuba and Brazil.
Yet even as the many versions cut across the Black diaspora, the legend has coalesced around a single place: St. Simons. An entry in the Georgia Encyclopedia makes a direct correlation between the 1803 rebellion mass suicide and the later, literary folkloric tradition.
Why? One reason is geographic.
St. Simons, part of the archipelago that stretches from Florida to North Carolina, long remained separate from the mainland United States. This isolation allowed African customs to survive, where elsewhere they were assimilated or vanished. Historian Melissa L. Cooper describes the Gullah-Geechee people as cultural conservators, tasked in popular culture with the duties of preservation.
Serendipity also played a role in siting the story. When a causeway from mainland Brunswick to St. Simons was built in 1924, folklorists literally followed a paved route into the past. During the New Deal, the Works Project Administration funded an oral history project that involved interviewing formerly enslaved people, and the flying African story was recorded in “Drums and Shadows,” the classic volume that published interviews from the project.
One Works Project Administration interviewer recorded St. Simons raconteur Floyd White asking, “Heahd about Ibo’s Landing. Das duh place weah dey bring duh Ibos obuh in a slabe ship.”
They “staht singing and de mahch right down in duh ribbuh” – Dunbar Creek – and “mahch back tuh Africa.” But they never get home, White adds: “Dey gits drown.”
Floyd White is a key source on the flying African, though as the hackneyed written transcription of his interview suggests, questions linger. The Ebos, by his account, walk, rather than fly, across the water. White allows that he does not personally believe the myth; he says they drowned.
Stories change, song remains the same
The flying African, despite a genealogy rooted in St. Simons, has no single point of origin. A shifting present continues to rewrite the past. These differences across versions only underscore the strength of the myth’s central core.
Take how music is used. In almost every account of Igbo Landing, the Africans sing before they fly. They chant in a dialect of Bantu, one of Africa’s 500 languages: “Kum buba yali kum buba tambe, / Kum kunka yalki kum kunka tambe.” Those words don’t have a direct translation; the words, more often, get described as secret, magical or lost.
But since the 1960s, in many retellings, the Bantu has been updated to the hymn “Oh Freedom,” an anthem first recorded after the Civil War and later popularized during the civil rights movement.
The storyteller Auntie Zya recounts the Igbo Landing legend in a YouTube post. To make the tale more relevant to children today, she launches into the familiar refrain, “And before I’d be a slave,” using the hymn to bridge the myth and a long struggle for civil rights.
And then there’s Toni Morrison’s novel “Song of Solomon,” the very title of which links music and flight. In the story, the novel’s main character, Milkman Dead, pieces together mysterious lyrics to recover a hidden past. Once he understands the song, he leaps from a Virginia cliff and flies away. Or is it suicide? The ending is famously ambiguous.
Healing through flight
Like all powerful myths, Igbo Landing and the flying African transcend boundaries of time and space.
Experimental filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison perceives memories from Dunbar Creek as an “ancestral map.” In a poetic narrative she lays over a dance montage, she muses: “Dreams are reality, time is relative, and the past, present, and future are melding together.” Allison suggests that the cross-generational continuity of the myth nurtures her, sustaining her voice through centuries of violence.
Children’s author Virginia Hamilton, likewise, offers the flying African as a script for healing. Her most famous story, “The People Could Fly,” broaches the difficult subject of the Middle Passage, the leg of the slave trade in which Africans, tightly packed in slave ships, were transported across the Atlantic Ocean.
Hamilton explains why some Africans had to leave their wings behind when forced to America. “They couldn’t take their wings across the water on the slave ships,” she writes. “Too crowded, don’t you know.”
How does a culture get those wings back?
Where some storytellers linger over haunting images, such as the chains supposedly still heard in Dunbar Creek, artists such as Morrison, Allison and Hamilton look forward. Their stories lay the groundwork for recovery.
Hamilton presents “The People Could Fly” as a direct form of hope. In a preface to her collection of that title, she explains how tales “created out of sorrow” carry Black America forward. She reminds readers: “Keep close all the past that was good, and that remains full of promise.” A painful past must be summoned in order to be redeemed.
Igbo Landing starkly illustrated, in 1803, how the choice between slavery and death was not a choice at all. Slavery, sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote, was also social death.
But it’s important to remember that joy doubles as a form of decolonization. Music threads through every version of the flying African legend. Magic words propel fieldworkers into the sky, “Kum yali kum buba tambe.” In song, our spirits lift.
In their preference for the muddiness of everyday life over explicit engagement with their political and social issues, you can see a broad link between Glück and Tranströmer. On the surface, though, Morrison and Glück couldn’t appear to be more different. Morrison’s work lays bare both the lasting scars and the perennial nature of American trauma, whereas Glück’s work is altogether quieter, more local and apparently lacking that broad, socially and politically engaged canvas.
But look past the surface and there are affinities between the two writers. Since her early poems, Glück has been concerned with charting what it means to live as an individual in America. It is a nuanced, controlled form of lyric poetry that is as interested in what it has not been possible to say as what has been said – and the ways the latter haunts and shapes the former.
“I dislike being herded into certainty”, Glück has written. We live in an age in which certainty is valued above almost anything else. We appear to want, for instance, the certainty of a vaccine against COVID-19, the certainty that the pandemic will be brought to heel, and the certainty that we will not die, at least not yet and not like this.
But there is something greatly important in remembering that life, in all its forms – social, political, personal – remains incomplete, uncertain, and endlessly revised.
In Parable of the Swans from the 1996 collection, Meadowlands, two swans live: “On a small lake off / the map of the world”. The two swans spend much of their time studying themselves, some of their time studying each other. Ten years later “they hit / slimy water”.
Sooner or later in a long
life together, every couple encounters
some emergency like this, some
drama which results
It is a parable of domestic life, devastating in its directness, even more so in the way such dramas are repeated interminably behind closed doors only to be shoved aside when the door opens, replaced by a public face that projects only possession and assurance.
Individual becomes universal
The Nobel committee has heralded Glück “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”. It is a blanket phrase that might be applied to much lyric poetry.
But what has made Glück’s concern with individual experience resonate over the years is its quiet insistence that that even in the private sphere, everything is touched – and shaped – by the public sphere. No matter what we each might claim to the contrary, we are all the products of the world around us.
And it’s upon these affects and consequences that Glück shines such a clarifying light. It has done so, not by telling us this, but by showing us the ways it can be done.
It is a humble corrective to the discourses of power and authority – so often male – that colour and corrupt great swaths of what we are encouraged to view as important. We are each answerable to how we choose to live, or as the poet puts it in Parable of the Swans: “love was what one did.”
There is an argument that, after two years of self-inflicted controversies and incomprehensible decisions, the Nobel committee has elected to play it safe this year. Glück is not a polarising poet. In any case, there was an expectation that the prize would be awarded to a non-European female writer.
There is also an argument that in awarding the prize to a white American writer whose work is often characterised by critics as not having an explicit political dimension, the committee has deliberately chosen to sidestep what could have been an important and timely intervention into the necessary debates about diversity and inclusivity – debates which run the risk of being rendered invisible by politicians’ more explicit desire to be seen to be waging war against the pandemic.
No doubt there is something to these arguments. But to criticise the award on both of these fronts is also to neglect the very particular qualities and resonances of Glück’s work. Her preference for the discretion of lyric poetry has something very specific to say about the lives we choose to lead.