Last Updated on July 30, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 691
For Todd, the protagonist, a lifetime of working to find a place in the world where he's respected and treated well has just crash-landed in a field in Alabama along with his airplane at the beginning of "Flying Home." Todd is a pilot-in-training who crashes after a buzzard runs into the plane; he also blames his own excitement for the crash, saying he was going too high and fast before the plane went into a tailspin.
When he wakes, there are two people looking at him. Jefferson and Teddy, a father and son, are farmers who work the field where he landed. As they try to figure out what happened, Todd thinks,
He watched them warily, his mind traveling back over a painful distance. Jagged scenes, swiftly unfolding as in a movie trailer, reeled through his mind, and he saw himself piloting a tailspinning plane and landing and falling from the cockpit and trying to stand. Then, as in a great silence, he remembered the sound of crunching bone and, now, looking up into the anxious faces of an old Negro man and a boy from where he lay in the same field, the memory sickened him and he wanted to remember no more.
He's worried that he's ruined his life and his chances to fly. More than that, though, he knows that his failure will be seen as a failure for all black people who want to be pilots. He's injured physically and in mental anguish as Jefferson sends Teddy to get help.
As he waits, Todd allows Jefferson to examine the plane. The man seems impressed, and they talk about the reasons why Todd wanted to fly. He wanted to fly because he wanted to separate himself from the way that white men saw black men; he wanted respect and to be seen as equal. This is why it's so important for him to see himself as different than Jefferson at the beginning of the story. Ralph Ellison writes,
"Son, how come you want to fly way up there in the air?"
Because it's the most meaningful act in the world . . . because it makes me less like you, he thought.
Though Todd doesn't say his true feelings out loud to the man, it's clear that flying is one thing that he feels separates him from Jefferson, who is also black and is a sharecropper. He remembers walking through the streets to vote and seeing leaflets warning him that he and other black people needed to stay away from the polls because the KKK wasn't going to allow them to vote. These are the kinds of experiences he wants to remove himself from by being a pilot, and now he feels he's failed.
Todd remembers his girlfriend saying that he shouldn't try to prove himself to people who will never see his worth. When the owner of the land that Jefferson works arrives and treats him with mocking disdain, Todd is confused at first. Ellison writes:
They're coming at last, Todd thought. And he felt such a release of tension within him that he thought he would faint. But no sooner did he close his eyes than he was seized and he was struggling with three white men who were forcing his arms into some kind of coat. It was too much for him, his arms were pinned to his sides and as the pain blazed in his eyes, he realized that it was a straitjacket. What filthy joke was this?
When he argues, Dabney beats him. But when Jefferson and Teddy begin to take Todd away to go back to where he came from, Todd has a revelation. He sees that his girlfriend was right and that the white people he's been trying to live with may not respect him no matter what he does. He realizes that he has to accept himself and other black people as well. He accepts the help that the two black men offer to get him away from Dabney and the other white men who put him in the straitjacket. For the first time since the crash, he finds a moment of peace.