The stories that frame this volume ("A Party down at the Square" and "Flying Home") develop the theme of the individual person's separation from his society. The young white narrator of the first story is initially fascinated by the social ritual of the lynching, but he sees its destructive effects: a plane crash, the electrocution of a bystander, a fire that destroys much of the town, and a second lynching. Although he does not articulate his disenchantment as the white sharecropper does, his physical and emotional reactions indicate that he no longer shares the attitudes of his neighbors. Todd ("Flying Home") has refused to accept the limitations imposed upon him by both Caucasians and African-Americans, becoming a Tuskeegee airman. His accomplishments have made him feel superior to black men like Jefferson but have not earned him acceptance from the army, much less from men like Dabney Graves. For Todd, however, there is reconciliation, when he finally realizes that Jefferson is attempting to console and nurture him, not to ridicule him. Once he places his trust in Jefferson and Teddy, instead of the white pilot and ambulance attendants, he sees the buzzard— or, jimcrow—transformed into a golden bird.
The theme of the outsider appears in a slightly different context in "A Hard Time Keeping Up." Here Al, the narrator, and his friend Joe totally misinterpret the action at Tom's bar and restaurant, where a patron named Charlie is flirting with a pretty young woman who is likely to be mistaken for white. From a nearby boarding house, these two outsiders watch an apparent attack on Charlie by Big Ike, who controls all the clubs in the area. When they and the police arrive to intervene, the "joke" is revealed: Charlie and Big Ike are lifelong friends who stage this "show" as part of a long-standing bet. Al and Joe realize that the joke is on them as much as on the police, and that they know less about Chicago's black community than they had thought.
On the other hand, Ellison repeatedly develops the theme of family, especially as it affects the male child's preparation to survive in the dominant white society. Mrs. Weaver ("Boy on a Train") explains to James that they are moving from Oklahoma City to McAlester for the same reason she and her husband moved from Georgia to Oklahoma fourteen years earlier—to make a better life and especially to give their children a chance for advancement. Family is also the stabilizing force in the Buster and Riley stories, where the extended family is as important as the boys' parents, and the African- American community attempts to protect them just as Old Bill guards the baby chicks. Likewise, John ("The Black Ball") tries to placate his boss because he needs the janitorial job and the living quarters in order to provide for his son; yet it is concern for his son's future that causes him to consider the proposal of the white organizer.
The coming of age theme is central to the Buster and Riley stories ("Mister Toussan," "Afternoon," "That I Had the Wings,"and "A Coupla Scalped Indians"). Here young boys develop personal and racial identity. For example, the two tales of "Mister Toussan" contradict the stereotype of the lazy African and demonstrate that an African-American man need not be completely powerless. The boys delight in both tales—whether Toussaint L'Ouverture was initially conciliatory or reacted with violence from the beginning. Similarly, when the boys discuss the relative merits of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis ("Afternoon"), they are becoming aware of their connection to the African-American popular culture. Nevertheless they must learn the limits of their influence, as they do when they attempt to teach the baby chicks to fly. Likewise, in "A Coupla Scalped Indians," not only have the boys experienced the ritual of circumcision, but Riley is initiated into adult sexual mysteries as he sees Aunt Mackie dancing naked and later receives his first adult kiss from this woman who appears to combine the ugliness of great age with the appeal of eternal youth.