The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

Robert J. Butler

Ralph Ellison's “Flying Home”

Joseph F.   Trimmer

Ralph Ellison is known chiefly for his single novel, Invisible Man, for which he won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1952, and for his collection of essays, Shadow and Act, published in 1964. It is not widely acknowledged, however, that Ellison is also a master of the short story. This ignorance or neglect of Ellison's short fiction is due mainly to two facts—his stories have appeared in relatively obscure journals, and to date they have remained uncollected.  1 Recently, anthology editors have discovered this wealth of material, and slowly but surely Ellison's short stories are being reprinted.  2 But despite this increased exposure, the stories remain neglected by critics. Marcus Klein, in After Alienation: American Novels in Mid-Century (New York: World, 1964), pp. 71–147, discusses some of the stories in his chapter on Ellison; but since his purpose was to trace the thematic concerns that eventually surfaced in Invisible Man, his treatment of individual stories was necessarily abbreviated. Yet his brief treatment of Ellison's stories is still the only one in print. What is needed is a detailed and systematic evaluation of all of Ellison's stories. I intend to begin that evaluation by examining a story that is readily available for inspection, “Flying Home.”  3

As Klein has pointed out, “Flying Home” has its beginnings in a political issue: “A Negro air school had been established at Tuskegee during the war, apparently as a sap to civil libertarians. Its pilots never got out of training. The school became a sufficient issue for Judge Hostie to resign from the War Department in protest over it…”  4 Ellison commented on this issue in “Editorial Comment,” Negro Quarterly, 1 (Winter-Spring 1943), 298. He also indicated to Rochelle Girson in their interview in “Sidelights on Invisibility,” Saturday Review, March 14, 1953, p. 49, that “he had intended after the war to write a novel about a flyer. This story would seem to be its beginning.”  5

The plot of the story is relatively simple: Todd, a young black pilot on a training mission, crashes his plane on an Alabama farm where he is saved from the white racist owner, Dabney Graves, by a black “peasant” named Jefferson. What is not so simple is the symbolic patterns that permeate the story. As with all vintage Ellison, these patterns proceed simultaneously on at least two levels, racial and mythic. On the racial level, the story gives us a parable of the complex interrelationship between the individual black man and his racial community; on the mythic level, the story refashions the Daedalus myth. The two levels are connected symbolically by implied parallels to three other related sources—the myth of the Phoenix, the Christian doctrine of felix culpa, or fortunate fall, and the story of the prodigal son.

Todd's basic problem is what W.E.B. DuBois called the problem of “double-consciousness”: “It is a particular sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”  6 Todd aspires to be a flyer, but everyone tells him that planes and flying are for white men. Thus Todd's desire to fly seems to be a desire to fly away from his Black identity and supposed inferiority and toward white acceptance and supposed fulfillment. The problem is that Todd is ambivalent. He wants to please the old black men who come to see him train at the air field, but they do not really understand his skill: “He felt cut off from them by age, by understanding, by sensibility, by technology and by his need to measure himself against the mirror of other men's appreciation” (p. 257). Yet he could never be certain what his white officers really thought of him. So, “between ignorant black men and condescending whites, his course of flight seemed mapped by the nature of things away from all needed and natural landmarks.” (ibid.)

Todd's relationship to the black community is communicated more enigmatically in a series of allusions relating to buzzards and horses. Todd's girl friend has written to him that he should not be bothered by the old allegation of intellectual inferiority: “they keep beating that dead horse because they don't want to say why you boys are not yet fighting” (p. 255). It is to escape that “dead horse” that Todd flies. But as he manipulates his “advanced trainer” he spots a kite below him, like the ones he flew as a boy. In an attempt to “find the boy at the end of the invisible cord…[he flies]…too high and too fast….And one of the first rules you learn is that if the angle of thrust is too steep the plane goes into a spin. And then, instead of pulling out of it and going into a dive you let a buzzard panic you. A lousy buzzard” (p. 259). The plane then falls out of the sky “like a pitchin' hoss” (p. 258), onto a field. When Todd recovers consciousness he discovers that he has broken his ankle. While a Negro boy, Teddy, goes for help, Todd is attended by an “old buzzard” named Jefferson. When he is asked about the blood on the plane, Todd tells Jefferson about the buzzard. Jefferson acknowledges that buzzards are “bad luck,” and that they are only after “dead things.” In fact, “Teddy's got a name for 'em, calls 'em jimcrows” (p. 259). Jefferson then offers the following cryptic fable: “Once I seen a hoss all stretched out like he was sick, you know. So I hollers, ‘Gid up from there, suh! Just to make sho! An’ doggone, son, if I don't see two ole jimcrows come flying right up outa that hoss's insides! Yessuh! The sun was shinin' on 'em and they couldn't a been no greasier if they'd been eating barbecue.” (ibid.) Todd's stomach convulses at this picture and he protests that Jefferson “made that up.” But Jefferson says “Nawsuh! Saw him just like I see you.” (ibid.)

The changing identities of horse and buzzard become delightfully confusing as “Todd-plane-bird-hoss” is seen as being knocked out of the sky by “Jefferson-buzzard-dead-horse-jimcrow.” But what is clear in Jefferson's parable is that the dead horse of Negro inferiority provides the nourishment for the white society that enforces Jim Crow ethics, and for those “talented tenth buzzards” like Todd who wish to fly away from a sense of identification with “dead horse buzzards” like old Jefferson. Todd complains that he can never be simply himself but ‘most always be seen by whites as being “part of this old black ignorant man” (p. 256). It is this prideful aspiration away from “home,” which precipitates his fall, his “flying home.”  7

While Todd speculates on the meaning of his fall, he sees a black spot in the sky. He expects to see a plane from the airbase coming to pick him up, but sees instead a buzzard glide into the woods: “Why did they make them so disgusting and yet teach them to fly so well?” (p. 260). Jefferson's second fable, his experiences as an angel in heaven, follows this question, and reinforces the meaning of Todd's experience from a different perspective. Jefferson says that when he was in heaven he wanted to “let eve'ybody know that old Jefferson could fly as good as anybody else” (p. 261). But the “colored angels” had to “wear a special kin' a harness when we flew” (ibid.). Jefferson, like Todd, was not bothered by the harness, the second class status of advanced trainee, and tried to fly like everybody else. He flew so well that he was warned by Saint Peter that his “speedin' is a danger to the heavenly community” (p. 262). When Jefferson continues to speed, despite these warnings, Saint Peter must punish him: “If I was to let you keep on flyin', heaven wouldn't be nothin' but uproar. Jeff, you got to go!” (ibid.). The white angels rush Jefferson to the pearly gates, give him a parachute and a map of Alabama. But before he falls, Jefferson is allowed to say a few words: “Well, you done took my wings. And you puttin' me out. You got charge of things so's I can't do nothin' about it. But you got to admit just this: While I was up here I was the flyinest sonofabitch what ever hit heaven!” (ibid.)

While Jefferson's first fable seemed to say that those who aspired to fly did so at the expense of others and were therefore ultimately to be properly humbled, this second fable suggests that aspirations of flight are not bad but are simply limited by the existing power structure. Todd responds to Jefferson's second fable in much the same way that he responded to the first: he senses that Jefferson is mocking him. Todd then connects the two stories by protesting against what each seems to be implying about his desire to fly: “Maybe we are a bunch of buzzards feeding on a dead horse, but we can hope to be eagles can't we?” (p. 263). This question leads Todd to a series of reminiscences about his boyhood—he traces the invisible line from the kite back to the boy who desired to fly.

Todd remembers that he became fascinated with flight when he saw a model airplane “suspended from the ceiling of the automobile exhibit at the State Fair” (p. 264). But his mother tells him that it is a white boy's toy and that he should not only not expect to ever have one but that to even circulate the desire for one would only lead to frustration: “Airplane. Boy, is you crazy? How many times I have to tell you to stop that foolishness….I bet I'm gon' wham the living daylight out of you if you don't quit worrying me ‘bout them things!” (p. 265). But Todd does not listen; and when he sees a real airplane flying in the sky, he thinks a “little white boy's plane's done flew and all I got to do is stretch out my hands and it'll be mine!” (ibid.). He climbs over the screen and reaches for the plane and feels “the world grow warm with promise.” But the plane flies on and as he reaches after it he falls. Todd's mother asks the doctor if her son is crazy, and Ellison has Todd's grandmother quote the opening lines of James Weldon Johnson's “Prodigal Son”:  8

Young man, young man
Yo' arms too short
To box with God.
(p. 266)

Todd's third childhood experience with a plane came when he and his mother were walking through the Negro slum. A plane flies over the neighborhood, showering the streets with white cards. In expectation, Todd grabs one only to see on the card a picture of a Klansman's white hood, resembling the face of death, and the caption: “Niggers Stay From Polls.” (p. 268)

Todd's childhood experiences certainly seem to reinforce the sense of Jefferson's fables. He is wrong to want to fly because it makes him aspire toward something that is an illusion and which will ultimately occasion his fall. He is also wrong to want to fly because it makes him desire to participate in an activity that is ultimately designed to cause death and destruction to his people: the godlike white man seems to have charge of things, and Todd's arms are too short to box with him.

That the white man is an agent of death and destruction is indicated in Jefferson's characterization of the man who owns the farm, Dabney Graves: “Everybody knows about Dabney Graves, especially the colored. He done killed enough of us” (p. 267). When Todd asks what the “colored” had done to cause their murder, Jefferson says “thought they was men” (ibid.). Todd is appalled and asks why, if this is the condition under which Jefferson is forced to live, he remains. Jefferson says simply that all black men, including Todd, “have to come by white folks” (ibid.) because Dabney Graves owns “this land.” Todd continues to protest mainly because he still aspires to fly away from the stigma of blackness and the apparent limits that the identity places on his destiny. But “the closer I spin toward the earth the blacker I become.” (p. 268)

At this point Todd spots three men moving across the field. The men are dressed in white, and sensing that they are doctors come to save him, Todd feels immense relief. But Todd's “vision” is again significantly in error. The men are the attendants from the “crazy house;” they have been looking for an escaped patient, Dabney's nephew, but at Dabney's insistence they settled instead for Todd. They put him in a “white straight jacket” because as Graves says, “You all know you cain't let the nigguh git up that high without his going crazy. The nigguh brain ain't built right for high altitudes…” (p. 269). The men put Todd on a stretcher; but when they begin to carry him away, Todd protests: “Don't put your hands on me!” (ibid.) What follows is a predictable act of repression: Graves stomps on Todd's chest. Todd, in the midst of horrible pain, responds with laughter which for some reason reminds him of Jefferson's laughter. He looks toward Jefferson “as though somehow he [Jefferson] had become his sole salvation in an insane world of outrage and humiliation” (p. 270). Jefferson does come to Todd's rescue by diverting Graves's attention to the problem of the airplane. Graves is willing to let the airplane stay in his field but “you take this here black eagle over to the nigguh airfield and leave him.” (ibid.)

The story ends as Teddy and Jefferson lift the stretcher and carry Todd across the field. Todd feels a “new current of communication…between the man and boy and himself” (ibid.). He feels that he has been “lifted out of his isolation, back into the world of men” (ibid.). As they continue to move across the field, Todd hears a mockingbird. He looks up only to see a buzzard. The whole afternoon then “seemed suspended and he waited for the horror to seize him again” (ibid.). Instead, Teddy begins to hum a song, in symbolic counterpoint to the mockingbird, and Todd “saw the dark bird glide into the sun and glow like a bird of flaming gold.” (ibid.)

This transformation of the buzzard into the “bird of flaming gold” ties together the various symbolic patterns which have been at work in the story. Todd, like Icarus, has tried to fly too close to the sun, and his fall has taught him his conceit.  9 But like Adam's, Todd's fall can be seen as fortunate for it eventually occasions his salvation. The Daedalus figure, Jefferson, has taught his “son” the error of his ways. That error is not so much in aspiration—the story certainly does not counsel acceptance of jimcrow—but in the method and motive of aspiration. Todd cannot box with God alone, and, like the Prodigal Son, he cannot expect to find salvation in Babylon. To expect fulfillment from the white world is an illusion since that world is designed to make “Niggers Stay From Polls.” The tragic consequence of such an illusion is that it makes Todd deny not only Jefferson but himself: to fly for white approval is not a way to fulfillment but a way to psychic suicide.

Todd's ambivalent position as a black flyer, straight-jacketed and harnessed by white officers and by his own desire for white approval, has placed him in a world of isolation, His fall has brought him back home from Babylon, back to a sense of who he is. Once he accepts that identity, once he accepts the fact that he and Jefferson are part of each other, then he is resurrected, “lifted out of his isolation, back into the world of men” (ibid.). The myth of the Phoenix suggests a similar pattern: the fabulous bird lives from five hundred to a thousand years; then at the close of this period, he sings a melodious dirge, flaps his wings to set fire to his nest and is consumed only to come forth with a new life. Todd has crashed, but in the process he has destroyed the harness of his white aspiration, the plane, and has been resurrected by a song of communal acceptance. Once he accepts this community identity, Todd, the buzzard-jimcrow, is transformed into the bird of flaming gold. Like the Prodigal Son, Todd was dead and is now alive again and is ready to begin his flight home.


1.  Because Ellison's stories are uncollected there is some confusion as to how many stories he has written. One of the most inclusive lists, published in the bibliography of James A. Emanuel and Theodore L. Gross, eds. Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America (New York: Free Press, 1968), cites the following ten stories: “Slick Gonna Learn,” Direction (September 1939), pp. 10–16. “Afternoon,” American Writing, ed. Hans Otto Storm et al., pp. 28–37. “Mister Toussan,” The New Masses, 41 (November 4, 1941), 19, 20. “That I Had the Wings,” Common Ground, 3 (Summer 1943), 30–37. “Flying Home,” Cross Section, ed. Edwin Seaver (New York: L.B. Fischer, 1944), pp.469–85. “In a Strange Country,” Tomorrow, 3 (July 1944), 41–44. “King of the Bingo Game,” Tomorrow, 4 (November 1944), 29–33. “Did You Ever Dream Lucky?” New World Writing No. 5 (New York: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1954), pp. 134–145. “A Coupla Scalped Indians,” New World Writing No. 9 (New York: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1956), pp. 225–36. “And Hickman Arrives,” The Noble Savage I, 1956.

2. Again, Emanuel and Gross seem to lead the way with the printing of both “Flying Home” and “King of the Bingo Game.” These two stories are the only ones reprinted consistently; however, most anthology editors, even those who edit anthologies of Black Literature, still seem to prefer excerpts from Invisible Man presented as short stories—for example, “The Battle Royal” sequence of Chapter I. One recent exception is Black Literature in America: A Casebook, ed. Roman K. Singh and Peter Fellowes (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1970) in which the hilarious “Did You Ever Dream Lucky?” is reprinted.

3. “Flying Home” has been reprinted in several places—most notably in The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, ed. Langston Hughes (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1967); Black American Literature: Fiction, ed. Darwin T. Turner (Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1969); Afro-American Literature: Fiction, ed. William Adams, Peter Conn, Barry Slepian (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1970). References to “Flying Home” in this essay will be documented by page numbers referring to the text as found reprinted in Emanuel and Gross, pp. 254–270.

4. Klein, pp. 102–103.

5.  Ibid., p. 103n.

6. W.E.B. DuBois, Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1903), p.3.

7. Klein identifies “Flying Home” as the title of a jazz piece written by Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton, p. 103.

8. James Weldon Johnson, “Prodigal Son,” God's Trombones (New York: Viking Press, 1927), p.21.

9. Klein, p. 103.

From Studies in Short Fiction 9 (Spring 1972), 175–82.

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