Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on July 22, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

"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.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756

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 symbol of white civil authority in the region and the owner of the land that Jefferson works, in order to get help, and then tries to take Todd’s mind off the pain. He first tells him a brief anecdote about once finding two buzzards inside the remains of a dead horse and comments that Teddy’s name for a buzzard is jimcrow. To Jefferson, this identification is both comical and meaningful. He then tells a more lengthy tale about his past life, when he was in Heaven. Though he was a black angel and required to wear a harness, he violated the rule and showed off his extraordinary powers of flight. His daring, however, became dangerous and offensive to God. As punishment, God took away his wings and sent him to Macon County, Alabama. This myth of origins again prompts Jefferson to laugh hilariously, but Todd, interpreting the two stories according to his own egotistical fears, accuses him of mockery. Todd takes the buzzards and the flying black angel to be satiric representations of himself. Jefferson had no such intentions and can only express his regret and empathy for Todd’s painful situation.

Somehow, Jefferson’s attempts to distract him, the empathy, and the physical pain succeed in taking Todd outside himself and releasing memories from his childhood. He recalls in detail his early obsession with airplanes and his attempt once, when he was getting a fever, to grab from the sky a real plane, which he mistook for a toy. In his feverous state during the next few days, he dreamed of capturing planes just beyond his grasp and of hearing his grandmother warn him about his arms being “too short/ To box with God.” After a brief conversation with Jefferson about the plight of black people in a white society and after Jefferson’s warning about the fickleness of Dabney Graves, Todd in painful delirium recalls another childhood moment. He was walking down a street on election day. Black faces peered fearfully from the houses, and one person seemed to be begging for his aid or perhaps warning him of danger. He saw a shower of leaflets descend from a plane high against the sun. When he picked up one of them, his mother took it and read a warning from the Klan: “Niggers Stay Away From The Polls.”

Todd awakens from the dream to see three men approaching. Dabney Graves and two hospital attendants put him in a straitjacket, intended for Dabney’s crazy cousin Rudolph but placed on Todd by Dabney as a joke. When Todd comes to full consciousness of what is happening, that the men have also laid him on a stretcher and are about to carry him away, he rebels. He steps out of the role of the inferior “nigger” and demands that they not touch him. Incensed by such independence in a black man, Dabney kicks him in the chest. The physical violence suddenly transforms Todd. It causes him to observe the entire situation with objectivity. He now sees his salvation in Jefferson. As Jefferson and Teddy, at Graves’s command, carry him off to the “nigguh airfield,” he loses his sense of isolation. Jefferson’s care and the confrontation with the white bigoted world have transformed his confused and frustrated sense of identity into peace and harmony.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Next

Themes