Song of Solomon
Song of SolomonIntroduction
For Further Study
Toni Morrison's third novel, Song of Solomon, established her as a major American writer. The story of a Black man's search for his identity through a discovery of his family history, it became a bestseller and drew praise from readers and critics when it was published in 1977. The novel has been especially admired for the beauty of its language and its grounding of universal themes in the particularity of the African-American experience, as well as for its use of folklore.
Song of Solomon is based on an African-American folktale about slaves who can fly back to Africa when they choose. Morrison fictionalizes this folktale through the character of Solomon, the great-grandfather of the story's protagonist, Milkman Dead. Through his discovery of the story of Solomon and his ability to fly, Milkman learns to take pride in his ancestry and to value his connections to family and community. Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1977. It is now widely taught, and appeared again on best-seller lists when it was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for inclusion in her book club. Beloved by readers for more than twenty years, it is still considered one of Morrison's best books.
Like her character Milkman Dead, Toni Morrison came of age in a family that had only recently left the South and moved to the Midwest. Her mother's family migrated north from Greenville, Alabama, around the turn of the century as part of the Great Migration of southern Blacks to the urban North. Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931—the same year as Milkman Dead's birth—in Lorain, Ohio, where her first book, The Bluest Eye, is set. She recalled a childhood in which she was "intimate with the supernatural," and read the classics of the Western tradition.
Morrison graduated from Howard University and took a master's degree at Cornell, then returned to Howard to teach, including among her students Claude Brown and Stokely Carmichael. While at Howard, she married a Jamaican architectural student named Harold Morrison, the father of her two sons. After a later divorce, she started her first novel, The Bluest Eye, which was published in 1970. Also that year, Morrison began work on Sula, her second novel, and took a job as an editor at Random House, where she worked with some of the prominent Black authors of the 1970s. After publishing Sula, she produced her third novel, Song of Solomon, which established her as a major American writer and won her the National Book Critics Circle Award. This was followed by Tar Baby in 1981, and the book considered her masterpiece, Beloved, in 1987.
When Beloved failed to win either a National Book Award or a National Book Critics Circle Award, a group of Black writers and intellectuals decried the lack of national recognition given to Morrison. Beloved did win the Pulitzer Prize, and in 1993, following the 1992 publication of Jazz, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The first African-American woman to win the Nobel, her acceptance speech in Stockholm, in which she spoke about the power of, and necessity for, language, prompted a standing ovation. In recent years, Morrison has turned out several works of nonfiction, writing Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination and publishing essays on the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, the O. J. Simpson case, and other current events. Two of her novels, Song of Solomon and her most recent, 1998's Paradise, have been chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club, making her both a popular, best-selling author and a critical favorite. Having given up her editing position in 1987, Morrison currently holds an appointment at Princeton University.
Song of Solomon begins with the flight of Robert Smith, an insurance agent, from the roof of Mercy Hospital. Smith appears on the roof of the hospital with two handcrafted wings on his back. A small crowd gathers to witness the impending jump. Many believe he won't jump, but to the amazement of some and horror of others, Smith does jump. Because of Smith's attempt to fly, Ruth Foster Dead is able to deliver her child inside the hospital instead of on its steps. Negro women during this time are not allowed to give birth inside the hospital due to segregation. Thus Macon Dead becomes the first Negro child to be born inside Mercy Hospital.
Four years later, young Macon acquires his nickname, Milkman, when his father's tenant Freddie catches Ruth nursing Macon at age four. Milkman's father, Macon, Sr.—who is a harsh landlord to other Blacks—does not know the origins of this nickname, but he thinks it must have something to do with Ruth, of whom he can think only with disgust. The elder Macon is also estranged from his sister, Pilate, but on a night that he mercilessly evicts one of his poor tenants, Mrs. Bains, Macon stands outside Pilate's house to hear her singing.
Time goes on and Morrison details certain events in Milkman's growing up. As a young boy, Milkman and his family go on Sunday afternoon drives. On a particular Sunday, Milkman accidentally urinates on his sister Lena, a memory that Lena remembers years later. When Milkman is twelve, he and his friend Guitar Bains approach his Aunt Pilate. Milkman knows his father would disapprove of him approaching his aunt, but he decides to anyway. The two boys inquire as to whether or not she has a navel. She responds no, and invites them in for a snack. While inside, Pilate relates the history of the Dead family, and when her daughter, Reba, and her granddaughter, Hagar, come home, they are introduced to Milkman. Everyone has a nice time engaging in conversation that afternoon. However, when Milkman's father hears of Milkman's encounter with his Pilate, he is upset. He reminds Milkman that he does not want him consorting with his sister. Milkman asks his father why, and in response his father relates more of the family history. He then concludes by saying his sister is a "snake," and that he wants Milkman to stay away from her.
Following their discussion, Macon tells Milkman that he is to start working with him. Milkman's responsibilities include running errands in his aunt's part of town. Thus, he has even more opportunities to visit his relatives. A couple of years later, Milkman realizes that one of his legs is shorter by about half an inch. He tries not to dwell on what he believes is a deformity.
When Milkman is twenty-two, his father hits Ruth, and Milkman throws his father against the radiator in defense of his mother. He threatens to kill his father if he ever touches his mother again. Macon never hits his wife again, but he does explain to his son the reasons behind his poor relationship with Ruth. He claims Ruth and her father had had an inappropriate relationship; he even describes an incestuous scene he witnessed between Ruth and her dead father. After this incident, Milkman finds Guitar at the barbershop, where the men are listening to a report about the murder of Emmett Till. The news about Till reminds them of the atrocities suffered by the returning Black veterans of World War I and spurs Guitar to greater involvement in politics.
When Milkman is thirty-one, he ends a longstanding intimate relationship that he has had with Hagar, and she begins regular attempts on his life. Meanwhile, Freddie tells Milkman that Guitar has been hanging around another man, Empire State, whom he believes has murdered a white boy found dead in a schoolyard. He tells Milkman to pay close attention to Guitar from now on.
One night, Milkman lays waiting another attack from Hagar, and he recalls the recent night he followed his mother to her father's grave. Upon confronting his mother at the cemetery, Ruth explains her version of the rift between herself and Macon; she accuses Macon of lying about her relationship with her father. She denies any incestuous behavior, but does say that she felt her father was the only person who ever really cared about her. She also describes Pilate's efforts to restore sexual relations between herself and Macon and to protect Ruth's resulting pregnancy (which would result in the birth of Milkman) from Macon's violence. After pondering his recollections of his encounter with his mother, Milkman hears Hagar trying to enter Guitar's apartment; after she makes her way in, she is emotionally unable to kill Milkman. When Ruth finds out that Hagar has been trying to kill Milkman, she goes to confront Hagar. Pilate finds Ruth with Hagar, and to distract her she tells Ruth about her childhood and her travels across the country.
Meanwhile, Milkman finally asks Guitar about his relationship with Empire State. Guitar hesitates at first but then reveals that he has become a member of the Seven Days, an organization of seven Black men who murder whites chosen at random in retaliation for lynchings and other atrocities. Milkman does not approve of Guitar's involvement in this group and fears for his friend's safety, but Guitar is deeply committed to the cause.
Later, while talking to his father, Milkman mentions that Pilate has a green sack hanging from her ceiling that she calls her inheritance. Macon is surprised by this news and tells Milkman that as children he and Pilate had found some gold in a cave when they were hiding from the whites who killed their father, gold he believes belonged to a white man Macon had killed in the cave. Macon believes the green sack could contain the gold from the cave. With this knowledge, Milkman, with urging from his father and help from Guitar, steals the sack. Guitar's motives for stealing the gold include giving him the means to avenge the deaths of the four little girls in the church bombing in Birmingham.
At the beginning of chapter nine, the story shifts to Milkman's sister Corinthians, who is secretly working as a maid and having an affair with a man named Henry Porter. She has just returned from her first night of lovemaking with him when she is startled by the sounds of male voices in her kitchen. Milkman and Guitar have been arrested after they were pulled over without cause and found to have human remains in the car with them. The green sack that they had taken from Pilate's home had actually contained rocks and human bones, not gold. Pilate had to bail them out of jail by humbling herself to the police and saying that the bones are those of her dead husband.
Later, Milkman, who has figured out that Corinthians is having an affair with Porter, realizes that Porter is a member of the Seven Days. Worried for his sister, he decides to tell his father about the affair. His sister Lena does not understand Milkman's actions against their sister; she confronts him, saying that he has a habit of pissing on others (which also refers back to the time he urinated on her as a child). After this confrontation, Milkman decides to leave home.
Milkman has embarked on a solo quest for the gold, though he still intends to split the proceeds with Guitar. Milkman starts by going to Danville, Pennsylvania, the site of the cave. He asks about a mysterious woman named Circe, who sheltered Macon and Pilate after their father's death, and is directed to the house of Reverend Cooper, who knew his father when he was a boy. Milkman learns that the Butlers, the same people Circe worked for, were responsible for his grandfather's death and never brought to justice. While Reverend Cooper's car is being repaired, Milkman meets the old men of the town, who tell him stories about his father's family.
Milkman soon encounters Circe, who looks incredibly old but speaks with the voice of a twenty-year-old girl. She tells him that his grandmother's name was Sing, his grandfather's original name was Jake, and that his grandfather's body floated up from its shallow grave and ended up being dumped in the cave. When Milkman gets to the cave there is no gold, and no body. Milkman decides that Pilate has taken the gold to Virginia during her travels around the country.
After Milkman arrives in his ancestral town of Shalimar, Virginia, he sees some children singing a song and playing, and remembers that he had never had friends as a child, until he met Guitar. However, Guitar's friendship has not lasted. While on a hunting trip with the old men of the town, Milkman fights off Guitar's first attempt to take his life. (Guitar believes Milkman has taken the gold for himself; thus he wants to kill him so he can obtain the gold.)
As the old men skin the bobcat they've caught on their trip, Milkman learns that his grandmother is one of the Byrds, related to a woman named Susan who lives in the town. After a magical night with a woman named Sweet, he goes to see Susan Byrd, who is evasive with him about their shared ancestry because of the presence of her gossipy friend Grace. Later, Milkman realizes that his ancestors are named in the song that the children of Shalimar sing; he then goes to see Susan Byrd again, excited by his discovery.
Chapter thirteen shifts the focus back to Ha-gar, who is profoundly depressed, rising from her bed only to go on a manic shopping spree. She then spikes a fever. Shortly afterwards, she dies, and Macon pays for her funeral.
When Milkman returns to Susan Byrd's house, she tells him all she had not told him earlier: that Sing left Shalimar with Jake, and that Jake was the youngest child of a man named Solomon who flew back to Africa. The story is that Heddy, Sing's mother, found Jake on the ground when Solomon dropped him and raised him after Ryna, Solomon's wife, lost her mind.
Having pieced together the story, Milkman returns home and tells Pilate that she has her father's bones, not those of the white man Macon killed. Milkman and Pilate return to Shalimar to bury her father's bones, but after they do, Guitar—who has been hiding nearby—shoots her. The novel ends on an image of flight, as Milkman jumps in attack from the ridge "into the killing arms of his brother [Guitar]."
Guitar is Milkman's best friend. As a child, his father was killed in a terrible industrial accident, and his mother abandoned the family when she couldn't cope. Because his mother gave him candy after his father's death, sweets make Guitar sick. After Guitar's grandmother took responsibility for him, Macon Dead evicted Guitar's family from their home for nonpayment of rent. Later, Guitar befriends Milkman after defending him in a fight, and introduces him to Pilate and the community of Southside. As an adult, Guitar is the Sunday man of the Seven Days, responsible for choosing white victims at random in retaliation for white atrocities against Blacks. He tries to kill Milkman because he believes that Milkman has cut him out of their plot to recover the gold from the cave. At the end of the novel, he kills Pilate after she and Milkman bury her father's bones at Solomon's Leap.
Susan Byrd is the daughter of Milkman's great uncle, his grandmother Heddy's brother Crowell. She lives in Shalimar and is not very helpful to Milkman the first time he sees her because she does not want her friend Grace Long to know about their shared ancestry. When he visits again, she tells him more about the history of his grandmother, including the story that Heddy's husband Jake, who becomes the first Macon Dead, was the son of a flying African named Solomon.
Circe is the woman who hides Pilate and Ma-con after their father's murder. She works as a maid for the same family who killed the first Macon Dead, and she hides his children in the Butler mansion, in rooms the Butlers do not use. Milkman meets her when he goes to Danville. She is living in the Butler house and tending to their Weimaraners, allowing them to destroy the house for which the Butlers killed, stole, and lied. She directs Milkman to the cave and tells him that his grandfather's body was dumped there after he floated up from his shallow grave.
Reverend Cooper is a childhood friend of Ma-con's in Danville. His father made Pilate's snuffbox earring. He is the first person Milkman finds on his trip to Danville, and he introduces Milkman to the old men of the community, who tell him stories about his people.
Corinthians Dead is the second of the two daughters of Macon and Ruth Dead. She is raised to be a good catch for a professional man of color, but after college and a trip abroad, is a little too elegant for the few professional men of color that she meets. Instead, she stays home with her sister Lena and makes rose petals. When she wakes up one morning realizing that she is a forty-two-year-old maker of rose petals who still lives with her parents, she gets a job as a maid and begins an affair with Henry Porter. After Porter tries to break off their affair, Corinthians realizes that she will die of loneliness if he leaves her, and she hangs on to the hood of his car until he relents, taking her home with him. After Milkman discovers that Porter is a member of the Seven Days, the Black terrorist organization, he tells Macon about the affair, and Macon responds punitively. Eventually, though, Corinthians moves to a small house in Southside with Porter.
Macon Dead is the father of Milkman, Lena, and Corinthians Dead. An owner of houses and apartments, Macon believes that owning things enables you to own yourself, and others too. With Pilate, he grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania called Lincoln's Heaven. At sixteen, he sees his father killed by whites who want the family's land, and he and Pilate are protected by Circe, a midwife and maid who shelters them in unused rooms of the Butler house. Macon and Pilate run away from the Butler place, and while hiding in a cave for the night, encounter a white man. After Macon kills the man, they find his cache of gold, which Pilate pre-vents Macon from taking, leading to their estrangement.
After Macon flees to Michigan, he marries Ruth Foster, having two daughters with her before her father's death and their subsequent estrangement. Macon believes that he has seen Ruth naked in bed with her dead father, kissing him, and almost kills her as a result. They have not had sexual relations in many years when Pilate uses magic to compel Macon to have intercourse with Ruth. A pregnancy results, which Macon wants to abort. When Milkman—the product of the controversial pregnancy—is a child, Macon grows richer, buying land on Honore Island and evicting tenants who can't pay their rent. When Milkman grows up, he works in Macon's office with him. Milkman's decision to leave the office results in his disclosure about Pilate owning a green sack that he has heard contains her inheritance, and Macon tells his son to steal the gold he believes the sack contains. Milkman's subsequent journey, and discovery of the family's mythic past, does not heal Macon's estrangements with his sister and his wife, but Ma-con does enjoy hearing Milkman's stories about Danville and the old men who still fondly remember him.
Macon Foster Dead III
Lena is the elder daughter of Macon and Ruth. As a child, Milkman accidentally urinates on her, and many years later she confronts him about it, saying that he has been cruel to Corinthians and to her. Lena's anger with Milkman spurs him to leave home for the first time.
Milkman Dead is the son of Ruth Foster Dead and Macon Dead. Milkman acquires his name when his father's employee, Freddie, catches Ruth nursing him when he is four years old. Later, we find out that Ruth nurses her son in part because she has been sexually deprived after a rift between her and Macon. Macon, who has come to her as a result of his sister Pilate's spells, tries to end Ruth's pregnancy before Milkman is born and afterwards speaks to him only "if his words held some command or criticism." Milkman grows up cowed by his father, and disobeys him for the first time only after he meets his aunt, Pilate, who teaches him how to make an egg and shows him the sky. In response, Macon tries to lessen Pilate's influence on his son by putting Milkman to work in his office. While running errands for Macon, Milkman learns about Southside, the working class Black area of town, and develops a relationship with Pilate and her family. When he is seventeen, he begins a sexual relationship with his cousin Hagar. At twenty-two, he hits Macon in response to Macon's violence toward Ruth, and learns Macon's version of the rift between his parents. At thirty-one, he breaks off his relationship with Hagar in a letter, and she tries to kill him several times as a result.
An essentially passive person, Milkman gravitates toward those who inspire fear, and until he is thirty-two, lives with his parents and works for his father. It is only after he breaks into Pilate's house and has a confrontation with his sister Lena that he decides to leave home, travelling to Danville, Pennsylvania, and then Shalimar, Virginia, in search of stolen gold. Instead, he discovers the mythic history of his family, a history that teaches him his obligations to others and makes him an adult.
Pilate, Macon's sister, is a maker of homebrewed wine who lives with her daughter and granddaughter in Southside. A woman without a navel who fought her way out of her mother's dead body at birth, Pilate is widely believed to have magical powers. She helps Ruth to restore sexual relations with her husband and to protect her unborn child from Macon's attempts to kill it. Pilate wears her mother's snuffbox as an earring; the box contains the only word her father ever wrote: her name, which he copied from the Bible onto a piece of paper. Pilate has traveled all over the country with her daughter Reba, finally settling in Michigan when her grandchild Hagar is two years old. She is uneducated yet intelligent, full of wisdom about human relationships and generous to all who come to her door. She also has a warm posthumous relationship with her father, the first Macon Dead. Unbeknownst to her, she has been carrying her father's bones in her green sack, the sack which she believes contains the bones of a white man her brother Macon killed, and which Milkman and Guitar steal from her, believing it contains gold. Milkman tells her that she has been carrying her father's bones, and together they bury those bones on Solomon's Leap, where Pilate is fatally shot by Guitar.
Ruth Foster Dead
Ruth Foster Dead is the daughter of the first Black doctor in the city and the wife of Macon Dead. After her estrangement from her husband, Ruth undergoes a long period of sexual deprivation, broken only by the brief time when Pilate's spells are working on Macon. Pilate also helps Ruth protect her unborn child from Macon's violence. After her son is born, Ruth nurses him until he is four years old, when her husband's employee Freddie discovers her. Ruth also indulges in overnight visits to her father's grave; on one of these visits, her son Milkman follows her and she tells him her version of her behavior at her father's deathbed. In contrast to Macon, she says that she was only kneeling at her father's bed while she was in her slip, kissing his fingers. Though Ruth seems resigned to her fate, she does confront Hagar when she learns of Hagar's attempts to kill Milkman, and she forces Macon to give her money for Hagar's funeral. Morrison calls her "a pale but complicated woman given to deviousness and ultra-fine manners."
Freddie is Macon's employee. He is the one who broadcasts news of Robert Smith's death to the Black community, catches Ruth nursing Milkman, tells Macon that Milkman has been at Pilate's house, and tells Milkman that Guitar has been hanging around with a dubious character, Empire State.
Hagar is Pilate's granddaughter. Five years older than Milkman, she has a relationship with him for fourteen years. When Milkman breaks off their relationship, she tries to kill him, then sinks into a deep depression. Believing that Milkman prefers pale, white-looking women, Hagar goes on a manic shopping spree to try to acquire the dominant culture's standards of beauty. After most of what she buys is ruined in a downpour, Hagar falls into a fever from which she never recovers, and dies soon afterward.
Grace is a friend of Susan Byrd's. Her presence prevents Susan from telling Milkman all she knows about their shared ancestry. She flirts with Milkman, then steals his watch.
Porter is one of the Seven Days. He has a nervous breakdown on the same day that Macon evicts Guitar's grandmother from her house. Later, he becomes Corinthians's lover.
Reba is Pilate's daughter and Hagar's mother. She has extraordinary luck, winning contests, lotteries, and raffles. She lives "from orgasm to orgasm" and is described as looking "as though her simplicity might also be vacuousness."
One of the Seven Days, Robert Smith jumps to his death from Mercy Hospital at the beginning of the novel.
Empire State is an elective mute, and one of the Seven Days. He stopped speaking when he found his French wife in bed with another man, and he gets his name because he just stands around and sways.
Hospital Tommy, the other owner of the barbershop, is also one of the Seven Days. A veteran of World War I, he talks "like an encyclopedia."
Railroad Tommy, also a veteran of World War I, owns the barbershop, and is one of the Seven Days. Early in the novel, he tells Guitar and Milkman all the things they will never experience when they complain about not being served a beer.
In some respects, Milkman's story is a classic Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story about the moral and psychological development of the main character. However, Milkman is thirty-two when he finally comes of age, unlike traditional heroes and heroines of the Bildungsroman. In part, Milkman postpones his adulthood because he is comfortable as the pampered only son of an upper-middle-class family. But Milkman also resists the sense of connection and commitment to others that are required of adults. As he seeks the lost gold, he discovers instead his family's history: the ambivalent legacy of his great-grandfather, who abandons his family to fly back to Africa, the injustice of his grandfather's murder, the Indian roots of his grandmother, and the child his father had been. He begins to define himself as the descendant of a man who could fly, but also to recognize the costs of his great-grandfather's transcendence. In so doing, he learns his duty to his family and community. One major turning point occurs when he is lost in the woods, and he realizes that "[a]pparently he thought he deserved only to be loved—from a distance, though—and given what he wanted. And in return he would be … what? Pleasant? Generous? Maybe all he was really saying was: I am not responsible for your pain; share your happiness with me but not your unhappiness." Milkman's growth into maturity depends on his realization that in order to share the happiness of others, he must also share their unhappiness and that in some cases he is in fact responsible for the pain of others. It is this lesson that he learns throughout the course of the novel, ultimately becoming a mature, responsible adult.
Atonement and Forgiveness
Closely related to Milkman's coming-of-age is his quest for atonement and forgiveness. He begins to see how selfish he has been, taking from his mother and his sisters, coldly casting his lover off, feeling like he doesn't deserve the few things people ask of him. In order to get the gold, he had been prepared to assault Pilate, a woman who has only been generous to him, an intention of which he is deeply ashamed. But Pilate also teaches him how to seek atonement, for it is Pilate who has returned to the cave for the bones of the man her brother killed, knowing that once you take another human life, you own it. Milkman tries to live up to this, taking a box of Hagar's hair home with him as a way of seeking to atone for his actions. He also hopes to reconcile his fractured family, inspiring forgiveness among them, but he cannot. Morrison shows the limits of atonement and forgiveness when she writes that Milkman's newfound knowledge does not change those around him.
The class conflict in the novel manifests itself in the relationships of those in the novel. Macon Dead feels ashamed of his lower-class status in relation to his wife and father-in-law. Milkman feels estranged from other Blacks by virtue of his privileged position. Macon feels that his sister threatens his newfound propriety. Guitar's killing rage is in part directed toward Milkman's inherited advantages, and toward Milkman's blase attitude to life. Corinthians feels ashamed of her poor lover, Porter. Class jealousy, superiority, and shame prevent the characters from having close relationships with each other; although in relation to whites, they are only recognized as having one status: being colored, which is something brought home to Milkman when he is picked up by police for no particular reason other than his race.
Language and Meaning
A continuing preoccupation in the novel is language and meaning, particularly with regard to names and naming. The Deads get their name because of the mistake of a drunk Yankee soldier, yet they claim it anyway. Milkman eventually dicovers his family history through his interpretation of the words of a childhood game. Pilate's name comes from the Bible, and she keeps it in a box that dangles from her ear. The Blacks of Southside try to claim the power of naming by calling Mains Avenue Doctor Street. When they are told that it is not Doctor Street, they call it Not Doctor Street, continuing to honor Doctor Foster while acknowledging their powerlessness to name the streets of the city. Language, then, is a double-edged sword: it is imposed on African Americans, but they must claim it, make it their own, and find meaning in it.
The main motif in Song of Solomon is flying: the novel begins with Robert Smith's flight from the roof of Mercy Hospital and ends with Milkman's flight from Solomon's Leap. The motif of flight is a complicated one: it represents transcendence as well as loss. Milkman's great-grandfather Solomon was able to transcend his circumstances by flying back to Africa, but in doing so he abandoned his wife and children. Milkman finds a better example of flight in Pilate, who can fly without leaving the ground.
Though the main focus of Song of Solomon is Milkman's story, the narrator repeatedly turns to other stories to show how they intersect with Milkman's story. The narrative jumps back and forth in time to give the reader the necessary background for understanding the current situation being discussed. For example, in chapter nine the narrative shifts to the story of Corinthians and her affair with Henry Porter. When Milkman realizes that Porter is a member of the Seven Days, he tells his father about the affair, and Macon reacts punitively, forbidding Corinthians from leaving the house and evicting Porter and garnishing his wages. This provokes Lena to confront Milkman, which in turn spurs him to leave home.
Another aspect of the narration is the point of view of the narrator, which, as Catherine Rainwater noted in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, sometimes merges "with that of a character, but later undercuts or problematizes this point of view by presenting its alternatives." Though the narrator of Song of Solomon seems omniscient, all-knowing, in fact the narrator does not present any absolute truths, only the narrow perspectives of the characters. In this way, readers are forced to interpret the history and the meaning of the story's events and the character's lives for themselves, just as Milkman does when he hears the song of Solomon.
The Bildungsroman is the classic Western coming-of-age novel. The Bildungsroman usually presents a young hero struggling to find his identity. In Milkman's case, he is at thirty-two much older than the classic Bildungsroman hero, but Morrison shows how Milkman's race, class, and natural inclination to passivity keep him trapped in his carefree boyhood until events in the story compel him to grow up. Cynthia A. Davis writes in Toni Morrison that "Milkman's life follows the pattern of the classic hero, from miraculous birth … through quest journey to final reunion with his double" as Milkman comes of age. The Bildungsroman is sometimes called the "novel of education" or "apprenticeship novel." In this case, Milkman's education is not the formal education he learns in school, but an education in his family's mythic past. He apprentices himself to his mythic great-grandfather and learns to fly as a result.
Topics for Further Study
- One of the catalysts for Guitar's increased involvement in politics is the Emmett Till case. Discuss the impact of Emmett Till's lynching on the political involvement of Blacks at the time.
- Song of Solomon appeared at the same time that the miniseries Roots was playing on television. Compare Morrison's text to Alex Haley's book, Roots, considering a topic such as the authors' treatment of African-American folklore, portrayal of male characters, or characterization in general.
- Choose one of the scenes in the book, and write about how you would stage it as a scene from a play.
- Imagine that Milkman has researched his mother's family history, and write an imaginary history of the Fosters.
Post-World War I America
Though Song of Solomon is set during the 1950s and 60s, much of its action results from events that happened at the turn of the century, including the Great Migration and World War I and its aftermath. The Great Migration involved the movement of millions of southern Blacks to the ur-ban North in search of jobs and freedom in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. In her novel, Morrison gives voice to one of those families, the Deads, showing their progression from Virginia to Pennsylvania to Michigan. Likewise, Guitar has left the South with his family after his father's death, and no doubt many of the other inhabitants of Southside are relatively recent migrants from the rural South. The Great Migration, though it represented marginal material progress, is also portrayed by Morrison, among others, as representing the loss of a traditional rural culture. Certainly her characterization of Macon Dead, whose loss of his father and his rural lifestyle makes him emotionally stingy and materially greedy, represents this loss.
In addition to heading north, many Blacks enlisted in the armed forces during World War I as a way to improve their status in society. They were subject to discrimination even during their time in the armed forces, but they hoped that the war's end would bring new opportunities in economic life and in civil rights. After all, the war had been waged ostensibly to protect and extend democracy. Instead, the war's end marked a renewal of Ku Klux Klan activities; some Black soldiers were lynched while still in their uniforms. The summer of 1919, after the end of the war, marked the greatest period of interracial strife in the nation's history. In part, the violence escalated because Blacks were more willing to defend themselves from racist attacks. Morrison echoes this in her treatment of the Seven Days, the older members of which are World War I veterans who speak bitterly of their mistreatment on their return. Other Blacks fought back against racism by increasing their level of activism; some historians credit the period immediately following World War I with the birth of the modern-day civil-rights movement.
One of the important moments in Song of Solomon is the moment when Milkman finds Guitar in the barbershop listening to a report about the murder of Emmett Till. Till was a fourteen year old from Chicago visiting Mississippi in 1955. He allegedly whistled at a white woman and was murdered by whites. No one was ever convicted for his murder, but it was one of the catalysts for a renewal of the civil-rights movement. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had been arguing against the legality of segregation in the courts, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and others began using nonviolent direct action to desegregate facilities in the South. In 1963, King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, which inspired many Americans. Shortly there-
after, though, whites bombed a Black church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls. This would later be described as a pivotal moment in the struggle, a moment when many Blacks began to despair that freedom would never be attained. Some civil-rights workers became radicalized, no longer believers in nonviolent action. This is echoed in the character of Guitar, whose violence becomes more acute—and misdi-rected—after the little girls are killed.
Song of Solomon, the first of Toni Morrison's works to become a best-seller, also established her as a major American writer. As Carol Iannone wrote in Commentary, "[i]n Song of Solomon Miss Morrison at last permits herself to work her material through." The novel won Morrison the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977, and though most critics found flaws in the book, on the whole they praised Morrison's blend of fantasy and reality and her use of myths and folktales to portray Black life. In an early review, Anne Tyler commented, "I would call the book poetry, but that would seem to be denying its considerable power as a story. Whatever name you give it, it's full of magnificent people, each of them complex and multi-layered, even the narrowest of them narrow in extravagant ways." Other critics have also praised the power of her language; Vivian Garnick, in The Village Voice, wrote that "[t]he world she creates is thick with an atmosphere through which her characters move slowly, in pain, ignorance and hunger. And to a very large degree Morrison has the compelling ability to make one believe that all of us … are penetrating that dark and hurtful ter-rain—the feel of a human life—simultaneously." New York Times Book Review contributor Reynolds Price praised the novel's "negotiations with fantasy, fable, song and allegory" as "organic, continuous and unpredictable," while Maureen Howard noted in The Hudson Review that Song of Solomon is both "rich in its use of common speech" and "sophisticated in its use of literary traditions and language."
Compare & Contrast
- 1963: President Kennedy is assassinated, plung ing all Americans into mourning.
1970s: President Nixon resigns after being implicated in the Watergate scandal.
Today: President Clinton is impeached, becoming the butt of jokes because of his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
- 1963: Civil rights leader Medgar Evers is as sassinated and his assailant brags about the murder before being acquitted by an all-white jury.
1970s: Americans of all colors are inspired by the television miniseries Roots.
Today: Byron de la Beckwith, the murderer of Medgar Evers, is sentenced to life in prison by a mixed-race jury.
- 1963: Many schools are still racially segregated by law.
1970s: Because of "white flight" to the suburbs, many schools become resegregated.
Today: Some Blacks begin to question the value of integration and instead work to strengthen all-Black institutions.
Song of Solomon was the first of Morrison's books to have a male hero, but some critics, including Vivian Garnick, have written that Milkman never really comes to life as a character. Some scholars, including Reynolds Price and Bill Moyers, have also wondered at Morrison's exclusion of white characters, but as Cynthia Price wrote, "the destructive effect of the white society can take the form of outright physical violence, but oppression in Morrison's world is more often psychic violence. She rarely depicts white characters, for the brutality here is less a single act than the systematic denial of Black lives." Price noted that Morrison's artistic challenge is one in which her characters must act in spite of the limitations placed on them, and that Morrison turns to myth because of, as Roger Rosenblatt suggested, its "acknowledgement of external limitation and the anticipation of it."
Critics have also commented on the "diffuse" nature of the narrative; as Rainwater pointed out, "Chapter 4, for example, skips to Milkman's adulthood, some twelve years after the events of the previous chapter. However, almost immediately, the narrator begins to search backward through time to account for the present. This attempt, however, laterally deflects attention onto the stories of other characters. Before the chapter concludes, the narrative has taken at least four different directions in an effort to amass information convergent upon, and apparently explanatory of, Milkman's life." Some early critics, such as Newsweek's Margo Jefferson, saw "a structural conflict between these embellishments and the demands of Macon's tale which weakens the focus" but later critics have seen, with A. Leslie Harris of MELUS, that the plot is not "meandering and confused" but rather "enhanced by its very discontinuity." Harris called Morrison's subplots "meticulously articulated," and with other later critics, saw Morrison's inclusion of the stories of other characters as enriching the novel as a whole.
In addition to noting the parallels between Milkman's story and the myth of Icarus, recent critics have examined the implications of Morrison's use of an African-American folktale as a source for her flying African, Solomon. As Michael Awkward noted in Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality, the most common variants of this tale present a group of flying Africans, who undertake a communal exodus. By contrast, Morrison's version of the myth presents a solitary flyer and, "while the narrative suggests that the offspring of the legendary Solomon do not perceive themselves as adversely affected by his act—they, in fact, construct praise songs in recognition of his accomplishments—his mate Ryna, who bears his twenty-one children, is so aggrieved by her loss that she goes mad." As Cynthia A. Davis maintained in Toni Morrison, this artistic choice makes Morrison's version of the Icarus story a conflict "between 'absolute' freedom and social responsibility," suggesting Morrison's alteration of Western ideas and forms to fit the concerns of the Black community.
Song of Solomon remains one of Morrison's most well-regarded works, as well as a novel beloved by readers. In the twenty-three years since its publication, its positive critical reputation has grown even stronger, and it continues to be read, taught, and studied.
Jane Elizabeth Dougherty
Dougherty is a Ph.D. candidate at Tufts University. In the following essay, she discusses Morrison's depictions of the male characters in Song of Solomon.
In Toni Morrison, Cynthia A. Davis writes that the narrative trajectories of Toni Morrison's novels are driven by "the Black characters' choices within the context of oppression." In Song of Solomon, as Jill Matus notes in her Toni Morrison, Morrison investigates "how Black men in America survive and how they position themselves in relation to dominant social and political structures" as well as to their own families and communities. Morrison presents the limited array of choices available to Black men through her portrayals of three living Black men, Milkman and Macon Dead and Guitar Bains, and through her mythic evocation of Dead ancestors, the first Macon Dead and his father, Solomon. As Matus notes, each man must either choose between "fight" and "flight" or find some way to combine the two alternatives. In this essay, I will examine each of the "choices within the context of oppression" that the Black male characters make as a way of illuminating Morrison's concerns in Song of Solomon.
Though Morrison's novel is a coming-of-age story, it follows the coming-of-age of a character, Milkman Dead, who is thirty-two years old and has been able to avoid making any choices about his life. Milkman is trapped by the circumstances of his life: within his family and the Black community, he is privileged and pampered, but in the larger world, he is limited by his race. He is separated from the Black community by his class, and hindered from advancing in the larger world by his race. As a result, Milkman avoids making choices or commitments, and is disconnected from his community. As Guitar notes, "[y]ou don't live nowhere. Not Not Doctor Street or Southside." Milkman doesn't "live" on Not Doctor Street, the home of his family, because of the negative history between his parents, but he is also disconnected from South-side, the working class Black community, because of his privilege. Indeed, Milkman's father, Macon, owns rental property in Southside and does not hesitate to evict tenants who have not paid their rent, as he does to Guitar's grandmother in one early scene.
Macon is portrayed by Morrison as angry and harsh, but throughout the course of the story we develop some sympathy for him. We learn that Ma-con's father valued many of the same things that Macon does, but that his death perverted Macon's values. Morrison writes of Milkman's realization that
[a]s the son of Macon Dead the first, he paid homage to his own father's life and death by loving what his father loved: property, good solid property, the bountifulness of life. He loved these things to excess because he loved his father to excess. Owning, building, acquiring—that was his life, his future, his present, and all the history he knew. That he distorted life, bent it, for the sake of gain, was a measure of his loss at his father's death.
Milkman's father, the second Macon Dead, loves what his father loved, but he also makes choices to try to keep himself safe from his father's fate. Instead of competing with whites, as the first Macon Dead did, he exploits his fellow Blacks. This is a historically accurate portrait of the Black middle class during this period; unlike today, the Black middle class of the 40s, 50s and 60s mostly worked in, and earned their living from, the Black community. But Macon's harshness toward the members of that community also separates him from it, in contrast to his father. An early scene in the novel has Macon listening to his estranged sister singing, emphasizing the joy and life that Ma-con has given up for the sake of propriety. Unlike the men of his father's community, the Blacks of Southside do not see Macon's success as belonging to them in any way, perhaps because his success comes at their expense. By contrast, the first Macon Dead was an example to all, as Milkman learns when he journeys to Danville and meets his grandfather's contemporaries:
He had come out of nowhere, as ignorant as a hammer and as broke as a convict, with nothing but free papers, a Bible, and a pretty black-haired wife, and in one year he'd leased ten acres, the next ten more. Sixteen years later he had one of the best farms in Montour County. A farm that colored their lives like a paintbrush and spoke to them like a sermon. "You see?" the farm said to them. "See? See what you can do? Never mind you can't tell one letter from another, never mind you born a slave, never mind you lose your name, never mind your daddy dead, never mind nothing. Here, this here, is what a man can do if he puts his mind to it and his back to it. Stop sniveling," it said. "Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can't take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this country right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in this rock, don't you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home you got one too!"
The first Macon Dead's triumph tells the men of Danville to "stop picking around the edges of the world." By contrast, his son Macon knows that "as a Negro he [isn't] going to get a big slice of the pie" and is content with the "bit of pie filling oozing around the edge of the crust." Macon's caution comes from the trauma of his father's death: the first Macon Dead was killed by whites who wanted his farm. Though he sat with a shotgun for five days and nights, willing to fight for his farm and his family, the first Macon Dead still couldn't protect himself or what he owned. In a world in which whites control both the courts and the culture, Macon's choice to fight resulted in his death, a death which haunts his descendants.
The first Macon Dead's choice to fight is contrasted with the choice of his father, Solomon, who chooses flight. The first Macon Dead claims his right to an American life, while his father has despaired of ever being accepted into American society and flown back to Africa. This action, which Morrison bases on an African-American folktale, is both a celebration and a loss; as Michael Awkward notes in his Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality, "the empowered Afro-American's flight, celebrated in a blues song whose decoding catapults Milkman into self-conscious maturity, is a solitary one … He leaves his loved ones, including his infant son Jake, whom he tries unsuccessfully to carry with him, with the task of attempting to learn for themselves the secrets of transcendence." In giving up the fight for a place in American society, Solomon also abandons his American-born offspring. This corresponds with Milkman's own quest for flight, in which he abandons his lover Hagar and abdicates his familial and communal responsibilities.
Throughout the novel, in fact, Milkman's friend Guitar Bains reminds Milkman that he should feel a sense of connection to his community. Guitar himself takes the "fight" strategy to its logical extreme; he defines "self-defense" as defense of the community, and charges himself with keeping the ratio of Blacks and whites constant through "eye for an eye" justice. Yet Guitar also rejects love and familial ties, and in what A. Leslie Harris calls "his total commitment to death," ultimately tries to kill his "brother" Milkman. Guitar justifies his violence by arguing that it comes from love, but he separates himself from the very community he claims to be protecting. In her portrayal of Guitar, Morrison suggests that the "fight" strategy costs too much, just as in her portrayal of Solomon, she suggests that "flight" comes at too high a price.
In her portrayal of Milkman, Morrison begins to suggest a viable strategy for Black men struggling in a racist society. Milkman honors both the "fight" and "flight" strategies, as Matus notes when she writes that "the alternatives of flight and fight come together in the final scene of the novel" when "as fleet and bright as a lodestar [Milkman] wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother." Milkman has learned to honor both strategies by coming to respect his ancestors, who were forced to choose between the two, and through his love for Pilate, who has fought for his life and who could fly without leaving the ground. He has also learned a deep appreciation for the power of language, which Morrison seems to argue is the most effective strategy of both fight and flight. It is through language that the past can be acknowledged, mourned, celebrated, resisted, and transcended. Milkman realizes that names, words and stories can keep the past alive in spite of death: "Shalimar left [his children], but it was the children who sang about it and kept the story of his leaving alive." It is through a sense of commitment and respect for the past, then, that Milkman, unlike his ancestors, can both fly and fight.
Source: Jane Elizabeth Dougherty, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
In the following essay, Matus considers the significance of father figures, and particularly the theme of the loss of fathers, in Song of Solomon.
Song of Solomon (1977) is a novel about fathers, or more specifically, the loss of fathers. At its heart are two revelatory incidents of traumatic loss which govern the novel's investigation of the history and future of African American men in relation to society and their own families. A brother and sister, Pilate and Macon Dead (the second), witness their father being shot to death by greedy white neighbours who resent his prosperity and covet his land. But this father himself experienced the traumatic loss of his father, who, legend has it, decided to fly away from America and his condition of enslavement. He attempted to take his baby son Jake with him, but dropped the child a few moments after he took off in flight back to Africa. His bereft wife lost her mind through grief and the child was reared by others. Knowledge of the second of these traumas, withheld almost to the close of the novel, explains not only the riddle on which the novel turns, but reveals the generational transmission of traumatic effects that hampers all the Dead men, descendants of Jake, who is also known as the first Macon Dead. The multivalent meanings of Solomon's flight in the novel allow Morrison to celebrate an early and marvellous escape from slavery, while also registering the trauma of those who must function without the father. Though Solomon's flight may offer inspiration as a version of the celebratory legend of the Flying African, the novel also emphasises the grief and mourning of those who were abandoned.
The trauma of the father's abandonment or death infects the descendants of Solomon—as it does the text—with a series of distortions in memory and obstacles to interpretation. Among these, for example, is the cryptic admonition that Pilate's father utters when he appears to her on a number of occasions after his death. Guiltily, she interprets his saying that you can't just fly off and leave a body as an injunction to return to the bones of the man she and Macon left dead in the cave. When we later learn the history of Jake, we understand that his poignant refrain relates repeatedly the central loss of his own childhood—the fact that he was the body left when his father flew off. Another example is the name of Macon Dead, created by a slip of the pen. Failing to fill the information in the correct boxes, the Yankee clerk at the Freedmen's Bureau takes the place of origin as the first name, writing the condition of the father in the box for the surname. Though one point about this history of naming is that a careless drunk official has the power to change the name of a family, another, and more significant, point is that the new name further emphasises the death of the father. Like the riddle of the children's song, which tells the story of Solomon's flight but cannot be understood until Milkman can hear it properly, the name 'Dead' is a riddle, which also draws attention to the question of the father's survival. In Milkman's world, the 1930s to the 1960s, the father is 'already Dead'. Milkman tells his friend Guitar about the naming:
'Say, you know how my old man's daddy got his name?'
'Uh uh. How?'
'Cracker gave it to him.'
'Yep. And he took it. Like a fuckin sheep. Somebody should have shot him.'
'What for? He was already Dead.'
In the genealogy of the Deads, the trauma of paternal loss reveals one father who flew away and one who died violently at the hands of whites while trying to make good in America. The two instances record different responses to life in racist America, each of which entails traumatic consequences—Solomon miraculously flies off, becoming a symbol of transcendence and escape, but bequeathing also a legacy of bereavement, loss and forgetting; Jake stands his ground but is cut down, leaving his family similarly bereft. Both modes raise the question of how black men in America survive and how they position themselves in relation to dominant social and political structures. In confronting the loss of the father, Morrison's novel looks at the ways in which the history of its consequences might be rewritten.
The extent to which the novel is focused on the traumatic loss of the father may be gauged in the narrator's accounts of Macon Dead's death. Early in the novel, after Milkman has returned from talking with his strange aunt Pilate, whom his father has forbidden him to visit, Milkman raises the question of his grandfather's death. In the course of this clandestine visit, Pilate has given Milkman her account of her father's violent death and now Macon is moved to remember and talk about the event:
His son's questions had shifted the scenery. He was seeing himself at twelve, standing in Milkman's shoes and feeling what he himself had felt for his own father. The numbness that had settled on him when he saw the man he loved and admired fall off the fence; something wild ran through him when he watched the body twitching violently in the dirt.
The death of the first Macon Dead affects not only his son, but, as Milkman later learns, an entire community of men who took Macon as an exemplum of success and self-improvement. Talking to the men of his father's generation in Danville, Pennsylvania, Milkman functions as
the ignition that gunned their memories. The good times, the hard times, things that changed, things that stayed the same—and head and shoulders above all of it was the tall, magnificent Macon Dead, whose death, it seemed to him, was the beginning of their own dying even though they were young boys at the time. Macon Dead was the farmer they wanted to be, the clever irrigator, the peach-tree grower, the hog slaughterer….
Macon Dead seems to preach to them in the same style in which Baby Suggs in [Morrison's] Beloved will speak to the feed slaves. Whereas she tells black folk that they have to love themselves because no one else is going to love their flesh, Ma-con's farm and attitude to life speak of helping oneself:
We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this country right here. Nowhere else!… Grab it. Grab this land. Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on—can you hear me? Pass it on!
But, the narrator continues, 'they shot the top of his head off and ate his fine Georgia peaches. And even as boys these men began to die and were dying still'.
Macon Dead (the second) takes to heart that injunction to 'rent it, buy it, sell it, own it' by becoming a heartless landlord. Setting great store by the symbols of power and success—the keys in his pocket, the big Packard in which he takes the family for a joyless Sunday ride—he relentlessly pursues the bourgeois dream. Only his visit to Pilate, secretly at night in order to hear her sing with her daughter and granddaughter, suggests the vestigeal remains of an emotional life. 'As Macon felt himself softening under the weight of memory and music, the song died down'. For the most part, Macon Dead has spent his life suffering from a dissociation of feeling. Milkman meditates on his father's life:
And his father. An old man now, who acquired things and used people to acquire more things. As the son of Macon Dead the first, he paid homage to his own father's life and death by loving what that father had loved: property, good solid property, the bountiful-ness of life. He loved these things to excess because he loved his father to excess. Owning, building, ac-quiring—that was his life, his future, his present, and all the history he knew. That he distorted life, bent it, for the sake of gain, was a measure of his loss at his father's death.
The loss of the father as a central concern of the novel is also expressed in the case of Guitar Bains—'my father died when I was four. That was the first leaving and the hardest'. Bains's father dies from traumatic amputation—his body is sawn in half in an accident that exposes the exploitation of 'coloured' workers in unsafe working conditions. The children are given a sack of 'Divinity'—candy to recompense them for the loss of their father, and forever afterwards Guitar is sick to his stomach at the thought, let alone the taste, of sweet things. However, he confesses later in the novel that it was not really the candy that made him sick but his mother's smiling gratitude for the four ten-dollar bills that the foreman gave her. Guitar recalls the horrific sight of his father, lying in the coffin, his body sliced vertically in two halves, and the fact that his mother bought the children peppermint rock with some of the money the sawmill owner gave her. In Guitar's reckoning there are no blandishments, no sweet things capable of buying off black claim and rage. 'Don't let them Kennedys fool you' is the warning that concludes this account of his father. His desire for the gold that Milkman believes now hangs in a sack in Pilate's house is not cupidity but vengeance—he wants it to fund the Seven Days' reprisal activities.
The quest motif in the novel, to which critics have drawn much attention, is specifically a quest to understand the father's trauma and the genealogy of the paternal line. By following the trail that brings him to understand the fate of his grandfather and great-grandfather, Milkman feels 'on his own skin', as it were, the inextricability of personal and public history. To understand the trauma of the lost father in the Dead genealogy is to recognise the forces of history that have produced that trauma. If history is 'precisely the way we are implicated in each other's traumas' then the personal, quotidian, mythological history of Milkman's family is not just Dead history; it implicates a wide range of others and it is relevant not only in the context of the novel, but also to the 1990s. Morrison engages Milkman in his people's collective history by sending him on a quest for his own familial, paternal past. It is indeed a quest to raise the Dead fathers. When Milkman is alone in the forest during the night of hunting, it is as if he is protected and aided by a mothering grandfather: 'Down either side of his thighs he felt the sweet gum's surface roots cradling him like the rough but maternal hands of a grandfather'. The quest functions as quests traditionally do, and Milkman predictably recovers pride in his heritage, wisdom to face difficult tasks, and a newly crystallising sense of identity. '"My great granddaddy could fly! Goddam!… He didn't need no airplane. Didn't need no fuckin tee double you ay. He could fly his own self!"'
Milkman was born, we recall, to discover the meanings of flight. His mother went into labour at the time that Robert Smith leapt from the top of a building in what appears initially to be a suicidal imitation of Icarus. Smith's cryptic note, 'I will take off from Mercy and fly away on my own wings. Please forgive me. I loved you all' cannot be decoded until much later in the novel when we understand his involvement with the Seven Days, but it serves usefully at the outset of the novel to raise questions about flying, and in particular, flying away. Milkman's governing desire as a child is to fly, to the extent that when he learns humans are not fitted for it, he is profoundly disappointed: 'To live without that single gift saddened him and left his imagination so bereft that he appeared dull even to the women who did not hate his mother'. Flight, however, as Morrison gradually reveals in the novel, is not always what it seems. Whereas Robert Smith looked like a 'nutwagon', an Insurance Agent who had flipped out, he turns out to be a member of the Seven Days, strained to the point of suicide because he is unable to deal with the pressures of his commitment. The Seven Days is a group that responds in kind to racial violence, representing the 'fight' rather than 'flight' alternative to oppression and persecution. Milkman's grandfather, Solomon, represents the alternative of 'flight'. The alternatives of flight and fight come together in the final scene of the novel as Milkman leaps into the air to grapple with Guitar—an act of confronting, surrendering and soaring.
Yet even as Morrison allows Milkman to experience elevation and pride in the legends of his flying ancestor, the text does not lose sight of the loss on the other side of celebration. For every joyous escape, every transcendent flyer, there is a grounded wife and mother. For every Leap there is a Gulch, a Ryna for a Solomon. The quintessential 'blue note' in the Solomon myth is Ryna, whose weeping and wailing symbolises the distress of those left behind. Morrison therefore uses the myth of the flying African both to celebrate and to mourn. As Milkman discovers that he is the successor of his flying forebear, the reader begins to see the hapless Hagar as a latter-day incarnation of her ancestor, Ryna. When Milkman hears the song the children are singing in the playground, his recriminations about Hagar are associated with the line that bemoans Solomon's leaving: 'And she stood there like a puppet strung up by a puppet master who had gone off to some other hobby. O Solomon don't leave me here'. And when Susan Byrd is telling Milkman the history of Solomon and Ryna she remarks,
You don't hear of women like that anymore, but there used to be more—the kind of woman who couldn't live without a particular man. And when the man left they lost their minds, or died or something. Love, I guess, but I always thought it was trying to take care of the children by themselves, you know what I mean?
Hagar is the price of Milkman's ticket to self-understanding and maturation, just as Ryna and her children were the price of Solomon's triumphant flight.
In the light of ongoing debates about father-lessness in relation to African American families (debates initiated to a large extent by the Moynihan report of the 1960s and manifested in the 1990s in Louis Farrakhan's orchestration of a 'million man march' on Washington) Morrison's novel speaks to concerns about male commitment and responsibility. In some ways, Songs of Solomon can be characterized as a mythologising of desertion. Solomon gives leaving a good name because his reasons for escape are inarguable and his mode of leaving is spectacular enough to command awe, inspiration and celebration. Rather than pathologise the father who leaves, Morrison recovers the history of good reasons for taking flight. The flying African myth also functions her as a consolatory myth—men leave, but they do so in response to intolerable pressures and constraints.
In its multiple versions, the myth of the flying African does not necessarily focus on the father. There are many myths dealing with escape from slavery: the Ibo version is that the people who arrived in America took one look at what life would be like there and simply turned round and walked back over the water to Africa. Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow draws on this version. Virginia Hamilton's The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales has a tale about the power of flight in which a young slave woman successfully flies away with her baby. With the magic words, 'Kum … yali, kum buba tambe' she takes to the air and escapes the cruelty of the overseer. Morrison's particular deployment of this well-known escape myth is therefore significant. She chooses to make her flying African the father of twenty-one sons, who leaves his wife and family. Instead of invoking only the familiar blues theme—a woman bemoaning her abandonment; a man leaving a woman—Morrison puts a new and favourable spin on the history of male peripateticism.
At the same time, however, that Morrison's version of the myth places emphasis on the man's miraculous flight and on the woman's loyalty and love, she also draws attention to the fact that women are left to bear the brunt of the desertion. Though Susan Byrd affirms that women who die of grief for their men are few and far between—'You don't hear of women like that anymore, but there used to be more'—she certainly has a point in her initial understanding of the grief and madness of women like Ryna: 'I always thought it was trying to take care of the children by themselves, you know what I mean?'. The myth of the flyaway father offers a grand drama of male escape and female pining, but in more quotidian terms, whatever the provocation to escape, Solomon does leave Ryna holding the baby—twenty-one of them, in fact.
Once in touch with his history, Milkman's pride in his flying ancestor alerts him now to the significance of the place names: 'He read the signs with interest now, wondering what lay beneath the names. The Algonquins had named the territory he lived in Great Water, michi gami. How many dead lives and fading memories were buried in and beneath the names of the places in this country'. He can now make sense and knowledge of the random facts he knows: 'He closed his eyes and thought of the black men in Shalimar, Roanoke, Petersburg, Newport News, Danville, in the Blood Bank, on Darling Street, in the pool halls, the barbershops. Their names. Names they got from yearnings, gestures, flaws, events, mistakes, weaknesses. Names that bore witness'. Possessing some history, and aware of how much more awaits excavation, Milkman is newly and appropriately empowered. It is as if the rekindling of memory, fading but embedded in oral histories, has animated those dead lives and consequently the Dead fathers come to life in Milkman's possession. He now presents the strongest contrast to his increasingly desperate friend Guitar, who is also struggling to memorialise a dead father and to vindicate the dead, the casualties of racism….
When Milkman returns from the quest that has presumably altered his relationship to his history, his family and himself, we learn that his mother is thankful that he is unhurt, and Lena, 'though unforgiving as ever, was civil enough to him since Corinthians had moved to a small house in South-side, which she shared with Porter'. Although Milkman returns from his quest having experienced a wonderful reciprocal relationship with Sweet, his new-found awareness of female needs and entitlements seems superficial. He berates himself for the death of Hagar and realises that the women in his life have done so much for him and that he has never so much as made them a cup of coffee, but there is not much to suggest that the situation of women is altered. The law of the father—even, of course, the Dead father—is that women serve, love, wait and suffer abuse or abandonment.
Unsurprisingly, mothers are marginally significant in this novel about fathers: Ruth's father is her only important parent; Pilate's mother dies giving birth and is little remembered by her elder brother, Macon Dead. Her only significance is her name 'Sing' and her Native American status, which allows Morrison (through Susan Byrd and her friend Grace Long) to give a condensed account of hybridity and intermixing in African American genealogy. Pilate is an exception in the novel as a free-standing woman, whose knowledge and way of seeing the world provides a contrast to the bourgeois values Macon has adopted, and who represents a matrilineal line. Although there is something free and exciting about her household of women, its nutritional and other eccentricities, wonderful singing, and hand-to-mouth existence, Pilate's line neither thrives nor survives. Her descendants become less independent and self-possessed. Her daughter Reba, who shares many qualities with Hannah Peace in Sula, lives for pleasure, and although wonderful, winning and generous, is never quite an adult. As she lies dying, Pilate enjoins Milkman to look after her daughter. And whether we see Hagar as constrained by a crude determinism in the novel that constitutes her as an incarnation of her grieving, mind-tossed maternal ancestor, Ryna, or whether we see her as a version of Pecola in her absorption of white consumer culture, she too is an increasingly pathetic, doomed woman. Whereas Milkman's quest serves to raise the Dead fathers through possession of paternal history, the mothers, daughters and wives associated with the Dead are yet to be raised. The ways of Pilate, who could fly without leaving the ground, are an inspiration for Milkman—'There's got to be at least one more woman like you'—but in the world of the novel, there are no others like her; nor does she have female descendants who will raise and possess her for their futures.
Source: Jill Matus, "Song of Solomon: Raising Dead Fathers," in Toni Morrison, Manchester University Press, 1998, pp. 72-84.
A. Leslie Harris
In the following essay, Harris asserts that "Morrison's success in making one black man's struggle for identity universal is partly explained by her structural use of myth to show man's constant search for reassurance in myths."
In Song of Solomon Toni Morrison has faced the tale-spinner's recurring problem—making contemporary, localized events and characters speak to those who cannot share her characters' background or experiences. Morrison's solution in this dilemma is not new. She turns to myth to underpin her narrative, but does so without transforming her novel into pure fantasy or overloading her story with literary allusions. Morrison's success in making one black man's struggle for identity universal is partly explained by her structural use of myth to show man's constant search for reassurance in myths.
According to Mircea Eliade, myth is sacred history, the breakthrough of the supernatural or divine into the human to explain the origins, destiny, and cultural concerns of a people. Man, then, has always turned to myth to explain the inexplicable and to tie narratives into a larger cultural and perceptual framework. We would expect our modern predilection for scientific fact, psychological speculation, and historical verification to have supplanted the role of myth in explaining reality. In fact, genuine myth, living myth, has traditionally been associated with primitive societies in which the myth presupposes not "a tale told but a reality lived." Even our sophistication, however, does not preclude our depending on myth for more than entertainment. If we no longer look to myth for reality, we are still drawn to mythopoesis, where gods, heroes, and supernatural conflicts exist on a purely symbolic level, trying us to our past and showing us our origins. Myths become "agents of stability," not restricting us to a specific place or even to a specific culture but using the specific to ponder the enduring questions of all men. Perhaps mythic absolutes reassure us because, as Kerenyi proposes, the constant themes of myth involve not the "why?" (the causes) but the "whence?" (the groundwork of human nature, belief, and endeavor), which remains as timely as it is timeless.
In Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, we have genuine mythopoesis, the mythic impulse shaped and translated into symbolic art. Morrison fuses Afro-American myth with the cultural, moral, and religious beliefs of both the Judeo-Christian and the Greco-Roman heritages to fashion her own myth. She does not simply rework archetypes but blends the natural with the supernatural and the historically factual with the fantastic. More particularly, she selects one of the oldest and most pervasive mythic themes, the hero and his quest, to inform and control her narrative structure.
In Song of Solomon Morrison creates a world both realistic and dreamlike, peopled with amusing, endearing, quirky, and frightening characters. Her deft handling of high drama, low comedy, and dialogue have all been commended. Her structure, however, has not been as widely appreciated. Song of Solomon is undeniably episodic, but whether the plot is "meandering and confused," lacks linear development, or is enhanced by its very discontinuity is open to question. If we follow Morrison's lead and concentrate on the growth of Macon Dead, known as Milkman because his mother nursed him too long, we find that her novel is cohesive, following the clear pattern of birth and youth, alienation, quest, confrontation, and reintegration common to mythic heroes as disparate as Moses, Achilles, and Beowulf. Such a mythic chronology emphasizes the hero's rejection of and eventual assimilation into his society. Slochower has argued that the hero's victory lies in curbing his early rebelliousness without submitting completely. An Oedipus or a Hamlet attains both tragic and mythic stature by remaining true to himself even as he becomes an agent of the social consciousness. As we watch Milkman grow up and reject the restrictions of his Southside life, we see him undergoing not only psychological and physical maturation but an approximation of the development of a true hero, so that by the end of the novel he knows himself and his obligations to both present and past, to himself and his world.
What Do I Read Next?
- Beloved, Toni Morrison's 1987 novel of a former slave haunted by the ghost of her daughter, won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.
- Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow (1983) is the story of a woman who discovers her family's origins on a small island on the Atlantic Coast.
- Cane, a 1923 work by Jean Toomer, lyrically records the demise of traditional Black Southern life.
- Based on Shakespeare's King Lear, A Thousand Acres (1991) by Jane Smiley tells the tale of a family unraveled by its secrets.
- Published in 1952, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is the classic modernist novel of an African American in search of his identity.
- Rule of the Bone (1996), by Russell Banks, is a coming-of-age novel about a teenager who journeys from upstate New York to Jamaica.
Western man has always looked to childhood as the mythic time, when the individual is closest to his origins. In the novel's opening Morrison toys with this idea by describing Milkman's birth in terms of signs, omens, and portents, and by presenting Milkman's childhood in a rapidly-passed-over series of narrative events resonating with symbolic and archetypal significance. The second stage in Morrison's structure and Milkman's maturation is the period of alienation. Milkman, thirtyish, resentful of, yet dependent on his father, wants to leave home but lacks the resolution to do so. His home, Southside, is both reassuringly familiar and confining, like Milkman's own comfortable but loitering and wasted life. His recognition that he is just drifting and lacks both internal and external coherence in his life directs him toward his third stage of development—a quest. Searching for the gold his father and his Aunt Pilate had found hidden in a Pennsylvania cave many years before becomes less important for Milkman than unraveling his family's tangled and confusing genealogy, meeting those who remember his father and Pilate as children, and, finally, realizing that the song he had heard Pilate sing, the "Song of Solomon" of the title, is a children's retelling, a mythologizing, of his own heritage. In his journey through Pennsylvania and Virginia, Milkman rediscovers himself. However, he cannot complete the final stage of his growth into heroic stature, the return and reintegration into a world whose values he can champion, until he defeats the enemy. This enemy is his boyhood friend and adult nemesis, Guitar, who objectifies Milkman's own denial and despair. The confrontation with Guitar in the Pennsylvania woods represents Milkman's complete reintegration and triumph, so that the Lady-or-the-Tiger quality of an ending that stops as the two combatants meet for a fight to the death is less ambivalent than it appears. The novel does not end with a cliff-hanger; the final battle is both a confrontation and a confirmation, marking Milkman's emergence as a champion who understands and will defend his world.
By examining key passages and symbolic turning points in each of these major stages, we will see how Morrison adopted—but adapted—mythic themes and images in her narrative structure. If the brief summary above indicates that the structure of the novel is chronological, it is a chronology imposed through reordering the events of the novel. The textural richness of the novel derives from a present which spans three generations, with each narrative tied back into the development of the novel's hero. The digressions, explanations, and expansions which interrupt Milkman's own story suggest not a serial or chronological unfolding but an interlace, in which the dominant narrative is embellished and enhanced through meticulously articulated subplots and images threading their way through Milkman's life. It is these embellishments which carry much of the burden of the myth.
The opening pages give us the mandrel on which Morrison forms her own myth. Although many of his observations on living myth in primitive societies do not touch directly on mythopoesis, Otto Rank's discussion of the birth and childhood of the mythic hero illustrates the clear connection of Morrison's hero with a mythic heritage. The young hero is traditionally born after a long period of barrenness, and subterfuge is frequently involved in both his conception and his delivery. Milkman's mother seduces her husband, who had not touched her in thirteen years, with a love potion given her by Pilate and later saves her unborn child's life only through Pilate's intervention. Pilate, a moonshiner and a social outcast, certainly qualifies as a member of the humbler orders, whom Rank identifies as significant attendants at the hero's birth. This interference and trickery make the baby the focus of the father's hostility against his wife.
These mythic parallels are, however, only the basis for Morrison's highly allusive narrative. Milkman is born, the first black baby admitted to Southside's Mercy Hospital, on the day after Mr. Smith, the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent, leaps from the roof of Mercy. As we learn later, Mr. Smith is also one of the Seven Days, a black secret society pledged to avenge any black's murder by the random slaying of a white. Smith tumbles headlong from the roof, vainly flapping homemade blue silk wings as he falls, Icarus-like, to his death. His death signals Milkman's birth. Henceforth, the motifs of Icarus and flight are inextricably connected to the vengeance of the Seven Days. The hero's birth is accompanied by ritualized celebration—his Aunt Pilate singing in the street, and virgins (Milkman's elder sisters) strewing rose petals as a black Icarus dies. But also in attendance is Guitar, the boyhood friend who becomes the Sunday man of the Seven Days and avenges any black slain on a Sunday—until he turns from killing whites to ambushing Milkman. Morrison offsets the Fury-like society of the Seven Days by pairing her Icarus motif of failure and death with references to Lindbergh, drawing together two famous soarers but suggesting that an Icarus' doomed escape must always be balanced by a Daedalus' success. As a child, Milkman yearned to fly and "lost all interest in himself" when he discovered "the same thing Mr. Smith had learned ear-lier—that only birds and airplanes could fly." The novel follows his attempt to overcome this disaffection and learn to fly again, figuratively, if not literally.
Through the use of the Icarus motif, the opening of the book draws together the thematic concerns of a novel, but the second stage of Milkman's growth, the period of both explanation and alienation, illustrates one of the enduring concerns of myth, the need to create order and bring understanding out of apparent chaos. Milkman's heritage is explained in family histories which he tries, resentfully, to shrug aside. His family's past is dead for Milkman, and he feels increasingly stifled by the greed, anger, and frustration of his home. He remains isolated, alienated from his family, his culture, even from Hagar, his cousin who has been his lover since he was seventeen. One morning,
Milkman stood before his mirror and glanced, in the low light of the wall lamp, at his reflection. He was, as usual, unimpressed with what he saw. He had a fine enough face…. But it lacked coherence, a coming together of the features into a total self. It was all very tentative, the way he looked, like a man peeping around a corner of someplace he is not supposed to be, trying to make up his mind whether to go forward or to turn back. The decision he made would be extremely important, but the way in which he made the decision would be careless, haphazard, and uninformed.
Milkman's decisions during this period are indeed haphazard and uninformed. He strikes his father for slapping his mother, tries to break up the one love affair of his forty-year-old, unmarried sister, and determines to send Hagar a Christmas present and farewell letter at once. Rather than acting from any belief or commitment to another, Milkman only reacts. Each event is a rejection—of parental authority, of family ties, of love. He realizes that his "life was pointless, aimless, and it was true that he didn't concern himself an awful lot about other people. There was nothing he wanted bad enough to risk anything for, inconveniencing himself for." Moreover, he thinks constantly of escape, of slamming the door of his father's house and never returning, of flying away. He tells Guitar that he feels increasingly off-center, disaffected by his family and society, and detached from the racial tensions which increasingly control Guitar, who is moving more completely into the circumscribed world of the Seven Days. Milkman accuses Guitar, "You mad at every Negro who ain't scrubbing floors and picking cotton. This ain't Montgomery, Alabama." To which Guitar responds,
"You're right, Milkman. You have never in your life said a truer word. This is definitely not Montgomery, Alabama. Tell me. What would you do if it was? If this turned out to be another Montgomery?"
"Buy a plane ticket."
"Exactly. Now you know something about yourself you didn't know before: who you are and what you are."
"Yeah. A man that refuses to live in Montgomery, Alabama."
"No. A man that can't live there."
But, of course, without knowing what is worth risking everything for, Milkman cannot live anywhere yet. He is like Joyce's young Stephen Daedalus, wanting only to fly away.
The single moment during this period of Milkman's life which best illustrates both his yearnings and his vacillation occurs when Milkman and Guitar see a white peacock perched on the roof of a defunct Buick in Southside. The bird, at once beautiful and ludicrous, cannot fly because, as Guitar says, it has "too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can't nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weights you down." For Guitar, this means abandoning family, friends, and society, and channeling himself completely into the vengeance of the Seven Days. Although Milkman laughingly accedes to Guitar's jeering interpretation, he is fumbling toward a more positive significance for the peacock—escape into adventure. But he does not see that the incongruous juxtaposition of the peacock and used cars suggests how the exotic appears unexpectedly out of the prosaic, just as his quest rises out of Southside and his family. The way to escape Southside is to get money, the gold his Aunt Pilate and father stumbled across in a Pennsylvania cave.
His quest leads Milkman to Pennsylvania and then to Virginia, where he traces his father's and Pilate's youthful wanderings. He meets his father's boyhood friends, who remember the elder Macon Dead as an almost superhuman figure and who accept the success of the father in Southside real estate as an inevitable extension of his youthful exploits and talents. Milkman drinks in their tales of Lincoln's Heaven, the Edenic Pennsylvania farm which still represents to these old men an ideal world, a flourishing, rich farm hacked out of the woods by an ex-slave, Milkman's grandfather. Milkman finds himself continuing the myth, spinning out, to the wonder and delight of his audience, his own elaborate version of his father's efforts to buy the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad.
He next visits the old plantation where his father and aunt had been hidden by a house servant, Circe, after their father was murdered by whites jealous of a black man's success and greedy for Lincoln's Heaven. The narrative becomes progressively eerier when he finds the ancient servant still alive and presiding over the ruins of the estate, supervising its decay, a witch in the land of the dead. More a Sibyl than her siren namesake, Circe guards this entrance into the past. She initiates Milkman into his own past, showing both the power and the destructiveness of his heritage, and channels his rebelliousness into a quest for his own identity. He could not reach the dream-like core of his quest, his journey into Virginia, without direct contact with the world of the past and the dead. Lincoln's Heaven, Circe, and the decayed plantation all represent the past which still exerts its influence on Milkman. Like Aeneas, like Ulysses, Milkman needs to look into his, his family's, and his people's past before he can move into the future. Circe tells Milkman where the cave holding the gold was, how Pilate and Milkman's father argued and opened the rift which has lasted for decades, where Pilate wandered, and where Milkman's grandfather originally came from—Shalimar, Virginia.
Just as contact with the underworld has traditionally meant knowledge for the living, so Circe's revelations turn Milkman south to Virginia where he abandons the search for the missing gold to regain his self-esteem. Shalimar offers new skills to measure self-worth—hunting, fighting, and surviving, the only prowess these Virginians acknowledge. The city man adapts to their code and participates in a midnight cougar hunt where he suddenly realizes that he is being hunted by Guitar, who wants a part of the long-lost gold for the Seven Days and thinks Milkman has found the gold and refuses to share it.
Guitar, the hero's antagonist, threatens the particular virtues and values of the world and the past that Milkman is slowly coming to accept. He is not as much Milkman's opposite as his double, an extension of the very negations Milkman has practiced. Guitar has abandoned his family and his heritage in the South. More importantly, he has rejected love and ties just as Milkman has spurned his family and Hagar. The only brotherhood Guitar acknowledges is the Seven Days, a brotherhood based on death. He is total sterility, wintry and steely in his dedication to vengeance. His name, Guitar, comes from a childhood love of creativity and music which he has denied; Milkman's name suggests the fertility and life which he has been running from. In the dark woods Milkman suddenly understands Guitar and himself. Guitar's total commitment to death is only the logical extension of Milkman's constant attempts to fly away.
Milkman is still not ready to challenge the enemy, and when Guitar's ambush in the Virginia woods fails, the protagonist runs. His return to his own world is thus ambivalent. Although Milkman's relationship to his family and his world improves, his trip brings about no reconciliation between his father and his aunt. The traditional pattern of reintegration and defense of the society cannot be effected, perhaps because he has recognized his own weakness and the values which he tried to deny, but he has not yet fought for them. He returns to Virginia with Pilate to bury his grandfather's bones at Lincoln's Heaven, and there Guitar shoots Pilate, the novel's clearest representative of personal and racial heritage and continuity with the past. The novel ends as Guitar steps from hiding to try, once again, to kill Milkman.
Although the final confrontation offers two possible resolutions, its thematic unity is not ambivalent. If Milkman kills Guitar, then he will return home the conqueror, the hero who has bested his and his society's opponent. If, however, he falls to Guitar, he remains a hero. Milkman himself tells us that he thinks he can beat Guitar in a straight fight but stands little chance if Guitar has a gun, which he has. But success is not the measure of the mythic hero's stature. More frequently than not, he dies in his last battle. The death is less important than its symbolic affirmation of his and his world's values. Hector and Achilles fall, and Beowulf dies to save his people from the dragon. Milkman, too, has to face, within himself, the dragons of despair, nihilism, and sterility. When Milkman leaps toward Guitar, he has already fought and won his battle.
One of Morrison's strengths is the subtlety with which she ties together the stages of her hero's development through imagery, specifically imagery of flight. If the opening consciously evokes the classical myth of Icarus, her subsequent use of this pattern makes it her own. On the one hand, we have Guitar, who says that only by shedding the burden of personal and past responsibilities can one fly. On the other hand is the "Song of Solomon" which weaves its way through the novel. Rather than a Judeo-Christian love song, Morrison creates an Afro-American history of a slave, Solomon, who flew away, quite literally, from Virginia to Africa. The song becomes a celebration of a family's and, by extension, a people's past. By the time Milkman realizes, at the novel's close, that he must face Guitar, accept and love him, even if he kills him or is killed by him, flight has become soaring:
Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees—he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.
This is the control, the coherence, he has sought—acceptance of his past in both its historical and its supernatural aspects and acceptance of himself. When Solomon of the song flew back to Africa, he tried to carry away his favorite son, Milkman's grandfather, but dropped him. However, rather than picking up the Icarus motif of escape and doomed flight, Morrison creates her own myth of those who fumble in their efforts to fly and then soar higher—more Daedaluses than Icaruses. The structure of the novel is not then confusing, nor is it circular, simply moving from one black man's attempted flight to another's. Whether he kills Guitar or is killed by him, Milkman's joyful acceptance of the burden of his past transforms his leap toward Guitar into a triumphant flight.
Source: A. Leslie Harris, "Myth as Structure in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon," in MELUS, Vol. 7, No. 3, Fall, 1980, pp. 69-76.
Michael Awkward, "'Unruly and Let Loose': Myth, Ideology and Gender in Song of Solomon," in his Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality, University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 137-55.
Cynthia A. Davis, "Self, Society and Myth in Toni Morrison's Fiction," in Toni Morrison, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1990, pp. 7-26.
Vivian Garnick, "Into the Dark Heart of Childhood," in The Village Voice, August 29, 1977, p. 41.
A. Leslie Harris, "Myth as Structure in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, MELUS, Vol. 7, No. 3, pp. 69-76.
Maureen Howard, a review in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, Spring, 1978.
Carol Iannone, "Toni Morrison's Career," in Commentary, Vol. 84, No. 6, December, 1987, pp. 59-63.
Margo Jefferson, "Black Gold," Newsweek, September 12, 1977, p. 93.
Jill Matus, "Song of Solomon: Raising Dead Fathers," in her Toni Morrison, Manchester University Press, 1998, pp. 72-85.
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon, Knopf, 1977.
Reynolds Price, "Black Family Chronicle," in The New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1977, pp. 1, 48.
Catherine Rainwater, "Worthy Messengers: Narrative Voices in Toni Morrison's Novels," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Spring 1991, pp. 96-113.
Bertram D. Ashe, "'Why Don't He Like My Hair?': Constructing African-American Standards of Beauty in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God," African American Review, Vol. 29, Winter 1995, pp. 579-92.
Ashe discusses how Black women deal with white standards of beauty by using examples from novels by Morrison and Hurston.
Susan L. Blake, "Folklore and Community in Song of Solomon," MELUS, Vol. 7, No. 3, pp. 77-83.
Blake discusses the tensions between community and individuality in Song of Solomon.
Joseph A. Brown, "To Cheer the Weary Traveler: Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and History," The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 49, Fall, 1996, pp. 709-26.
This essay contrasts William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! with Morrison's Song of Solomon.
David Cowart, "Faulkner and Joyce in Morrison's Song of Solomon," American Literature, Vol. 62, No. 1, March, 1990, pp. 87-102.
This piece discusses some of the literary influences on Morrison's work.
Chiara Spallino, "Song of Solomon: An Adventure in Structure," in Callaloo, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1985, pp. 510-24.
This essay maps the structure of Morrison's novel and discusses the differences between the "family past" and the "mythic past" in the novel.
Gary Storhoff, "'Anaconda Love:' Parental Enmeshment in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon," Style, Vol. 31, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 290-309.
Storhoff shows how each of Morrison's characters suffer from their dysfunctional family relationships.
Jean Strouse, "Toni Morrison's Black Magic," Newsweek, March 30, 1981, p. 52.
Strouse's cover story on Toni Morrison's life and career marks the publication of her fourth novel, Tar Baby.
Darwin T. Turner, "Theme, Characterization and Style in the Works of Toni Morrison," in Black Women Writers: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press, 1984, pp. 361-69.
This piece gives a broad overview of Morrison's first four novels.
Song of Solomon
Song of Solomon
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in African American communities in Michigan, rural Virginia, and Pennsylvania between 1930 and the early 1960s; published in 1977.
A young African American man searches for his identity and discovers his real and mythical family history.
Toni Morrison was born in Lorraine, Ohio, in 1931 as Chloe Anthony Wofford. An avid reader, Morrison studied literature, earning a bachelor’s degree at Howard University followed by a master’s degree in English at Cornell University in 1955. After earning her degrees she worked as an editor for Random House, becoming instrumental in the publication of autobiographies and fiction by African American women such as Angela Davis and Toni Cade Bambara. In 1970 Morrison published her own first novel, The Bluest Eye (also in Literature and Its Times). She followed it with the National Book Award-nominated Sula (1973), and a few years later with Song of Solomon. Using myths and folktales, Song of Solomon details the coming-of-age of a young black man, meanwhile tackling African American issues that emanate from the experience of slavery (displacement, naming, loss of ancestry and homelands). It was this novel, critics concur, that “established [Morrison] as a major American writer” (Draper, p. 216).
A Promised Land?
Repressive and oppressive conditions plagued the South following the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. In addition to dehumanizing laws that mandated segregation between the races and lynching campaigns that targeted blacks, widespread poverty plagued the region. A lack of job opportunities, coupled with agricultural setbacks (the boll weevil, flooding), made it difficult to climb out of that poverty if one remained in the region. So to improve their lot in life, nearly 5 million African Americans rode the rails, trekked, and otherwise made their ways north from 1890 to 1950, a movement otherwise known as the Great Migration. The North seemed to be a sort of Promised Land, offering jobs and hope for a more equitable life than in the South. Leaving behind the rural landscape and agrarian lifestyle that had been home for roughly three centuries since the first Africans had landed in Jamestown in 1619, most of these migrants stepped out of the southern countryside into sprawling metropolises and, far more often than before, out of rural work into industrial jobs. The transition was not a simple one, nor was it always even desirable.
The black press had done much to promote the North, “To die from the bite of frost is far more glorious than at the hands of a mob,” advised the Chicago Defender in the 1910s (Franklin and Moss, p. 376). And indeed conditions seemed promising at first. Especially during World War I (1914-18) blacks entered the industrial workforce in large numbers, finding jobs in the ammunition, iron, and steel manufacturing industries, in car and truck assembly, and in the production of electrical items. World War II (1939-45) likewise saw mass hiring of black workers in manufacturing, again largely in iron and steel works but also in the newer aircraft industry. But social change lagged behind occupational breakthroughs. Much to the chagrin of the hopeful migrants, the segregation of the South appeared in the North as well, only in a less direct manner:
Black Southerners who moved north hoping to leave behind the color line and racial hostilities quickly learned a harsher reality. The rules were unwritten in the North, but they were rules nonetheless. These neighborhoods were off-limits; those restaurants “don’t serve Negroes.”
(Kelley and Lewis, p. 396)
Arriving in northern cities, migrant families, like those featured in the novel, experienced housing and employment discrimination. Unwelcome in European-dominated neighborhoods or in the suburbs, the newcomers moved into the less desirable inner cities and established all-black communities in the early 1990s. As blacks continued to migrate, their numbers increased but the physical dimensions of their neighborhoods did not. “What segregation meant was that neither black newcomers nor established residents could move beyond the borders of the emerging ghettos” (Kelley and Lewis, p. 389). The result was severe overcrowding in black ghettos, putting a strain not only on the buildings themselves, which began to deteriorate, but on the people who inhabited them. There emerged a type of existence in the North, despite better jobs and educational conditions, that made the region far from the haven for a better life that some people had made it out to be. “No one had told [the migrants] ‘about one of the most important aspects of the Promised Land: it was a slum ghetto. … There were too many people full of hate and bitterness crowded into a dirty, stinky, uncared-for closet-size section of a great city’” (Nash, p. 946).
By 1950, more than 7.5 million African Americans (52 percent of all blacks in the U.S.) lived in northern metropolitan areas, concentrated in these black ghettos. As blacks flowed into the cities, whites and jobs flowed out to the suburbs. “The factories that remained, if any, were updated into high-tech industries requiring special skills and fewer personnel, thus creating structural unemployment that would remain a critical problem for blacks and for many other Americans for the remainder of the century” (Franklin and Moss, p. 515). Combined with the ever-increasing inner city population, the factors of job and housing discrimination, postwar industrial restructuring, and relocation produced a steady rise in un- and under- employment in urban areas. Unemployment escalated to nearly 14 percent in 1957, directly affecting more than half of the black population in the U.S. With nearly one in six out of work, the local economy and tax revenues (including school levy and city budgets) were hard hit. While most of the nation was experiencing an economic boom, urban minorities were not. The ratio of unemployment of blacks to whites was 2:1, and for every one dollar a white man earned, a black man earned from 40 to 60 cents for performing the same job. This discrepancy helped contribute to a growing disparity of wealth and to rising tensions between blacks and whites. It also contributed to a widening rift between middle- and upper-class blacks and the struggling majority of lower-class blacks.
For black women, the picture was even more dismal—especially for young black women. Those aged 16-19 averaged nearly 35 percent unemployment annually (through 1988); those aged 20-24 averaged 22 percent (Ploski and Williams, p. 611). As shown in the novel, Corinthians Dead is a well-educated woman yet she has not been able to get a job befitting her education since she graduated Bryn Mawr in the 1940s. “After graduation she returned to a work world in which colored girls, regardless of their background, were in demand for one and only one kind of work” (Morrison, Song of Solomon, p. 189). That “one” kind of work was domestic service, which the majority of black women, regardless of education or skill level, undertook out of necessity.
Power in numbers
There were some positive aspects to the “ghettoization” or concentration of African Americans in America’s northern inner cities. Residents of black communities found themselves relatively safe from racial attack in their own enclaves. It proved easier—especially in Harlem—for artists and other residents to express themselves culturally in the all-black neighborhoods. And the community gave rise to a black press, which detailed race crimes, political issues, and social ills that white papers would not report. Most of all, the concentration of African Americans in all-black communities created a political power base out of a formally powerless and dispersed ethnic minority in America.
The movement to the cities resulted in conditions favorable to protest: the amassing of large numbers of people with similar grievances, a slight economic improvement over rural poverty so that folks could be less concerned with their daily bread, a nucleus of organizations through which communication and mobilization could occur, and a cultural support system for black pride and militancy.
(Blumberg, p. 30)
This power base, primed for protest, emerged in the North just as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum in the South. From their relative position of strength and with the black press able to publicize events and concerns, northern blacks greatly aided the fledgling movement in the South. They added volume, organization, and fiery leadership, including the words of Malcom X who “seemed best able to capture the imaginations of urban blacks and verbalize their smoldering resentment” (Blumberg, p. 30).
Riots, rights, protest
As the decade of the 1960s began, the plight of blacks worsened. One million farm jobs were lost from 1950 to 1969. In most urban areas, unemployment levels and living conditions were becoming intolerable. In the community of Watts in Los Angeles, for example, the unemployed made up 30 percent of the 83,000 blacks who comprised the area’s all-black population, which was cramped into an area four times as congested as the rest of the city (Franklin and Moss, p. 546). Because of housing discrimination “few blacks were able to secure housing elsewhere, even when they could afford it” (Franklin and Moss, p. 546).
Meanwhile in the South, violence against blacks reached new heights. The Ku Klux Klan and hard-line segregationists reacted against civil rights victories inside and outside the courts, which required Southerners to desegregate (schools, for example, [Brown v. Board of Education, 1954] and buses [Birmingham Boycott, 1956]). Refusing to accept defeat, the segregationists embarked on a campaign of terrorism. “City buses were fired upon, injuring some black passengers … a wave of bombings hit black churches and … homes” (Blumberg, p. 48). In Birmingham, Alabama, there were 17 unsolved bombings between 1957 and 1964, mostly of black churches, homes, and businesses. One of the bombings occurred at the 16th Street Baptist Church and killed four young black girls (Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley). In the novel, this incident spurs strong reaction from Guitar and his protest group, the Seven Days.
Despite the violence, bent on securing voting and civil rights for blacks once and for all, the civil rights movement continued to take direct action. The decade had started with a grassroots student protest by a group of four freshman from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, who on January 31, 1960, refused to budge from an all-white lunch counter at a Woolworth’s drug store. Beginning here, students and others staged sit-ins and freedom rides across the country, held marches, and conducted protests and strikes to call attention to blacks being deprived of their rights and force the passage of new civil rights legislation.
The Tactic of Non-Violence
A mass civil rights movement unfolded in the 1960s, beginning early in the decade with nonviolent protest. The goal was securing passage of legislation to guarantee voting rights and civil liberties. Patterned after Gandhi’s successful passive resistance campaign that won India freedom from Great Britain in 1949, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized and became the national voice of nonviolent protest for black civil rights in the U.S. His organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, produced many great leaders whose main emphasis was getting legislation passed to end segregation and ensure the rights of minorities. Their efforts and those of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee led to the passage of the Civil Rights (1964) and Voting Rights (1965) acts, which outlawed discrimination in places of public accommodation and permitted federal agents to register black voters when needed.
While the nonviolent approach did produce legal victories, many felt that their achievements had involved unprovoked violence against blacks that ought to be met with an in-kind response. The unmet needs of the urban majority, including economic relief, job and educational opportunity and reform, and black control over black communities, became paramount through the 1960s. In the process, the nonviolent, legislative-focused civil rights movement gave way to a more publicly combative, urban-focused movement that became known as Black Power. The Black Power movement, championed by leaders such as Stokely Carmichael, took the position that legislation alone would not solve the problems facing most African Americans. Well aware of the harsh realities of urban life, these leaders sought greater job opportunities for the majority of poor blacks, better housing, and an increased voice in and control over their future.
While King urged integration and nonviolent direct action, Black Power advocates touted black independence and said they should gain rights by “any means necessary,” including armed rebellion. As a former SNCC leader who had tried the passive, integrationist approach, Carmichael was frustrated by the limited gains those tactics had produced. He was ready to lead a new type of protest movement, and others were clearly ready to follow. “The positive response of many young people to Carmichael’s words seemed to prove that the civil rights revolution had shifted” (Blumberg, p. 118). Indeed, by 1966 race riots had erupted in many major cities, including Harlem (1964), Watts (1965), and Detroit (1967). Prominent leaders had been assassinated, including Medgar Evers (1963), John F. Kennedy (1963), and Malcolm X (1965), not to mention scores of lesser-known local civil rights workers and protesters. And grave problems remained. The passage of civil rights legislation had done little or nothing to alleviate unemployment, poverty, urban overcrowding, or racial tensions. By the end of the 1960s the death-by-assassination toll would include Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and a staunch conservative, Richard Nixon, would be the president in the White House. For the black community the future did not look bright. As the 1960s came to a close, the civil rights movement ended and the Black Power movement began.
Song of Solomon opens with flight, birth, and death—recurrent themes of the African American experience, as well as the novel. Combining seemingly random events, Morrison establishes at the outset the connection between the past, present, and future; how history shapes current events in both obvious and subliminal ways. As an insurance agent leaps from the Mercy hospital roof in an attempt to “fly away on my own wings,” the mayhem this causes leads to a breach in protocol that allows a black mother to deliver her child inside the white hospital (Solomon, p. 3). Macon Dead III is born inside, the first black child to be birthed in the white-only hospital where his maternal grandfather worked as its first and only black doctor. Dead’s birth inside Mercy occurs because of the insurance agent’s action, illustrating from the outset how one action sparks another in this tale. The insurance agent’s wish to “fly away on my own wings” will become central to the novel.
Called “Milkman” because his mother breastfeeds him longer than usual, Dead is born into a dysfunctional upper- middle-class black family in an all-black subsection of an unnamed Michigan city in 1931. Milkman’s father, Macon Dead II, owns much of the real estate in the working-class community where they live and, because of his presumed arrogance and self-imposed class distinction, has no friends. Milkman’s sisters (Magdalene, called Lena, and First Corinthians), raised to marry professionals of whom there are virtually none in this town, seem doomed to a life of unfulfilled aspirations. Milkman’s father does not speak to his sister, Pilate, even though they reside in the same town, and forbids his wife and children to have anything to do with that part of the family.
Babied by his mother, Ruth, and spoiled by his father, Milkman enters manhood still very much a boy. Drawn to the forbidden side of his family, he begins sleeping with his cousin, Hagar, while his aunt, Pilate, becomes the parent or guiding force he never had. Milkman’s father has taught him to value things; in contrast, Pilate
Africans have long believed that the spirits of the dead are tied to the land they inhabited in life and must be properly interred there. Throughout Africa, funerals have traditionally been important, elaborate events, the belief being that the spirits of the dead play “an important part in the life of the kinship group” (Franklin and Moss, p. 26), Family history and ancestry are considered vital to contemporary life. In fact, traditionalists have long thought of death as the climax of life and extensive rituals as “sacred obligations of the survivors” (Franklin and Moss, p. 26). In the novel, Pilate shows her respect for this custom by carrying a sack of human bones with her for years until, with the help of Milkman, she manages to properly bury them.
Africans also generally believed that their ancestors’ spirits dwelt on family land, in the ground, the trees, and rocks. In the novel, Milkman returns to his family’s southern homeland and uncovers the mythology of their—and his—life story. It seems, as in many African folktales about slaves, that his great-grandfather, Solomon, escaped slavery by flying away. His spirit now lives in a double-headed rock that looks like a bird, and his wife’s spirit lives in the gulch. When the wind blows, you can hear her crying, just as she did the day he flew away. As Milkman learns in the novel, these traditions and history are kept alive in African and African American culture orally. Always a key element of African societies, storytelling through words and music has been used to educate as well as entertain. ‘Handed down principally through the kinship group, the oral literature was composed of supernatural tales, moral tales, proverbs., epic poems, satires, love songs, funeral pieces, and comic tales” (Franklin and Moss, p. 28). In the novel, Milkman learns of his ancestry through the song the children sing in his southern home, the “Song of Solomon.” In a larger sense, the “Song of Solomon” is an education and passing on of cultural heritage not only of a particular story but of the African American experience as a whole, lust as her ancestors have done, Morrison is carrying on the African tradition of storytelling in order to enlighten and keep culture and history alive.
teaches him strength of character through her own example. She is a bootlegger who has raised her daughter and granddaughter on her own, cares nothing for material possessions, and has a reputation as someone with supernatural powers. Pilate retains earthly ties to the natural world that have been all but lost by others who have moved to the northern cities.
Although Milkman works a little, collecting rent for his father, he spends the majority of his time roaming the streets and idly passing the time with his friend and alter ego, Guitar. Though the civil rights movement and racial violence dominate the news, Milkman remains oblivious and apathetic. Guitar, however, is becoming increasingly involved in the movement. Milkman soon learns that his friend is one of the Seven Days, a covert radical group that advocates violent retribution against whites whenever blacks are attacked.
As Milkman matures, he becomes more curious about his origins. His parents tell him conflicting stories, as does Pilate, which only makes him more inquisitive. One day his father informs him that the source of conflict between himself and Pilate is a bag of gold he thinks she has stolen. Simultaneously Milkman learns that his friend is in trouble; Guitar must get a great sum of money for the Seven Days or risk being killed. Milkman thinks that a bag of bones Pilate keeps in her house is the gold his father spoke of and steals it to help Guitar. When it turns out that it is indeed a bag of bones and not gold, Milkman unwittingly begins the most important chapter of his life.
Journeying to the South in search of the gold he now thinks is there, Milkman retraces his family’s migration north and learns of his proud ancestry. Instead of finding gold, he finds riches he never imagined. In the town of Shalimar, he discovers what an amazing man his paternal grandfather was and that his great-grandfather is mythologized by the local population. Milkman slowly solves the riddle of the song he constantly hears the local children sing—the “Song of Solomon”:
Solomon done fly, Solomon done gone
Solomon cut across the sky, Solomon gone home
(Solomon, p. 303)
The song conveys the myth of Milkman’s great-grandfather, a slave who freed himself by flying back to Africa.
When he realizes that he has a proud heritage, Milkman’s entire outlook changes. In the short period of time he spends in the South, he matures more than in all of his previous years. He returns to Michigan to bring Pilate back to Shalimar so they can properly bury the bones he stole from her.
However, thinking that Milkman has found the gold and is keeping the news from him, Guitar tracks them down South. Just as Pilate predicts, she saves Milkman’s life, taking a bullet intended for him from Guitar. Coming full circle from his family’s and the novel’s beginning, Milkman leaps from a cliff toward Guitar in an effort to free them both. It does not matter, says the novel, which one will “give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother” (Solomon, p. 337). In a conclusion whose nuances are open to interpretation, Milkman at this point realizes he must embrace all facets of his history, his identity, and his fellow African Americans in order to procure any future. So like his great-grandfather, he surrenders to the air and it does not make a difference which of the two—Milkman or Guitar—lives or dies because in essence they both become free.
Through the character of Milkman, Song of Solomon illustrates the need for the black community to reclaim the history and traditions that have been lost or “whitewashed” in American society. The novel affirms a need in Morrison’s day for African Americans to forge their own identity, not in terms of the white majority, but in terms of African and African American history and tradition.
The Great Migration north of nearly 5 million African Americans from 1890 to 1950 once again uprooted blacks and placed them in a foreign and often hostile environment, just as slavery had done. Forced through brutality and economic necessity to relocate, this by-and-large rural population moved to the inner cities and took industrial jobs. In contrast to the individual responsibility and comparative freedom of farming, industrial employment meant punching a time clock, working on assembly lines and performing repetitive tasks. The rural landscape most had known and loved was replaced by pavement and factories; gardens by tenements and housing projects. Extended families, part and parcel of rural life, became harder to maintain in the confines of the city. And old gathering spots, such as a country store or someone’s porch, which had been sites of nightly storytelling and merrymaking, were gone.
Though the North offered greater opportunity and clear economic and educational advantages, this second loss of homeland had devastating social effects—especially to the maintenance of African and African American history and tradition. The nightly storytelling, or “lying sessions,” as Zora Neale Hurston called them, had kept cultural heritage alive for centuries. Part of African oral tradition, storytelling was how family histories, folklore, and myths were passed on and preserved, how the individual, to a large degree, attained a sense of self. In the bustle of city life and dispersion of family and friends to various cities and jobs, these stories and hence, the sense of self in relation to one’s past, and of pride in that past, often disappeared. First the ethnic group lost its home in Africa, then it suffered a second loss of the home it made for itself in the American South.
The novel illustrates what this second loss entails and how badly it can affect contemporary youth. Milkman knows nothing of his heritage because in the city it is lost. His parents have been caught up in the drive for assimilation. The lack of a sense of lineage contributes to his aimlessness and feeling of futility about life. He is amazed when he visits his southern homeland and hears the old men talk about his father and grandfather as “extraordinary men” (Solomon, p. 234). “The more the old men talked—the more he heard about the only farm in the county that grew peaches, real peaches like they had in Georgia, the feasts they had when hunting was over, the pork kills in winter and the work, the backbreaking work of a going farm—the more he missed something in his life” (Solomon, p. 234). For the first time Milkman takes pride in himself and acquires a sense of identity and purpose in life. “There was something he felt now—here in Shalimar, and earlier in Danville—that reminded him of how he felt in Pilate’s house … he didn’t have to get over, to turn on, or up, or even out” (Solomon, p. 293). He felt connected and alive, as if he finally belonged.
According to psychologist and art dealer George N’Namdi, “The anchor for any people, for any civilization, is its culture, is its art, is its history” (N’Namdi in Dent, p. 226). Song of Solomon shows how the black community has lost this “anchor” through forced migrations and stresses the importance of finding it again for the self-esteem and success of current and future generations. “If you’re not the protector of your culture, someone else other than yourself controls your culture, and they really control you. … They end up defining you” (N’Namdi in Dent, p. 226). Making this very point, Song of Solomon, by affirming the value of the Southern heritage, itself drops anchor and reclaims control over black identity.
Sources and literary context
The issue of reconnecting with the Southern roots of black culture remained an important cultural and artistic concern for African American artists, poets, and novelists throughout the twentieth century. While novels of the 1920s (such as Jean Toomer’s Cane), began to examine the Southern rural heritage, later works concentrated on the relocated Southerners and their struggles with the more subtle racism of northern cities. In the 1970s, black authors began to refocus their attention on the question of African American culture and the origins of a common black American experience during slavery, and on the African heritage that preceded it. Helping to touch off widespread interest in African American genealogy, Alex Haley released the memoir Roots (1976), which recounted seven generations in Haley’s search for his slave forebears and their origins. Published the following year, Song of Solomon participates in and encourages this search of roots. The novel actually incorporates a successful finding of the author’s own personal search. Morrison notes that the genealogical song Milkman learns in the novel is a version of a song from the Alabama wing of her family (Jones and Vinson in Taylor-Guthrie, pp. 173-74). The year 1977 also saw the release of international books like Charles L. Blockson’s Black Genealogy. In the same year the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society was founded to promote scholarship of black history and genealogy.
Disillusionment and backlash, 1970s
While great strides had been made to increase the rights and opportunities of African Americans through the 1960s, by the end of the decade there was growing disillusionment within the black community. The view surfaced—especially among black youth—that the civil rights movement had failed. Because leaders such as Dr. King and groups such as the NAACP pursued legal remedies to racial injustices, many urban social ills went unaddressed or worsened. “The masses of Negroes are now starkly aware that the recent civil rights victories benefited primarily a very small percentage of middle class Negroes while their predicament remained the same or worsened” (Kenneth Clark in Franklin and Moss, p. 554). By the end of the 1970s—despite desegregation of the schools and affirmative action programs—just 15 percent of blacks had jobs in the medical and other professions or held managerial positions. The vast majority—85 percent of those employed—held service, unskilled, or skilled labor positions. At the same time, the unemployment rate remained high, averaging 15 percent for black adults, compared to 6 percent for whites, and 36 percent for black youth (aged 16 to 19) compared to about 14 percent for white youth (Ploski and Williams, p. 634-35). By 1970 nearly one third of all blacks labored under the poverty line, earning less than $3,968 per year for a family of four.
Gains for the few, tensions for the many
Because of increased educational and professional opportunities, a rising number of African Americans entered the upper and middle classes, reaching 32 percent by 1970. However, the number of welfare recipients also increased during this time period, to nearly 3 million by 1972. Rather than producing substantive economic and professional opportunities, early civil rights legislation produced “massive tokenism”—that is, a few blacks were placed in high-profile, widely-publicized positions, while “more than 80 percent worked at the bottom of the economic ladder” (Franklin and Moss, p. 545). “Between 1949 and 1964 the relative participation of African Americans in the total economic life of the nation declined significantly” (Franklin and Moss, p. 545). Unemployment in 1963, for example, was more than twice that of whites.
For those who did land managerial, professional, or corporate jobs, race-based wage discrimination quickly surfaced. For example, the average pay for a black person with eight years of education was $4,472 in 1969 as compared to $7,018 for a comparable white. As evidenced in the novel, disparity of wealth within the black community widened as unemployment increased, leading to rifts not only between blacks and whites but also between upper-and lower-class blacks. In the novel, the Deads are ostracized inside and outside their hometown. Outside, they face race prejudice, as when Macon Dead II cannot purchase certain tracts of land in white neighborhoods; inside, their social position prevents their daughters from finding husbands.
As the economic plight worsened, racial tensions heightened. Riots again erupted. Disillusioned by the failure of legislation to improve living and working conditions and feeling under-represented in government, blacks again took to the streets—this time forcefully. The year of 1970 “was marked by violence, militant campaigns, racial tensions, and new movements demanding social justice” (Kelley and Lewis, p. 544). Riots erupted in major cities across the country as groups such as the Black Panther party, the Republik of New Africa, the National Committee to Combat Fascism, and the Black Liberation Front gained strength. These groups voiced the outrage and impatience of contemporary black youth, intent on challenging the white-dominated governments and institutions that seemed deaf to so many black concerns. In the novel, the Seven Days are an extreme example of the Black Power branch. When the four girls are killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church, Guitar indicates that his group, the Seven Days, will kill four whites, any four whites. An eye for an eye, says Guitar by way of explanation to Milkman, who is questioning how the group could justify randomly killing four whites:
It doesn’t matter who did it. Each and every one of them could do it. So you just get any one of them. There are no innocent white people, because every one of them is a potential nigger-killer, if not an actual one.
(Solomon, p. 155)
Most African Americans did not advocate all-out or random violence such as this. Past leaders had advocated various, nonviolent paths to address the inequities of life for blacks. Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute (1881) to train blacks with skills that would enable their full participation in American society. Led by W. E. B. Dubois, early-twentieth-century radicals began the Niagara Movement (1905) to mount aggressive (nonviolent) action to end discrimination and achieve other urgent goals. A third leader, Marcus Garvey, did much to transform the group’s self-image, insisting that black stood not for “inferior,” but for “beautiful and strong.” Garvey bolstered the black sense of community, as well as pride, developing the Black Star Steamship Line (c. 1920) to promote commerce among peoples of African descent worldwide and to provide transportation for those who wanted to leave the United States. Four decades later Stokely Carmichael, a former SNCC leader, echoed some of these leaders’ ideas and added others, calling on black people to “unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community” (Hamilton in Blumberg, p. 117). Along with Charles V. Hamilton, Carmichael wrote the manifesto of the Black Power movement (1967), outlining its ideas: blacks needed to practice self-defense, define their own goals, lead their own organizations, and support each other instead of depending on whites.
But the new Black Power movement was not just militant; it had a socio-political agenda. It aimed to restore black pride and have blacks exert control “in all areas where black people are in the majority, and for a proportional share of key decision-making posts where they are in the minority” (Carmichael in McElroy, p. 48). Many participants in the movement rejected their slave names and adopted African names; they abandoned the racial designation of “Negro” and replaced it with “black” or “African American.” As Carmichael wrote, “Black power is a black declaration of independence. It is a turn inward, a rallying cry for a people in the sudden labor of self-discovery, self naming, and self legitimisation” (Carmichael in McElroy, p. 48). A new sense of race pride permeated popular culture; “black is beautiful” became a catch phrase and both black and white youth donned traditional African dress and revived cultural art forms.
On the academic level, the new Black Power movement demanded control over community programs and schools—specifically calling for black studies programs to be implemented in public schools and universities. “As far as African Americans were concerned, the black pride that a reorganized curriculum could stimulate would compensate for the disillusionment and despair that years of frustration and embitterment had produced” (Franklin and Moss, p. 555). Written during the peak of this movement, Song of Solomon shows the clear correlation between the acknowledgment of a people’s historical and cultural achievements and their success in garnering respect and pride. In the novel, Milkman’s journey is an illustration of the process of self-discovery Carmichael talks about and shows that contemporary black youth—who are clearly in jeopardy in this era—can be liberated if respect is paid to their culture.
Fear and misunderstanding
Unfortunately, Black Power for many—especially conservative whites—inspired fear and misunderstanding. Black demands for “land, power, and freedom” frightened many whites, even those who had been involved in the civil rights movement (Kelley and Lewis, p. 519). The riots, such as the 1967 rebellion in Detroit—which resulted in 43 deaths, 2,000 wounded, and the destruction of 5,000 homes—worried not only the government but also many liberal citizens. They “saw chaos and feared true anarchy” (Kelley and Lewis, p. 532). The FBI and local police “declared war” on Black Power groups—especially the Black Panthers. Eight Black Panthers were killed by police in 1968; the infiltration and destruction of black organizations and wire tapping of leaders’ phones became policy. “One of [Richard] Nixon’s campaign promises was to get rid of ‘trouble-makers’” and his arch-conservative administration did its best to do so, as well as dismantle President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty social welfare programs. (Kelly and Lewis, p. 545). Nixon’s re-election in 1972 signified an “anti-black backlash” and white middle-class resentment to government “handouts” to African Americans. Nixon supporters believed that, since civil rights legislation had been passed, racism no longer existed. Aversion to busing, the courtmandated solution for school desegregation, contributed heavily to the backlash as well. Again, even liberal whites opposed sending their kids to school outside their communities. It seemed that theoretical civil rights were easier to swallow than practical solutions.
Despite—or perhaps, in spite of—Nixon’s election and the backlash against blacks, the Black Power movement evolved once again. The National Black Political Assembly held its first convention in 1972 and Shirley Chisholm became the first black person and woman to run for president (1972). Rather than be held back in the white-dominated business world or be represented by whites, blacks concentrated on forming their own businesses and on gaining seats in all areas of government. But the country experienced an economic decline and an energy crisis in the mid-1970s, felt intensely in the devastated, already-ailing inner cities. Changes in the world economy prompted massive unemployment, leading to “an expansion of poverty among African Americans not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s” (Kelley and Lewis, p. 559). While all Americans suffered, the poor African American community felt the brunt of the recession. It is said, in fact, that the inner cities have never recovered from the recession of the 1970s and the troubles the novel alludes to for urban black youth have only worsened. Between 1975 and 1980 the number of unemployed blacks rose by 200,000 while it decreased by over 500,000 for whites, producing the widest unemployment gap between the races ever recorded.
Having achieved notable critical and popular success with The Bluest Eye and Sula, Morrison enjoyed a dramatic rise in reputation with the publication of Song of Solomon. Reviews generally credited the novel with elevating her literary standing. They concentrated particularly on Morrison’s pre-eminence as a storyteller and on the connection between elements of her writing and Latin American “Magic Realism” (although Morrison herself has downplayed this connection). In the New York Times Book Review, Reynolds Price praised Song of Solomon’s largeness of scope and escape from realist limitations, calling it a “wise and spacious novel” (Price, p. 1). The New Yorker’s Susan Lardner focused on the oral elements in the novel, connecting its theme of flight with the soaring quality of its narrative style. In 1978 Song of Solomon received the National Book Critics Circle award. Morrison did not yet achieve with this novel the popular reach she would attain with the publication of Beloved (1987). But Song of Solomon established her as both a major American literary figure and an authority on African American culture and writing.
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