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Last Updated on July 29, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 348

"Flying Home" by Ralph Ellison is a short story from a collection of posthumously published works. It deals with the isolation and oppression that black people felt in the early twentieth century and the main character's feelings of helplessness when he is trying to improve both his own lot and...

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  • Summary
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Analysis
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"Flying Home" by Ralph Ellison is a short story from a collection of posthumously published works. It deals with the isolation and oppression that black people felt in the early twentieth century and the main character's feelings of helplessness when he is trying to improve both his own lot and the lives of black people at large.

The Effects of Racism

Todd, the protagonist, is black and is fighting against the ingrained racism that is used to oppress him and others around him. He believes that becoming a member of the Air Force will give him a chance to escape some of the racism in the United States and to gain a measure of equality, since he will be able to contribute just as much as the white pilots will. Throughout the story, other characters share their tales of oppression. Jefferson and Teddy are indentured servants who have little hope of improving their lot because they are so in debt to Dabney Graves, and Todd also reminisces about his childhood, when the Ku Klux Klan passed out racist flyers.

Rising Above Oppression

As a pilot, Todd hopes to literally and metaphorically rise above his situation. He wants to use flight as an opportunity to overcome racial tensions. In his memories, he is told by his grandmother that his arms are too short to box with God, showing that he's always wanted to fight against his circumstances, but he is too insignificant to do much about it.

The Importance of Solidarity

Todd sees himself as alone and isolated in the world until he is cared for by Jefferson. While he holds an idealistic goal of improving black people's lives, he doesn't feel like other black people care for him, which isolates him and makes his task more difficult. Jefferson, however, tends to Todd and shares his own stories of oppression. Finally, after undergoing a bad experience with Dabney Graves and realizing that Jefferson and Teddy endure even worse circumstances than he does, Todd finally feels some solidarity and unification with others, which comforts him and encourages him to continue with his mission.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1082

“Flying Home” is a story about racism. The main characters represent essential elements in the racial conflict in America: Jefferson is the traditional figure from the days of slavery; Todd is the young, modern black trying to escape from racial distinctions; Dabney Graves is the white landowner still governed by the bigoted assumptions of his ancestors; the white army officers, though not actually present in the story, still carry on in a nonagrarian context the old prejudices. Ralph Ellison uses the anecdotes told by Jefferson and the memories of Todd to insist on the same racial theme: Blacks are jimcrow buzzards feeding on a dead horse; they are angels who even in Heaven are ruled by a white god and subject to special restrictions; they are taught by their parents not to aim too high and are threatened by the Klan not to participate in the nation’s political life. The end of the story offers no resolution to this social conflict. Todd returns to the airfield knowing that the white officers will regard his accident as a further sign of racial ineptitude. Dabney Graves would still eject any black from his land who showed signs of disrespect for the old standards. So long as the white attitude remains, the conflict will remain.

The story is not, however, primarily about racism in society; it is about racism and the effects of racism within Todd. He is experiencing an identity crisis that takes at least four forms. First, he wants to be an individual totally dissociated from his race: The burden of his every action being a partial definition of his race (a Sartrean theme in Ellison’s story) is more than he wants to bear. Second, he is ashamed of his past: He wants to dissociate himself entirely from Jefferson, who fits Todd’s Uncle Tom image of the black man. This is a sign that Todd has internalized the whites’ perception of the black race. Third, he unconsciously wants to be white: Flying toward the sun makes him white; falling toward the earth makes him black. Fourth, he measures his own worth by another’s standards. Though he has found that the judgments of the traditional black (slave) culture and of the white American authority figures are inadequate (that is, he has rejected these judgments consciously, if not unconsciously), his goal as a military pilot is to prove himself in battle so that the enemy will sanction his worthiness. Although the story offers no solution to the social conflict, it does resolve the inner conflict. It is possible for the black man in American society to live at peace with himself.

The solution that Ellison finds, on the purely thematic level, is a common one in black American literature. At the root of racism and other prejudices is ignorance, not only of others but also of the self. What Jefferson teaches and what Todd learns during the experience is a way of achieving first self-knowledge and then a knowledge of others.

At the beginning of the story, Jefferson already possesses wisdom but only on an instinctual level. It is a part of his heritage. It is present in the stories that he tells Todd. They are peculiarly appropriate to Todd’s situation. They represent the state from which he needs to escape, the black man as a buzzard feeding on a dead horse, and the state that he needs to achieve, the free-flying angel who paradoxically must acknowledge human limitation and failure without denying his essential humanity. The tales initiate Todd into awareness. Todd is not free because racism has distorted his understanding of his identity, his heritage, his home—that is, his human reality. Jefferson would appear to be not fully conscious of how appropriate his anecdotes are, but they, as repositories of traditional wisdom (Todd has heard a variation of the angel “myth” as a child), speak directly to his need. Todd’s initial refusal to accept the meaning of the tales is reflected in his angry reaction. He cannot accept the truth about himself.

For some unstated reason, however, the truth hidden in the tales provokes repressed memories about Todd’s childhood fascination with airplanes and their associations with racial oppression. Though again unstated, what Todd seems to learn is that the airplane, instead of being a legitimate means of escape and of finding identity, represents an attempt to become white, to be what the white man is, to get his power. What Ellison does state clearly is that the airplane is for Todd an escape from the “world of men.” At the end of the story, he finds in Jefferson, not the old Uncle Tom, but a human being who understands him. “A new current of communication flowed between the man and boy and himself.” Nor should one leave unstated the obvious. In finally yielding himself to Jefferson and Teddy and accepting the earth as his home, he is also declaring an allegiance to American soil in spite of those who would reject him.

Todd has returned to his roots. However, even this is not the special theme that recurs in black literature. Jefferson’s tales are significant as much for their tone as for their meaning. After telling both, he laughs hilariously. He knows that they are jokes. They are his way of coping with racism, with what Todd comes to view as “an insane world of outrage and humiliation.” Further, and more important, they are a sign of, and they encourage, objectivity. They allow one to get outside oneself and view the self and the world from another perspective. Jefferson is the two-headed juju man. Ellison emphasizes the crucial nature of this act of stepping outside the self several times during the story.

The tales themselves offer projected presentations of Todd. However, more directly, before Todd’s first childhood recollection, “a part of him was lying calmly behind the screen of pain.” At the beginning of the second recollection, Todd, in his delirium, sees two Jeffersons, one “that shook with fits of belly-laughter while the other Jefferson looked on with detachment.” By the end of the story, Todd has emitted his own “blasts of hot, hysterical laughter,” while “a part of him stood behind it all, watching the surprise in Graves’s red face and his own hysteria.” No longer bound by his own ego, he can see himself and others in perspective and, hence, can follow a reunion with society and an inner peace.

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