"Flying Home": a Living Story. Ralph Waldo Ellison is perhaps one of the most influential African-American writers of the twentieth century. Ellison is best known for writing about such topics as self-awareness, identity, and the racial repression of African-Americans in the United States. His masterpiece, Invisible Man, chronicles the story of a young man striving to find himself in a world where he is hardly noticed. This novel won him much respect in the eyes of the literary community. Earlier in his career, Ellison also wrote many influential short stories. "Flying Home", is one of Ellison?s stories that call the attention of all concerned with the basic essence of human freedom. In "Flying Home", Ellison creates a provocative statement about the Black situation in the south in the 1940?s that is rich with symbolism and personal experience. Born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma, Ellison was raised in an environment that promoted self-fulfillment. His father, who named his son after Ralph Waldo Emerson and hoped to raise him as a poet, died when Ellison was three. Ellison?s mother enlisted blacks into the Socialist Party and was also a domestic worker. In the early 1930s, Ellison won a scholarship to Alabama?s Tuskegee Institute, where he studied music until 1936(Busby 10). Later, to earn money for his education (after a mix-up regarding his scholarship), he traveled to New York, where he met Richard Wright and became involved in the Federal Writer?s Project. Encouraged to write a review for New Challenge, a publication edited by Wright, Ellison began composing essays and stories focusing on the strength of the human spirit and the necessity of racial pride. It was during this time that Ellison composed "Flying Home." "Flying Home", is the story of a young man who is one of a very small number of African-American pilots in World War II. The story begins as the young man, named Todd, crashes his trainer plane into a Southern crop field. Injured and unable to move, Todd is helped by one of the field workers, a black man named Jefferson. Todd, a man of the "white" world is overcome by feelings of disgust by the appearance and demeanor of Jefferson. Todd feels physically ill from having to deal with someone of such low class. At this early point in the story the reader wonders why Todd, a black man, would show such terrible feelings toward someone of his own race. This confusion of identity is one of the main themes in the story. Being a flier in the army has made an impact on Todd. Though he has risen above most of his race and become one of a few to join this division of airmen, Todd has entered into a predominantly white world. Everything around him is white-made, white-owned, or white-operated while serving in the army. The impact of his solely being a flier has caused Todd to don a mask, a white mask. He becomes so accustomed to living the white way that he becomes ashamed of his heritage, scared to think about returning to his lower class life. Crashing his plane in the heart of "blackland" is confusing to Todd. He doesn?t know just who he is, since in his mind, acting white was always the right thing to do to get ahead. The fact that he is hardly different than Jefferson bothers him, and plays with his self-image. The image of the mask that Ellison creates is only one of the examples of symbolism that is frequently used in the story. Another profound symbol he uses is the circling buzzards that are always soaring above the field in which Todd crashed his plane. The buzzard is a common symbol in black folklore, representing sometimes the black person scrounging for survival, sometimes his predators, and always the precariousness of life in a predatory society. All these folk associations are active in the references of the buzzards in "Flying Home". The birds are black; Jefferson says that his grandson Teddy calls them ?jimcrows?. Representing not only the black man, Todd, but also the Jim Crow society, they symbolize the destructiveness of both(Bloom 84). Todd thinks of himself as a buzzard when he cries, "Can I help it if they won?t let us actually fly? Maybe we are a bunch of buzzards feeding on a dead horse, but we can hope to be eagles, can?t we? (Ellison 1764)" Here, there is also an analogy made between Todd and the horse carcass. "Saw him just like I see you,(Ellison 1762)" Jefferson says of the horse. Both the Jim Crow society and his own shame at blackness is devouring him. Todd (Tod ?death?) is, in trying to destroy old Jefferson, also feeding on his dead self. From this Todd learns that he cannot separate himself from other blacks because, as Jefferson reminds him, "You black son. ?You have to come by the white folks too.(Ellison 1768)" The tale of the Colored Man in heaven that Jefferson tells also applies to Todd, who "had been flying to high and too fast" and "had climbed steeply away in exultation(Ellison 1761)" before he went into a spin and crashed. Todd realizes this application with disgust: "Why do you laugh at me this way?(Ellison 1764)" he screams while Jefferson is laughing at his own joke. The point of the folktale, which Jefferson emphasizes by adding the "new turn" that "us colored folks had to wear a special kin? a harness when we flew,(Ellison 1763)" is that the black man is a man despite the obstacles put before him(Trimmer 178). Even with the harness, he outflies the other angels; even grounded, he remains brash and confident. Together, the moral of this story and the implications of the buzzard associations compose the explicit message of "Flying Home"(Bloom 84). Manhood is inherent, neither tendered nor rescinded by the white society; to try to achieve manhood by escaping blackness is only self-destructive, because "we all have to live on the same level." Using the symbol of the buzzard and the tale of the Colored Man in heaven, Ellison has made a statement about the black situation in the south during the time of World War II, which was when "Flying Home" was written. Ellison himself was no stranger to the oppression of blacks in the south at the time. Although born in Oklahoma, which has no history of slavery, he did live in a Jim Crow world. The governor at the time, "Alfalfa Bill" Murray was a notorious racist, and Ellison?s mother Ida, had continuously worked to break down racial barriers throughout her life(Busby 9). Ellison was educated at the Tuskegee Institute, which has a history of being on the forefront of African-American civil rights. His road to Tuskegee was a bumpy one however. Ellison became sort of a hobo to get himself to the institute and on his way got tangled in the Scottsboro boys affair. At the Decatur, Alabama, railroad yards, he was taken off a freight train by railroad investigators who ordered him and 40 to 50 other hoboes to line up beside the tracks during the Scottsboro boys? trial. Fearing that he too might become a victim, Ellison ran from the scene. Ellison said that he ran "far closer to the ground that I had ever imagined to do as a high school football running back". The experience, especially the "fear, the horror and the sense of helplessness before legal injustice," left an imprint in his mind that is reflected, somewhat, in many of his works(Busby 6). Ellison studied music at Tuskegee and left for New York City in 1936. During the war years, he tried to get recruited to the Navy. Ellison realized that black men were not nearly as prized for service as whites, regardless of the higher education he had received. Instead of pushing harder to get accepted in to a "jimcrow" Navy, Ellison joined the Merchant Marines. His experience with the military is reflected in "Flying Home". Ellison, in some fashion, used Todd to represent himself. Ellison used education to fly, while Todd used the military to soar over his fellow African-American?s. Ellison displays the prejudice in the military by portraying Todd as over assimilated to the white dominated army. Essentially becoming white was necessary for a black service man to advance. Todd had wished that he could be sent to combat regardless of the fact that the black pilots just did not do such a thing. He hated himself for this, but still used the fact that he was a pilot to place himself higher than his brothers. Similarly as a writer, Ellison has distinguished himself from other African-Americans. For a time Ellison was criticized as being an "Uncle Tom", a black man who wants to be fully integrated into white society. The folklore used in the story was also probably common to Ellison. Clearly, Ellison?s personal experience translates into "Flying Home". A meaningful story from a great writer, "Flying Home" ties culture in with folklore in a symbolic, meaningful manner. Ralph Ellison, a distinguished thinker and true voice of the African-American population here in our country, has created a lasting impression with his work and his life. No matter what course is taken in a human life after flying away from what you know, a wise lesson is do not forget your past and leave time for ?flying home?.
Busby, Mark. Ralph Ellison. Boston: Twayne. 1991 Bloom, Harold, ed. Ralph Ellison. Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea. 1986. Trimmer, Joseph F. Ralph Ellison?s ?Flying Home?. Studies In Short Fiction 9 (1972):175-182 Ellison, Ralph. "Flying Home." Western Literature in a World Context. Ed. Nancy Lyman. New York: SMP. 1995. 1758-1770