Remembering We Can Fly
The story of how "Fly (aka Fortune's Song)" came to be
Our three green rocking chairs creaked back and forth on the wrap-around porch of the main house on the Alex Haley Farm, outside Knoxville Tennessee. It was late July 2022. Common Hymnal songwriters, Phillip Joubert and Vincent Harlow, had joined me in a tight circle on this near sacred porch lined with rocking chairs; each dedicated to an ancestor in the struggle for Black freedom. Next to us sat four tiny rocking chairs dedicated to the Four Little Girls who died in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church—two weeks after MLK shared the Dream at the March on Washington.
Phillip and Vincent, asked me: “What is the song in you that wants to be written today?”
We did not know then that one year later, on the 60th Anniversary of The March on Washington, America would bear haunting resemblance to the context of the original March for Jobs and Justice. The Federation of Protestant Welfare Workers (FPWA) released a powerful analysis of the state of Black America now and then. According to the report, released in early this month, schools are as segregated now as they were before passage of the Civil Rights Act. Black unemployment is nearly the same ratio to White unemployment as it was in ‘63. The Black poverty rate is still more than twice the rate of White poverty. Black and White homeownership ratios are similar to the years before redlining was outlawed. And the Black/White incarceration rate gap has ticked wider.
Against this lopsided social backdrop, Black Americans in 2023 are also fielding explicit institutional and legislative attacks on par with those lobbed by White Citizen’s Councils and prolific Klan infiltration of Governors offices in the 1963 Jim Crow South. The Southern Baptist Convention, many Christian Colleges and Universities and now state legislatures, governors and even presidential candidates are banning, twisting or vowing to ban the teaching of African American history. The world watched the Tennessee state legislature wield Jim Crow era tactics like weapons of war to defend AR-15s at the expense of people. Attorney General Daniel Cameron declined to prosecute Breonna Taylor’s murderers. Now he is running for Governor. And White evangelicals still provides core support for the four times criminally indicted ex-president who traffics in explicitly racist tropes while vowing to dismantle democracy.
I sat on Alex Haley’s porch, closed my eyes and remembered Fortune Game Magee, my likely 10th great grandmother who was born in 1687 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to an enslaved Senegalese man named Sambo Game, which 2nd Son, and an Ulster Scot woman named Maudlin Magee. Because her father was Black and her mother was white, Fortune and her descendants absorbed the wrath of the earliest race laws passed on American soil. Those laws shaped Fortune’s fate and terrorized every generation thereafter.
But when Civil Rights veteran Dr. Ruby Sales read Fortune: How Race Broke My Family And The World she saw something in my family’s story that I had missed in my 30 years of research. It was there. I had even written it, because it happened. But I didn’t see this truth. Ruby’s endorsement read: “Faced with the choice of becoming broken-winged birds from the weight of racism, the men and women in Fortune choose to both fly in it and above it.”
That struck me. How could I have missed it? Though separated by successive indenturing masters, Fortune fought to unite her family and her daughters’ fight to maintain dignity in a racializing society was documented by a tax collector who came to collect the extra tax levied on free black women. Fortune’s free daughter, Betty, refused to pay—in 1743. Though thwarted by medical racism, Henry fought for his Civil War pension. Lea survived slavery and raised three generations on her own South Carolina land. Lizzie cut ties with rising Jim Crow terror and forged north in the Great Migration. In Philadelphia she worked as a baker at an upscale hotel and leveraged her work to feed her depression-era redlined neighbors with left-overs sweets each day. My great grandfather Hiram, fled rising sundown towns in Indiana and built a new life in Philadelphia where he eventually bought land that he used to house displaced southerners Migrating north. Reinaldo and Anita emigrated to the South Bronx from the recently annexed Jim Crow Puerto Rico. There they maintained the Bomba circle with friends and relatives. My mother, Sharon, helped open the first northern office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and organized Philly faith communities to support Stokely Carmichael’s SNCC. And I have worked at the intersection of faith, truth-telling and repair.
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Ruby was right. My family—and so many African American families—have already taught us how to fly over and through the oppressive tactics of their times. They knew how to fly. They passed the lessons down from generation to generation.
There is an old tale passed between the enslaved on plantations across the south and captured powerfully in Virginia Hamilton’s “The People Could Fly.” They say, there are some people brought in chains and forced to forget the African words what made them able to fly. But one day one old character spoke the words and he bound up on the air and flew away and others learned the words, too. They spoke them and their bodies were lifted up on the wind and they flew away! Others forgot the words or lacked the courage to speak them. They stayed behind and worked and told the story to the next generations. Never forget we can fly.
Eyes closed, I rocked back and forth; turning my mind’s eye inward. I remembered Fortune Game Magee. I asked: “What would Fortune sing to us today?”
Eyes still closed, I opened my mouth and sang one word to Phillip and Vincent: “Fly!”
Andre Henry’s musical genius transformed the song that Phillip, Vincent and I wrote that day on Haley Farm into the anthem we share with you today.
Without further ado, here is “Fly (aka Fortune’s Song).”
May you remember—we can fly.
President and founder of FreedomRoad.us, Lisa Sharon Harper is a writer, podcaster and public theologian. Lisa is author of critically acclaimed book, Fortune: How Race Broke My Family And The World—And How To Repair It All.