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In "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home", Robert Hayden makes reference to flying back to Africa. In the second to last stanza, he says:

My gran. he flew back to Africa,

just spread his arms and flew away home...

Clearly his grandparent couldn't actually fly, so flying must be used as a metaphor. What does flying represent?

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  • My hunch is that it is a metaphor for dying. However, that would be confusing given the positivity with which it is discussed. – Benjamin Oct 2 '18 at 15:40
  • For reference, the poem can be found at: poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=23587 – Benjamin Oct 2 '18 at 15:41
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    Why does it have to be a metaphor for anything? Can't poetry contain elements of fantasy? – Peter Shor Oct 4 '18 at 11:47
  • @PeterShor Yes, it could contain elements of fantasy, but that does not mean that such fantasy is without symbolism. – Benjamin Oct 4 '18 at 11:54
  • And in this case, it probably does at some level symbolize death. I was just reacting to your statement that since it wasn't realistic, it had to be metaphorical. – Peter Shor Oct 4 '18 at 12:00
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The poem opens with this extract:

"Lots uh slaves wut wuz brung ovuh from Africa could fly...Dey dohn like it heah... an go back to Africa..." Legend of the Flying African

Searching online for more information about such a legend turns up ready information on the myth, such as this from Black Forteana:

Although it has a number of variations, the basic story says that there was once a time when Africans could fly. When they were captured by slavers and put into the holds of slave ships, they were overcome with despair. In their misery and sadness, they couldn’t use their powers to fly away. After the ships docked, the people were sold into slavery where they toiled and suffered. Many had their spirits crushed. Overwhelmed by the horror of their new lives, they forgot how to fly. Others did not. They kept to the old ways, and bided their time. When the time was right, they said the magic words they had carried from their homeland, lifted into the air, and flew across the sea, back home to Africa.

Its seems that the Flying African legend can be traced back to an incident that occured in 1803 when a group of Igbo slaves revolted aboard a ship off the Georgia coast. They drowned the members of the crew, came ashore, walked to a creek and then drowned themselves in a mass suicide (Snyder 39). For this particular group of Igbo, death was preferable to a life in chains. As the story evolved, the heroes were said to have taken wing and flown away to African rather than died. Based on the historical context, it would seem that “flying to Africa” was actually a metaphor for suicide.

While this source does not seem to be particularly scholarly in its own right, it well reflects what I picked up reading elsewhere and neatly summarises the elements, though the author adds a conclusion that I've not seen explicitly elsewhere, though my reading into the subject has been limited. Whether that conclusion is absolutely correct I can't say.

Another aspect to consider is the title of this poem

"O Daedalus, Fly Away Home"

Daedalus in Greek legend being the master craftsman who, imprisoned by Minos, crafted two pairs of wings so that he and his son, Icarus, could fly to freedom. Icarus flew too close to the sun, melting the wax that secured his feathers and falling to his death. Daedalus survived and made his way to Sicily. This myth captures the duality of outcome possible in taking flight in escape. One may make good one's escape or one may escape life altogether.

This allusion in the title would seem to be a direct linking of the idea of literal flight through the air as escape from imprisonment and bondage. The poem can therefore be seen as demonstrating that the mythology of enslaved Africans is in every way the equal of the more conventionally lauded and elevated tales of classical mythology.

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