The Legend of Ibo Landing

This is a legend in the African American community, and the name of the island is occasionally spelled differently: Ebo, Ibo, Igbo.

“It’s sort of this coastal—this island off the coast of south Carolina and Georgia, kinda in between. Kay, so, the story goes that there was a slave ship that was coming—oh wait, let me start over. In Africa, there were this group of, like, native Africans and they were enjoying life in Africa and one of them had a wife who was pregnant. And, you know, the guy loved his wife and loved his child and he was looking forward to having a family, and then one day his wife was sleeping and he was just up doing whatever and he thought he heard the unborn child say “the water will bring you home”. And he was really confused because he didn’t really know what that meant… but it kind of stayed on his mind. Okay, and so later he was walking through, like, the savannas or the jungles of Africa and he was with some other Africans and they all got kidnapped by this slave trader, and so then they embarked on the middle passage and were on the ship headed to America and they were all really scared, of course. They didn’t know where they were going they didn’t know what was going on, they were shackled in these miserable conditions and people were dying, there was disease, like you know all that gross middle passage stuff you hear about. Finally they get to the island of Ibo Landing and they get off the slave ship and they’re led, and then, like, the slave–okay, hold on. They’re led around and then the slave trader just sorta looks at them and says okay this is where you’ll be staying–except less hospitable because it’s not like they’re at a hotel–and so then the slaves look around and they’re like oh no, we’re not staying here, or they’re still Africans, I guess they didn’t really become slaves. And so the main one who had the child gets an idea and he suddenly remembers the phrase “the water will bring you home”. And so, you know, all the Africans are shackled together but they turn, so starting with the native the main guy with the child he whispers a message to the guy standing next to him and then that guy does that to the guy next to him and to the guy next to him and so on and so on until they get to the end of the line. And so then when the slave traders aren’t looking or are preoccupied with something, the Africans turn around and walk back into the water. And it’s just like the child said, the water will bring you home. So the story goes that they never became slaves and that they walked across the water all the way back to Africa. And of course, it depends on who is telling the story because some people are like well they turned around and drowned and others are like they walked all the way back to the continent of Africa so you can take your pick which version you like better.”

This is an extraordinarily meaningful legend on many levels. One of the messages, according to the informant, was the notion of controlling one’s own destiny and doing the impossible to avoid a fate put on someone. The imagery also comes out of the Bible, with Jesus walking on water and telling Peter that he too could walk on water if his faith was strong enough. Clearly, the faith of these Africans was strong enough (or not, depending on the teller) to bring them back home. It also stresses the importance of family, as it is family ties that bring the slaves back home and the unborn child that gives them the idea to do it. All of it happens during a period of change in their lives, a liminal period, in which anything could happen (thus explaining the mysticism). Mysticism is also common in African tales and tribal religions, thus emphasizing that legacy as well.

It exists in a lot of African American popular culture. Toni Morrison uses different themes of it for her books Tar Baby and Song of Solomon, and it is recounted in the film Daughters of the Dust (1991, directed by Julie Dash).