The ending of Graceland reminded me of some earlier passages involving images of fire. While Elvis sits and waits for his flight to America, reading Going to Meet the Man, he ponders that “he knew that scar, that pain, that shame, that degradation that no metaphor could contain, inscribing it on his body. And yet beyond that, he was that scar, carved by hate and smallness and fear onto the world’s face. He and everyone like him, until the earth was aflame with scarred black men dying in trees of fire” (320). It is interesting that Elvis reads the passage containing “the lynching scene” and begins to “see a lot of parallels between himself and the description of a dying black man slowly being engulfed by flame” while he is waiting for a flight to the US. He is leaving because he feels he cannot survive and pursue a livable life in Lagos, and yet the story he is reading seems to suggest that life in the US is no less dangerous or soul-crushing than the life he is running away from.
Earlier in the book Elvis is watching the forest fire spread in Afikpo, where “birds, on fire, tried to fly from the flames. Little sparrows and finches ricocheted like flaming Ping-Pong balls. Lovely white egrets flapped their wings of fire, hovering like phoenixes before crashing to be consumed in a whoosh of flame. Those that escaped one part of the forest only spread the fire to another” (179). The egrets “like phoenixes” suggests death, but also a rebirth. However, that the birds escape one part of the forest only to “spread the fire to another” implies that there is little hope in the new life he is seeking. The image of birds on fire trying to fly from the flames reflects Elvis’s flight from Lagos to the United States. Leaving Lagos, and all of the pain and death there, is like a kind of death for Elvis, a death in order to be born again and start a new life elsewhere. The story he is reading at the beginning of his journey seems to suggest that the flames engulfing him will not die once he reaches new land. Just as the birds on fire only spread their fire to their new perch, Elvis is still carrying with him all of the inner turmoil and pain he has been holding in — he is just bringing it to a different place.