Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Flying Home” is a story about racism. The main characters represent essential elements in the racial conflict in America: Jefferson is the traditional figure from the days of slavery; Todd is the young, modern black trying to escape from racial distinctions; Dabney Graves is the white landowner still governed by the bigoted assumptions of his ancestors; the white army officers, though not actually present in the story, still carry on in a nonagrarian context the old prejudices. Ralph Ellison uses the anecdotes told by Jefferson and the memories of Todd to insist on the same racial theme: Blacks are jimcrow buzzards feeding on a dead horse; they are angels who even in Heaven are ruled by a white god and subject to special restrictions; they are taught by their parents not to aim too high and are threatened by the Klan not to participate in the nation’s political life. The end of the story offers no resolution to this social conflict. Todd returns to the airfield knowing that the white officers will regard his accident as a further sign of racial ineptitude. Dabney Graves would still eject any black from his land who showed signs of disrespect for the old standards. So long as the white attitude remains, the conflict will remain.

The story is not, however, primarily about racism in society; it is about racism and the effects of racism within Todd. He is experiencing an identity crisis that takes at least four forms. First, he wants to be an individual totally dissociated from his race: The burden of his every action being a partial definition of his race (a Sartrean theme in Ellison’s story) is more than he wants to bear. Second, he is ashamed of his past: He wants to dissociate himself entirely from Jefferson, who fits Todd’s Uncle Tom image of the black man. This is a sign that Todd has internalized the whites’ perception of the black race. Third, he unconsciously wants to be white: Flying toward the sun makes him white; falling toward the earth makes him black. Fourth, he measures his own worth by another’s standards. Though he has found that the judgments of the traditional black (slave) culture and of the white American authority figures are inadequate (that is, he has rejected these judgments consciously, if not unconsciously), his goal as a military pilot is to prove himself in battle so that the enemy will sanction his worthiness. Although the story offers no solution to the social conflict, it does resolve the inner conflict. It is possible for the black man in American society to live at peace with himself.

The solution that Ellison finds, on the purely thematic level, is a common one in black American...

(The entire section is 1082 words.)