Flying Home Summary
by Ralph Ellison

Start Your Free Trial

Download Flying Home Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Flying Home Summary

"Flying Home," a short story by Ralph Ellison, follows the tale of a young black air force candidate named Todd. The title comes from a jazz composition of the same name by Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton, which was allegedly composed while Hampton had been waiting to board a flight for the first time.

Todd is in Flight Training School in Macon County, Alabama, during World War II. Being one of the first African American candidates accepted into the air force, he feels obligated to prove himself to be equal to his white colleagues. However, when the story opens, Todd crashes his plane into a farm during a test flight. He was overly eager about the flight and went too fast, stalling the plane. He hit a bird and, in his panic, lost control.

As he has broken his ankle during the crash, a black sharecropper, Jefferson, and his son, Teddy, attempt to help Todd. Todd is relatively unharmed physically, but mentally he despairs over his mistake, reasoning that such a mistake made by one African American candidate will mean that all the other African American candidates will be considered incompetent as well. He remembers a letter that he received from his girlfriend back home which pointed out his constant desire for approval from white people and assured him that he was an exceptional person on his own merit.

Jefferson attempts to distract Todd by telling him stories, first about two buzzards inside the carcass of a dead horse and then about a black angel that was cast out from heaven for shining too brightly. Though the stories are innocuous, Todd thinks that Jefferson is making fun of him and becomes angry. The pain in his broken ankle worsens, and Todd starts hallucinating moments from his childhood. He remembers how fascinated he had been with planes as a child, attempting to "catch" them as they flew overhead. He remembers the time when the KKK dropped racist fliers over his town from their plane.

Todd returns to reality only to be faced with Jefferson's genuine concern, contrary to his earlier assumption. The two converse about the unfair treatment that they experience as black people, and then Todd falls unconscious once more. When he next revives, a group of three men, including one Dabney Graves, attempt to put a straitjacket on him as a joke. Enraged, Todd speaks out against it, prompting Dabney to kick him in the chest.

Todd then realizes that his only allies in the situation are Jefferson and Teddy. He has inadvertently been looking down on them because they represent the then all-too-common reality of the poor, uneducated black man that Todd has been trying so hard to escape from. He realizes that they are, in fact, all equals, as they are all victims of a racist society. By the time Jefferson helps him back to his plane, Todd has made peace with his situation.

Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Todd, a young black man, a candidate in Flight Training School in Macon County, Alabama, during World War II, is just returning to consciousness after an accident. The narrative soon reveals, in one of several flashbacks, that Todd’s “exultation” in flight had carried him away. He had flown “too high and too fast”; the plane had entered a tailspin, and before he could react a buzzard had smashed into his windshield. Panic caused him to lose control. A crash landing has thrown him from the plane and has broken his ankle. Over him stand an old, black farmer, Jefferson, and his son, Teddy. What immediately preoccupies Todd even more than the physical pain in his ankle is the anxiety over his failure as a pilot. His white officers will see the accident as confirmation that blacks are not capable of flying or of aerial combat. Because for Todd, earning his wings and fighting overseas are his escape from social inferiority—and from the stereotypical black traditions that he sees epitomized in Jefferson—the accident is a crisis in his young life. Jefferson instinctively understands much of what Todd is experiencing.

Jefferson sends his son to Dabney Graves, the...

(The entire section is 1,243 words.)