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J. Herman Banning, The day I sprouted wings

October 26, 2011

There are a couple of reasons why I decided to read  James Herman Banning‘s (1899-1933) short essay, The day I sprouted wings, which was this week’s offering from the Library of America. Firstly, it is about the first male* African-American who achieved his pilot’s licence, which ties in nicely with the novel, Caleb’s Crossing, that I recently reviewed, about the first African-American to graduate from Harvard. And secondly, his attempt to be, with Thomas Allen, the first African-American to fly cross-country, was partly funded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, and I recently reviewed Hazel Rowley’s biography of Franklin and Eleanor. I like it when my reading criss-crosses like this, filling in gaps and/or expanding out from one topic into another overlapping one.

Banning’s essay was first published in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1932. According to LOA’s notes, the Pittsburgh Courier was one of the leading “race” papers of the day. The article is very short but worth reading, not only because he tells an entertaining story about his first solo flight but also because he has a lovely, natural and expressive storytelling style. I’ll just give two examples.

The first one occurs in the second paragraph where he describes the importance of the first solo flight for pilots:

This is the first time when the student pilot conclusively proves to the world at large that he has both nerve and ability. To himself he proves that he is nothing but a scared, witless fool who hasn’t had half enough flying lessons.

The second example comes near the end of the article when he is in flight:

I felt as only one who flies can feel – that here, at last, I have conquered a new world, have moved into a new sphere. I had sprouted wings, a rhapsody in air, but the stark realisation came to me that I had yet a landing to make!

“A rhapsody in air”! Love it. The article also chronicles how he “acquired” his first plane and the circumstances leading to his first flight. It’s a good story. Not surprisingly, racism is a factor in his life – particularly in the manner of his death – but it is not something he raises in his story here. I’d love to know why he doesn’t … but that is another story I guess.

J. Herman Banning
“The day I sprouted wings”
First published: Pittsburgh Courier, December 17, 1932
Available: Online at the Library of America 

* Bessie Coleman (died 1926) was the first female pilot of African-American descent and the first person of African-American descent to hold an international pilot licence.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2011 2:27 am

    What an interesting man! I like how he “accidentally” flew the plane. I also like how he signed off at the end of the article!

    • October 27, 2011 9:45 am

      Yes, it’s a great story isn’t it? I wonder how many first solo flights start quite like that!

  2. October 27, 2011 4:52 pm

    A lovely article written with such a light hand. Hard to believe the craziness in getting a craft into the air.
    When my kids were small in Ghana the grandmother of my son’s playmate was introduced – she had been the first woman pilot of a commercial aircraft. What a bewitching lady!

    • October 27, 2011 9:49 pm

      That’s a nice way to describe it Catherine, “a light hand”. There’s something about aviation pioneers isn’t there … such a leap of faith needed (or so it seems to me).

  3. October 28, 2011 10:14 am

    Oh, my EXACT comment was going to be ‘ “a rhapsody in air” – I love that!’

    And then you said it first. Like mother, like…

  4. October 28, 2011 9:41 pm

    Something else I’d never have encountered without reading Whispering Gums!

  5. October 29, 2011 10:38 am

    Thanks Tom … it’s a little treasure isn’t it!

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