This morning I was sitting on my porch and thinking about what I wanted to write about today. As I was looking at the sky and praying for inspiration, this flock of birds flew by. As they did, it reminded me of a story I first heard an African American pastor, Rev. Moss, in Chicago tell. Moss saw this slave tale as part of his story. In some respects, however, it is part of all our story.
It is said that this story has been passed from mouth to ear somewhere among the sandy palmetto dunes of South Carolina, a story passed down from West Africa to the North Atlantic, and trickled down the generations to the coast of South Carolina. It is the story, a unique story, of the people who could fly. And as stories go, with each telling the story gains a little different twist.
The story takes place on St. Johns’ Island, just off the coast of South Carolina, as Africans who had been enslaved are toiling in the hot sun. They are working very hard at picking cotton. There is one young woman there, and beside her is her small son, maybe six or seven. She’s working in the fields and she has such incredible dexterity that she is able to pick cotton with her right hand and caress the forehead of her child, who moves with her, with her left hand, as she moves down the rows of cotton. But eventually, exhausted by working so hard in the fields, she falls down from the weight and the pressure of being—in the words of Dubois—“problem and property.” Her little boy quickly attempts to wake her, knowing that if the slave drivers were to see her, the punishment would be swift and painful.
He tries to shake his mother, and as he’s trying to wake her, an old man comes over to him. An old man that the Africans called Preacher and Prophet, but the slave drivers called The Old Devil. The boy looks up at the old man and says, “Is it time? Is it time?”
The old man smiles and looks at the boy and says, “Yes!” And he bends down ands whispers into the ear of the woman, who was now sprawled out upon the ground, and he says these words: “Cooleebah! Cooleebah!”
At that moment, the woman gets up, slowly, and with incredible dignity. She rises, and stands as a queen and looks down at her son, grasps his hand and begins to look toward heaven. All of a sudden, their feet lift from the ground and - they begin to fly. The slave drivers rush over to the area where the woman has stopped work and they see this act of human flight and are completely confused and astounded. They do not know what to do! And during their confusion, the old man, the Preacher, rushes around to all the other Africans and begins to whisper in their ears, “Cooleebah! Cooleebah!”
When each hears the word, they begin to fly, one by one. Can you imagine? The dispossessed - flying? Can you imagine the disempowered - flying? Three fifths of a person - flying? The diseased - flying? The homeless out on the streets - flying? Those in wheel chairs, flying? They are all taking flight! Such Glory! Lifting up, as a bee from a flower.
But at that moment the slave drivers grab the old man and say, “Bring them back!”
They beat him, and with blood coming down his cheek, he just looks up and smiles at them. They say to him, “Please, bring them back!”
And he says, quietly, “I cannot.”
They say, “Why not?”
He said, “Because the Word is already in them and since the Word is already in them, it cannot be taken from them.”
The old man had a word from West Africa, “cooleebah,” a word that means God. It had been placed into the heart of these displaced Africans and now they had dignity, and they were flying.
And is that not our job as children of the light? Should we not be working to help others be able to fly? Cooleebah – you can fly from breakdown to break through. Fly from hurt to healing. Cooleebah – you can fly from heartache to wholeness. Cooleebah – you can fly even you think you can’t. See, it doesn’t matter what others have told you – you can fly. It doesn’t matter how the world has tried to marginalize and destroy you – if you carry the spirit in your heart, then you can fly. So this day and every day remember that you can fly! Cooleebah – cooleebah -- cooleebah