In Flying Home, why does Todd's girlfriend feel humiliation for him?
Flying Home and Other Stories is a collection of short stories by Ralph Ellison, published after his death. Todd has worked hard to become an aviator and his efforts are seemingly all the more remarkable because as a black man he has had to contend with the stereotypical and racist comments about his future in flying and whether he has the capacity to have a career outside the usual choices.
Having had an accident during his ongoing training Todd knows, on regaining consciousness, what reactions he is likely to receive when others hear that he flew into a buzzard and lost control of the plane. He feels conflicted and disappointed by his own shortcomings. Therefore, he is hardly pleased to see Jefferson, a black sharecropper who has come to help him but who Todd sees initially as nothing more than a "peasant" whom Todd despises because he epitomizes everything that Todd has tried so hard to ignore and remove from his own life. Todd reflects on the humiliation he will have to face when others hear about the crash. Although Todd is a candidate at a flight school with a primarily white culture and his girlfriend has previously warned him about the potential difficulties for a black man who undergoes his training in the South where perceptions still tend toward white superiority, Todd is determined to prove his worth and this accident will just make the bigots believe that he is indeed inferior.
Unfortunately, even Todd has been affected by his surroundings and does feel superior to the masses of good, honest but largely uneducated black people like Jefferson. Todd exists in a world between "the condescending white" and the "ignorant black" and he despises both. Although Jefferson is kind, he is that "old black ignorant man," Todd reasons. Todd can imagine the mocking comments should he go into town with Jefferson and he can find no comfort or solace.
Todd's girlfriend has tried to express her feelings of humiliation in a letter. She suggests that the reason why Todd has not been assigned sufficient flying time is because he is black and for her this offends all black people, not just Todd personally. It also has further meaning, especially for Todd: perhaps the humiliation is in the fact that others think that because Todd is black, he cannot expect or enjoy success. Todd does not want to be associated with other black people who he feels confirm the stereotype. It is therefore humiliating to be thought of as "just" another black man.
Beginning the story with the words "When Todd came to..." allows Ellison to explore Todd's self-discovery and his painful realization that he does not need to become someone else or deny his roots to rise above other people's expectations.
This is actually a really important question because the answer is the first sign of true wisdom in the story. In reality, the wisdom comes from Todd's girlfriend, and not Todd. It is only by the end of the story that Todd comes to accept the truth and live in harmony. Todd's girlfriend feels humiliation for him not because of his injury or his flight accident but because he always insists on proving his intelligence to white men.
At first, one might think Todd's girlfriend might feel humiliation because of Todd's accident, yet this is not the case. Todd is in Flight Training School in Alabama around the time of World War II. We, as readers, learn that Todd has been in a flight accident and is regaining consciousness from that accident. Todd loves to fly, but this time his flying carried him "too high and too fast" due to his "exultation." In the tailspin that followed, Todd hit a vulture. In a panic Todd lost control of his plane. Luckily, Todd survived the crash and simply broke his ankle. Todd, though, can only think about what the white officers at the flight school will think. Todd is worried about his "failure" as a black pilot and, further, that the officers will confirm their suspicion that black people are not as good at either flying planes or fighting in combat. Thus continues Todd's struggle against racism and social inferiority that cripples him.
It is through flashbacks that we learn all of these things, and in one of these flashbacks that we meet Todd's girlfriend (while it is in the present that we see Jefferson, who observes Todd's behavior and understands what Todd feels completely). Todd's girlfriend admonishes him not to try to prove his intelligence to white people because he should "not feed on that dead horse." This is echoed in yet another quotation and another work by Ellison, The Invisible Man:
And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone's way but my own.
Todd has the exact same problem. Todd's girlfriend simply wants him to see that confidence in himself is the most important thing.
By the end of the story, Todd has accepted his girlfriend's advice and there is no longer any reason why Todd's girlfriend should feel any humiliation because he no longer feels that need to prove his intelligence to white people. He does this by accepting the wisdom of Jefferson (a true father figure) and by accepting all cultures within his one, innate, and beautiful black culture. The harmony is expressed in this beautiful line:
[The harmony was] like a song within his head he heard the boy’s soft humming.