"Way in the Middle of the Air" Themes
The main themes in “Way in the Middle of the Air” are racism, freedom, and cooperation.
- Racism: Racism drives the Black townspeople to leave for Mars, and it motivates Teece, a violently racist white man, to fly into a rage when he hears the news.
- Freedom: In leaving, the town’s Black citizens choose to take their freedom into their own hands rather than wait for it to be granted by white society.
- Cooperation: The Black community bands together to organize the departure, while the other white men refuse to cooperate with Teece when he attempts to stop it.
Last Updated on January 8, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 989
Racism is the overriding theme of this story. Bradbury wrote the story in the late 1940s, before society had been desegregated in the American South. It is interesting that, although he sets it in the imagined future of 2003, he evidently could not imagine that racist attitudes might have been eradicated by this time (as, indeed, they have not been). Some of the language used in the story, specifically the racial slurs, has led to its removal from some modern editions of The Martian Chronicles, but ultimately the message of the story is an anti-racist one. In a society where men like Teece can extend control over Black people, even those who are not in his employ, why wouldn't Black people leave Earth, institutionally racist as it is, for a better world?
The idea of Black Americans escaping racism by removing themselves entirely from society, rather than pushing to fix the society in which they exist, has also been criticized. It is an echo of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century suggestions that Black Americans might leave the country for Liberia—essentially, "go back to Africa." In this story, however, it is clear that the Black people of this town have worked for this under their own volition, which is why racists like Samuel Teece are so infuriated by it. In the mind of Teece and his ilk, Black people exist to serve them. More importantly, they exist so that people like Teece can feel superior and as if they have power. There is no other reason why Teece should want to spend his nights hunting down and killing Black men as entertainment. There is no reason other than malice, fear, and racist desperation for Teece to try and trap his employee, Silly, in his store to prevent him from leaving for Mars with the others. For racists like Teece, the important thing is to have someone to control, someone who can make him feel as if he is in charge. He has received an offer of help from another white man, Grandpa Quartermain, but it is not the help he wants: it is the feeling of power. The departure of the Black people from town leaves him powerless.
Freedom is a frequent theme in Bradbury's works, and in this story, it is the paramount concern of the Black population of the town, all of whom have come to the conclusion that there is no free future for them here. Even those who, like Lucinda, love the families they work for and feel that they are well treated have recognized that this is not freedom, but simply slavery under a different name. At the beginning of the story, the white men on Teece's porch ask why it should be that they have decided to leave now, when things are just beginning to get better. However, it seems clear that the Black people are no longer willing to wait for the extremely slow improvement to their rights as led by white people. Instead, they have taken their freedom into their own hands, saved their own money, and begun to build their own rockets. They have determined that if they want to be free, they will need to arrange this on their own.
The language in the story harks back to spirituals, all of which represented dreams of freedom which seemed, at that time, very far away. The title of the story comes from one such song. Teece scoffs that probably the rockets are all named after these spirituals; he is suggesting that they, like the spirituals, represent forlorn hopes, but in the event, this turns out not to be the case. The Black people move like a "tide" or a "river," cutting their own new channel. They are carving out their own way, and like a river, they are now unstoppable. Teece and his gun and his protests will not prevent the Black people of the town from reaching their new home.
Cooperation is represented in this story from various angles, both good and bad. Bradbury certainly makes it clear that nothing can be achieved unless multiple people work in support of it. The key example is, of course, the cooperation of the Black population of the town who have saved their money and worked tirelessly for months to build rockets that will take them to Mars. The Black people who have not been close to the project, like Belter, still have sufficient trust in the community that they are willing to step aboard the rockets without knowing very much about them. Belter is not cowed by the suggestion that the rockets will explode. He has too much trust in his community for that.
We also see cooperation among the Black crowd when the old man solicits money from his fellows to pay off Belter's debt. When Teece hears that this has been happening up and down the road, with those who had money helping those who had none so that nobody would be left behind, he is incensed. He cannot believe that Black people could be so organized.
Later, we are told that Teece has previously been involved in lynchings. This is something else that could not have happened without cooperation and support: Teece was supported in his active, vindictive racism by other white people. Within the span of this story, however, a lack of cooperation prevents Teece from enacting some of the violence he threatens. When he wants to lock Silly up and prevent him from leaving, the other white men on the porch stand up and announce that they will not allow it. When Silly asks for Grandpa's help, Grandpa breaks ranks and decides to cooperate with Silly rather than with Teece. It is clear that just as the Black people of the town cannot gain their freedom without cooperation, it is cooperation among racist whites, too, which has enabled such terrible racism to prevail.
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