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Song of Solomon (1977) is a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning American author Toni Morrison (1931-2019). The story follows Macon "Milkman" Dead III, a wealthy and privileged Black man who struggles to find a sense of identity. By blending magical realism, history, and African-American folklore elements, Morrison explores the impact of racism and the importance of identity.
In 1931, Robert Smith stands on the roof of the Mercy Hospital in Michigan, promising the gathered crowd below he will leap off and fly over Lake Superior. When he plummets to his death, a pregnant woman named Ruth Foster Dead goes into labor. Initially refused entrance into a segregated hospital because she is Black, Ruth is admitted. Her son, Macon Dead III, becomes the first Black child delivered in the hospital.
Morrison reflects on the complexities of family relationships by presenting Ruth Dead as both a sympathetic and unsympathetic character throughout Milkman's childhood.
Macon grows up in a privileged household, but his parents have a distant relationship. Ruth is hesitant to let Macon go; she continues breastfeeding until he is four. One of the servants witnesses this odd relationship and gives Macon the nickname "Milkman." Milkman's father, Macon Dead II, is a ruthless landlord who is disliked by his Black tenants. He often speaks of his father, the original Macon Dead. After the Civil War, Macon was registered by a drunk Union soldier who mistakenly recorded the family name as "Dead." As a formerly enslaved person, Macon traveled from Virginia to Pennsylvania where he built a successful farm. He was later murdered by white neighbors. Macon II often speaks of the family gold, buried on the farm.
As Milkman grows, he learns his father's sister, Pilate, lives in their town. The pair haven't spoken since their father's murder. Macon was embarrassed by the poor and eccentric Pilate, who brews alcohol and lives a mere but fulfilling life in the town's poor district with her daughter Reba and granddaughter, Hagar.
Macon is deeply affected by witnessing his father's murder at the hands of white neighbors. By gathering wealth and power he believes he can escape the reality of racism.
During his teenage years, Milkman meets a hustler named Guitar Bains. Guitar takes Milkman to Pilate's house to buy alcohol where he notices a large, heavy tarp hanging from Pilate's ceiling. He reasons this must be the Dead family gold. Milkman soon begins a sexual affair with his cousin, Hagar. Hagar becomes obsessed and possessive of Milkman but he does not return her feelings. Each month, she falls into a trance and attempts to murder Milkman.
As the Civil Rights movement grows throughout the 1950s, Milkman feels disconnected from the experience of the rest of his community because of his wealth. Guitar confides in Milkman that he is involved in a secret society known as the Seven Days. Committed to avenging the racist murders committed by white people, the Seven Days Guitar randomly murder a white person of the same age and gender. Guitar explains that the members must generate funds to carry out their mission.
Though the American Civil War (1861-65) officially ended slavery, discrimination against African-American people was still widespread in the 20th century. In the South, segregationist rules known as Jim Crow Laws separated Black and white people and forbade interracial marriage. In the north, a more informal but equally devastating form of discrimination excluded Black people from accessing good jobs, education, and housing.
When the U.S army desegregated during WWII, Black soldiers received the same treatment as their white colleagues. This progress spurned a new movement for equal rights in all walks of life. Organized by figures like Martin Luther King (1929-1968), the campaign conducted marches, boycotts, and peaceful protests. While the demand for equal treatment gained much support in the white community, it also produced a violent racist backlash, particularly in the South.
Some white people wished to retain an unequal society. In Song of Solomon, Morrison explores the tense atmosphere of the 1950s and early 1960s and refers to two violent incidents that sent shockwaves through the African-American community.
In 1955, a young Black man named Emmett Till was kidnapped for allegedly whistling at a white woman. He was brutally tortured and murdered. Though his body was horribly mangled, his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral so the world could see the damage his killers had inflicted. Two white men were charged with his murder but later acquitted and allowed to walk free. This injustice was a significant turning point for the Civil Rights movement.
Morrison also refers to the Birmingham church bombing of 1963, when the Ku Klux Klan murdered four Black children in Alabama. The backdrop to Song of Solomon was a period of tremendous tension and division in America.
Increasingly frustrated with his lack of accomplishments, Milkman and Guitar plan to steal the family gold from Pilate's house. The pair break in but find the tarp filled with rocks and a human skeleton.
How does Morrison present Milkman as immature and unfulfilled?
A frustrated Milkman sets off for the family farm in Pennsylvania to search for the family gold. In Montour County, he struggles to find leads on the gold but begins to uncover his family history. He meets Circe, an old woman who helped to deliver both Macon II and Pilate. She reveals that Milkman's grandfather's original name was Jake and he was married to a Native American woman named Sing.
Circe directs Milkman to his grandfather's hometown of Shalimar, Virginia. Milkman arrives in Virginia but is soon confronted by Guitar who believes Milkman is hiding the gold and vows to kill him.
Why is Guitar unable to believe Milkman about the gold? Is it related to previous tensions in their friendship?
In rural Shalimar, Milkman sticks out as a privileged northerner. He continues investigating his family roots and discovers Jake's father (his great-grandfather) was enslaved man called Solomon. Solomon was a legendary folk hero in African-American culture. Known as "The Flying African," the Black community in Shalimar has for generations told the tale of Solomon escaping slavery by flying back to Africa.
Milkman's connection to his family and history grows stronger. A distant cousin explains that Solomon was married to a woman named Ryna, and they had twenty-one sons together. Solomon had tried to take the youngest, Jake, with him when he fled to Africa. Abandoned by her husband, Ryna suffered a nervous breakdown.
What is Morrison trying to say about the importance of folklore and storytelling in the African-American tradition?
Jake was taken in by a Native American family headed by a woman named Heddy. He went on to marry Heddy's daughter, Sing. As Milkman tries to absorb his family's story, he takes a seat and watches the local child sing their nursery rhyme about Jay, the son of Solomon. Milkman realizes this song is about his grandfather Jake and Jake's father, Solomon.
With a new sense of meaning and identity, Milkman vows to live a more generous life. He returns to Michigan and discovers Hagar, unable to live without his love, has died of heartbreak. Pilate reveals the bones in her tarp to be the remains of her father. With Milkman, she sets out to bury them on the farm in Pennsylvania. After placing the bones to rest, Milkman and Pilate feel a sense of closure. Their peace is shattered by a shot and Pilate falls to the ground. As she dies in Milkman's arms, he pledges to look after her daughter, Reba. Milkman watches Guitar drops a smoking gun and offers a fight to the death. As Milkman leaps off the ledge towards his old friend he is finally able to fly.
Here is a look at the most important characters from Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon. Many character names are allusions to biblical figures and connect with the novel's deeper themes.
Born into an affluent Black family, Milkman often feels like an outsider. Because of his privilege, he is isolated from the struggles the rest of the Black community faces on a daily basis. He struggles to connect with his parent or siblings. When he retraces his family through the South, the local Black community others him as a northerner. He is self-obsessed and desperate to make his mark on the world. In his quest for the family's gold he uncovers his true heritage and learns to become a more empathetic and open adult.
Milkman's aunt and estranged sister to Macon Dead III, Pilate is an important figure in the novel. Born without a navel, Pilate was ostracized by others. After witnessing her father's death and separating from her brother at an early age, she was forced to make her way in the world. Pilate went on an odyssey where she learned to be strong, independent, and kind to others.
Pilate creates a household dominated by women and operates a bootlegging business during prohibition. Fiercely protective of her daughter and grandchild, Pilate can defend her family against abusive men. She is also incredibly open and welcoming to her estranged nephew, Milkman. Pilate is named after the Roman commander who sentenced Jesus to death. Pilate Dead is not apathetic or uncaring; she is Milkman's guide. In this regard, her name is closer to the word "pilot," which connects with the theme of flight.
Guitar met Milkman when he rescued him from a gang of bullies. Unlike Milkman, Guitar grew up in extreme poverty and faced the harsh reality of racism in America from an early age. After his father's death at a sawmill, the owner had the body sawn so it would fit in a cheaper coffin. This horrific experience left a lifelong scar on Guitar's soul as he developed a deep hatred of white people.
Milkman's father, Macon, is a self-made success, building an empire as a landlord and property owner. However, this financial success comes at a cost; he is distant from both his community and family. His father was a successful farmer who was murdered by white people because of his success. Macon's obsession with wealth and power is his way of overcoming bigotry and racism.
Ruth Foster's father was the town's first Black doctor. This social privilege is coupled with her light-skinned complexion, which sets her apart from the rest of the Black community. After her sheltered upbringing, she married young and never had a chance to define herself outside the roles of mother and wife. She maintains an uncomfortably close relationship with her father, even after his death. Starved of affection from her husband, she continues to breastfeed Milkman as a form of intimacy. Ruth is named after a Biblical princess who married into another tribe. Similarly, Ruth Dead is a light-skinned woman born into a privileged family who feels disconnected from her community.
Toni Morrison uses the saga of the Dead family to explore ideas of race, history, and identity. The novel's title is an allusion to the last book of the Old Testament, Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, which contains poems centered around love and sex. Love and sex are prominent in the novel as characters fall in love, are spurned by unrequited love, and use sex for pleasure and power. By alluding to a biblical text, Morrison shows how these themes are age-old in the human experience.
The novel highlights the importance of music and song in African-American culture. In Pilate's home, the women are often shown singing together to bond and cope. At Hagar's funeral, Pilate expresses her grief by singing the word "Mercy!" repeatedly. Music can be both healing and liberating. As Pilate dies in Milkman's arms, he sings gently to her, representing his maturation and connection to his family and culture.
Morrison also reflects the importance of music in African-American culture through the character of Guitar. He discusses the Blues genre and references artists like B.B. King and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Like folklore recorded African-American stories during slavery, Blues music was a medium for storytelling throughout the novel's time period.
During slavery, enslaved people were prohibited from learning to read or write. Unable to record their history and experience through written records, enslaved people used music and storytelling to preserve their narratives. As Milkman tries to uncover his roots, it is a simple children's song that reveals the true story of his family. The story of Solomon (Milkman's great-grandfather) is one of hope and liberation. However, it can also be viewed as a tale of abandonment, highlighting how racism profoundly impacts African-American women.
By focusing on the experience of the Dead family, Song of Solomon acts as an allegory for the history of racism against the entire African-American community. Past trauma continues to haunt many of the novel's central figures. Macon Dead II has spent his life trying to get enough money to wall himself off from the experience of Black America and avoid the violent death his father suffered. Guitar is also traumatized by his father's death and his family's treatment at the hands of white people. This manifests as violence in the shape of the Seven Days organization. Morrison doesn't glorify or condone the violent actions of this group and ultimately points out the self-destructive nature of this type of action as Guitar breaks his foundational rule of never killing another Black person.
One of the novel's central motifs is the act of flight. The book opens with a suicidal man who promises to fly across Lake Superior. As a child, Milkman is obsessed with learning to fly and becomes depressed when he learns humans don't have that ability. Jake, Milkman's great-grandfather, is known as the "Flying African" because he escaped slavery by flying away. The novel ends with a mature and empowered Milkman standing up to Guitar and flying toward him. While Morrison uses flight as a means of liberation and escape, it also represents a more dangerous trend, especially towards women, as Jake flies off and leaves his wife to care for twenty-one sons. Ultimately, Milkman gains the ability to fly after he stops trying to seek material (gold) and instead looks for meaning through his family and culture.
Song of Solomon blends several genres to tell the story of the Dead family. One of the most interesting genres Morrison uses is magical realism.
Magical realism is a literary genre that combines realistic depictions of everyday life with subtle hints of supernatural or fantastical elements. Famous examples of magic realist works include Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Kafka on the Shore (2002) by Haruki Murakami.
Pilate embodies this supernatural force. At the police station after Milkman's arrest, she magically looks much older and more shriveled, presenting herself feeble to the police officers. Born without a belly button, Pilate's existence is viewed as unnatural and results in discrimination. This highlights the absurd nature of discrimination the African-American community has faced solely because of skin color. Magical realism also connects with the novel's use of African-American folklore, which contains supernatural elements.
Milkman's journey in Song of Solomon is a coming-of-age story. As Milkman's life unfolds from birth through to his early thirties, he goes from immaturity to an actualized adult. This emotional and mental journey sees his transformation from child to adult as being centered on a connection to the past and family.
By flashing back to the Dead family history, Morrison employs a non-linear storyline that reflects the recurring themes of loss and trauma. The racism the characters face in the present is deeply rooted in the past. The legacy of this racism is carried through the generations.
In Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison employs her poetic verse to explore the effects of racism on the African-American through the story of the Dead family.
Each man in that room knew he was subject to being picked up as he walked the street and whatever his proof of who he was and where he was at the time of the murder, he'd have a very uncomfortable time being questioned." (Part 1, Ch. 4)
As the Black men in the barber shop laugh and joke about recent events, the underlining tension of racial profiling and bigotry looms. Raised in wealth and privilege, Milkman feels disconnected from the Black experience in America and finds some sense of community in the festive atmosphere of the barbershop. When Milkman is arrested by the police later, he is quickly freed because of his father's influence.
You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down." (Part 1, Ch. 8)
Milkman and Guitar discuss the lavish life they'll enjoy after stealing the gold; Milkman envisions himself as a bedazzled peacock covered in jewelry. Guitar disagrees, believing the jewelry weighs you down. This reflects the novel's theme of flight and liberation. Milkman has grown up in comfort and privilege that has separated him from his community and authentic self. To fly, he must turn his back on this and embrace his roots.
I wish I'd a knowed more people. I would of loved 'em all. If I'd a knowed more, I would a loved more." (Part 2, Ch. 15)
Pilate's dying works are a reflection of her loving nature. After asking Milkman to look after her daughter, Pilate expresses her desire to have known and loved more people. Throughout the novel, Pilate is open and caring to the people in her life. She is Milkman's guide on many occasions and shows him the importance of love and forgiveness. After she dies in his arms, Millman turns to face Guitar, finally able to take flight.
Song of Solomon follows the story of Macon "Milkman" Dead III as he struggles to find meaning and identity. When he begins to investigate his family history he discovers many hidden truths and gains a connection to his family and community.
Song of Solomon was written by American author Toni Morrison.
Song of Solomon contains two parts. Part I has nine chapters and Part II has 15 chapters.
Most of Song of Solomon is set from the 1930s through to the 1960s. Through flashbacks, the story of the Dead Family reaches back to the American Civil War and through to the 20th century.
The original hardback edition of Song of Solomon has 337 pages.
Who is the main character in Song of Solomon?
Macon "Milkman" Dead III
Milkman's father is shown to be obsessed with _______.
Growing up in a privileged household, Milkman often feels isolated and disconnected from other African-Americans.
Who is Milkman's aunt?
Pilate is as rich and successful as her brother, Macon Dead II.
How does Pilate make money?
When Milkman travels South he instantly feels at home?
Milkman's great-grandfather Solomon was also known as ______________ in African-American folklore.
The Flying African
Morrison uses elements of magical realism in Song of Solomon.
Which character best embodies elements of magical realism?
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