Way in the Middle of the Air

by Ray Bradbury

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

This short story was omitted from the 1997 edition of The Martian Chronicles in protest against the outdated language it uses, which in many ways is a shame, given the story's powerful anti-racist message and the fact that it represents perhaps the first serious exploration of racial tension in American science fiction. Bradbury himself noted that the story was an expression of his own distress about the plight of Black Americans during the late 1940s, before the desegregation of schools and the subsequent civil rights movement. There is, perhaps, a poignant sadness in the fact that Bradbury could imagine Black people being truly free only if they could actually leave Earth behind, but this is an important and significant piece of commentary. It reflects the attitudes of progressive white people in the late 1940s, before anti-racist activism had moved entirely away from the idea of equal separatism and toward full desegregation and integration.

The Black population in this story do not have the chance to articulate their own story. We see the world of the story through the eyes of the racist store owner Samuel Teece, a violent and insecure white man who clings to the status quo because he needs to feel that he still has some power in the town. Notably, he is convinced that things have changed for the better for Black Americans, and yet he still feels able to exert his will over Black people, using money as a bargaining chip to prevent them from doing what they want and need to do. More distressingly, although by day he only waves his pistol around, we realize that at night he is less constrained by propriety. On the contrary, Teece is a member of a band of whites in the town who have spent years lynching Black men at night, seeking out appropriate trees, dragging them from their homes and killing them. It is evident that Teece and his ilk do not need a reasonable excuse to punish the Black population. They use the lynchings as a way of reclaiming some power for themselves; it makes them feel that they, despite being poor and Southern, are at least better than one group of people. The lynchings are a leisure activity for them, which Silly evidently knows. He calls to Teece as he leaves, demanding to know what Teece will do now that there are no Black men to lynch. Rather than being distressed and mortified that Silly knows about his villainy, Teece's reaction is to cling instead to the fact that Silly still called him "Mister." Teece will evidently hold on to this forever as evidence that, once, he was not the lowest of the low. Once, there was someone in town he could forcibly control. This seems to be absolutely fundamental to who Teece is as a person, and it is difficult to understand why those around him who are less self-interested still continue to sit on the porch of his store.

Despite Teece's apparently irredeemable character, there is hope in the story, too. This comes primarily from the Black population, who have worked so intently and tirelessly together to secure their own future. They have saved their own money, used their own skills and ingenuity, and then pulled together to ensure that wealth is distributed justly, so that nobody will be left behind. But we also see hope in the white population that things are not as dire as they might have been. Grandpa Quartermain, who is an older man, is more progressive than Teece, standing up to defend Silly and happy to do jobs...

(This entire section contains 726 words.)

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that Teece feels are below a white man. Under Grandpa's leadership, other white men are also encouraged to stand up and tell Teece that his behavior and attitudes are wrong. It can be argued, perhaps, that we need to stand by those who behave badly because if they are allowed to retreat to their own echo chambers, they will only sink deeper and deeper into prejudice. If we try to change their minds, perhaps things will one day improve.

Ultimately, however, Bradbury's feeling seems to be that this is too little, too late. The world of the whites in this town may be beginning to change, but the Black population has grown tired of waiting. They have decided to make their own world and their own freedom.