Song of Solomon
Presentation of Racial Domination: A Comparison between Translations and Song of Soloman
In ‘Song of Soloman’ and ‘Translations’ Morrison and Friel present racial domination through the viewpoint of the oppressed minority group, respectively African-Americans and Irish nationalists. The concept of racial domination can be defined as the political act of dominating people through the belief in the superiority and inferiority of particular races. Both Friel and Morrison communicate that racial domination is all about power, the level of which determines whether a race is the oppressor or the oppressed in a particular society.
In ‘Translations’, the Irish are ruled by the English who assume the right to rule Ireland and dictate what is and is not acceptable behaviour. Through creating a “new map” of the “whole” of Ireland, the English oppressors impose their own domination on Ireland by ‘rewriting’ the country into cultural submission through the imposition of English as the language of ‘high culture’. However, it is only Manus who understands at first the political implications of such a, what he perceives to be, “military operation” would eventually mean for the longevity of the Irish culture and its national identity. Already Friel presents the act of translating as a form of racial domination and a clear division between the two cultures as ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ is established through Owen who outlines his role as the “go-between” translating the “King’s good English” into the Irish “quaint archaic tongue”. By doing so, Friel describes that Owen is rejecting his own identity by rejecting his links to Ireland both in language and culture. This further reinforces the devastation of English Oppression for the culture of Ireland, as it will undoubtedly destroy its identity as it has done with “Owen” who has become “Roland” as a result of mis-translation and “standardised” English. Friel identifies the quick process of cultural imperialism through the geographical metaphor of erosion, which ironically is first identified by the antithetical English Oppressor “Yolland” when he poignantly declares, “something is being eroded”. The idea of erosion as a geographical metaphor suggests layers’ being relentless worn away until nothing remains. This underlines the significance of language in holding culture and memories that would otherwise be completely lost “beyond recognition” if the language were to be “anglicised” as demonstrated through the example of “Tobair Vree”. The concept of not being able to translate a memory or a culture into a different language is fundamental in ‘Translations’ and it is the Irish culture that gets lost in translation; Friel seems to communicate that the only way the Irish can exist in a modern World is through translation, Friel argues that the concept of translation is a metaphor for the Irish. Indeed, Friel’s act of writing ‘Translations’ is in itself an act of translation, since he writes an Irish play in English, so as to demonstrate the only possibility for the Irish language and culture to exist is through the language of the oppressor.
To a varying degree, Morrison also presents racial domination through the use of language but not as a method of oppression used by the dominating race in the sense of translation, but to give the black community a powerful tool to subvert white authority. In ‘Song of Soloman’ the African American community in Michigan rename places names to reflect reality such as in the case of “No Mercy Hospital” where black expectant mothers were denied entry and had to “give birth” “on its steps” and thus given “no mercy”. It is this act of renaming place names that is almost doing the opposite of what Friel describes as cultural imperialism in ‘Translations’; the black community are giving meaning to place names rather than “eroding” it. This ownership of language is the only power the black community have in their oppressed condition and the renaming of place names becomes a political act as the community are attempting to take some control over their language. Furthermore, Morrison highlights the power of language in carrying meaning and having the ability to shape identity through the eponymous “Song of Soloman”. The significance of language in defining identity is shown through the original mistranslation of “Soloman” as “sugarman”. Morrison shows how one mis-translation can completely wipe out a whole family’s identity and remove a part of history. The discovery of Milkman’s heritage through the connection with the name “Soloman” gives him an identity and means that at death he is never more alive as his journey of self-discovery is complete. It is impossible not to link the importance of naming with the example of “Tobair Vree”, the meaning of the name would be lost in translation and would no longer exist if the language were to change. Through the name “Dead” Morrison shows how language can act as a tool to “wipe out the past” through Sing’s insistence on keeping the incorrect name instead of inheriting the name of the slave owner and thus hoping to disconnect future generations from the crippling legacy of slavery that is at the root of African American oppression in an American society. The name “Dead” holds the signification of being also metaphorically dead and unable to progress; the “Dead” family are a metaphor for the entire African American race that suffer under the racial domination of the racist white community.
In ‘Translations’ Friel tries to find hope in a racially divided society in the unity of the two cultures through the relationship of Marie and Yolland using the act of “leaping” across a “ditch” to metaphorically suggest the possibility of daring to leap and crossing between the two camps. Friel seems to say that although Yolland may have been killed, the love between the two characters is not defeated and shows a sort of hope that the two different cultures do not have to be defined as racially separate. Friel’s play is radically against the laying of these colonial borders and the grouping of individuals into categories called ‘British’ and ‘Irish which admits no traffic or crossing between them. ‘Translation’ as an act of crossing between borders may offer a way out of colonial conflict of hatred and division via love Friel seems to suggest, but it remains a dangerous act and likely to be resisted by those who would divide us into groups and put borders between us hence the “ditch”. Through the construction of “Yolland” as an antithetical “soldier by accident”, although ironically a Hibernophile and the first one to identify that “something is being lost” in the process of cultural imperialism, Friel challenges the pre-determined racial stereotypes that he describes are an inevitable side effect of any racially divided community as Yolland can only ever be identified by his English racial identity in the eyes of the oppressed Irish nationalists. The hatred between the two races is to such an extent that individualism is neglected and only Yolland’s identity as a British Army Officer is considered. This concept is particularly apt for Friel’s play which, although set in the 19th century, was written in the ethno-nationalist conflict ‘The Troubles’ in 1960s Northern Ireland where racial hatred and IRA violence divided and made a battle ground of Ireland. However, the inextricable link between culture and identity and how the former defines the latter is the essential principle behind racial stereotypes and understanding why Yolland will always be “an outsider” in the Irish community and why Owen can never separate himself from his Irish heritage. Ultimately the Irish culture is “all [they] have” and by denying the community of its mother language and thus culture is to remove their identity which is shown at the end of the play when Sarah, who symbolises Irish oppression (metaphorically and literally without a voice) is silenced in the concluding scenes showing the death of Irish language and culture and thus the end of the Irish identity.
However in ‘Song of Soloman’ Morrison presents racial domination as an unfixable part of American society, which can never be truly racially equal until the legacy of slavery is completely removed from memory. White Americans are able to racially dominate the black community by controlling the law. Morrison communicates the corruption of the American justice system through the example of the police force who will “stop anyone” if they are black, suggesting the widely held belief that all of the black community were inherently suspicious. Moreover, the lack of criminal justice that is brought to the “Butlers” after they “shot” Jake “five feet in the air” further reinstates how the white race dominated the law in American society. Ultimately, Morrison evaluates that the black community are trapped in a white racially dominated society and a black American dream is unattainable shown in the example of Ruth who is literally pressed “small” by the oppression imposed on her by the white community to such an extent that her name defines her as she is metaphorically “dead”. The inherently unjust social power of the black community is represented in the case of Corinthians Dead whom after a college degree and studying in France could only find a job as a “maid” and even then the job was only rewarded to her because her employee “liked” her “name”, again showing the importance of naming. Morrison presents racial domination as a limitation and barrier for the oppressed community, preventing them from entering into any position that allows them to gain social power in a white dominated society and be at almost equal status to the ‘superior’ race. Morrison considers that although the black community can distance themselves from their slave past, it is impossible to truly eliminate the past from history and start anew, as Sing hoped by keeping the incorrect surname “Dead” in place of the slave owner’s surname. This is perhaps the reason for Solomon’s and Milkman’s eventual flight at the end of his journey of self-discovery as Morrison suggests that the only way to progress and truly be “free” from an oppressed society is to “surrender to the air” and “ride it”.
Morrison and Friel both present how the condition of oppression creates radicalised recipients of oppression that would otherwise not exist in a racially equal society. However, Morrison and Friel present the radicalised groups “The Days” and “the Donnelley Twins” through different perspectives. Through Morrison’s presentation of “The Days” she shows and the reader understands Guitar’s journey from an oppressed individual whose life is destroyed by the harsh realities of racism in the Deep South to a radical black extremist. Guitar is unable to fly because he has not given up his psychological hatred of whites and his racist belief that “there are no innocent white people” which weighs him down by allowing his hatred and grief to control and define his identity as a psychopath that “could kill would kill” and “has killed’. On the other hand, the “Donnelley Twins” are a non-communicative force and not named as separate individuals with no physical presence, only existing in threats to the English oppressors. Much like today’s extremists in Ireland, the Donnelly twins are not outspoken but rather they let their actions speak for them and Friel uses this fierce Irish nationalism to serve as avatars of the modern IRA connecting a larger political tragedy of colonial oppression and Irish resistance with the personal tragedy of individual lives. Their actions (the theft of the horses, the burning of the army’s headquarters and, supposedly, the murder of Lieutenant Yolland) only engender a powerful colonial reaction. The play ends with the further threat of racial violence as Lancey “promises” to kill all the livestock in the area, which Friel suggests will only lead to counter terror by the forces that the Donnelly twins represent. Although presented differently, Friel and Morrison both argue in their texts that individualism is impossible under nationalism and oppression can divide any community on the basis of race. In conclusion, Morrison and Friel present racial domination through the viewpoint of the oppressed minorities and their lack of power in defining their identity as their culture is rewritten for them through mistranslation and racial oppression.
Subverting White Power Structures: Pilate and Shadrack’s Way Out
Toni Morrison’s Sula and Song of Solomon examine the ways in which black people in black towns with black ideologies can be physically and emotionally destroyed by the infiltration of any and all institutions that are orchestrated and controlled by white people. Morrison presents a new narrative that discourages the notion of “black stories” as a separate genre of fiction and instead presents stories that exemplify a spectrum of black identities that exist in a peaceful state until something generates a radical shift in their functionality. In these two texts, this radical shift is caused by forces that are outside of Morrison’s characters’ control and these forces create tensions that so violent and futile that they necessitate actions by black characters to maintain order in the text. Both Sula and Song of Solomon serve as anecdotal tales that charge black people with subverting and avoiding the desires of institutions that are capitalistic, racist, and sexist by utilizing characters such as Pilate and Shadrack to transgress institutionalized power structures and characters such as Helene and Guitar who submit to these same structures.
One character who clearly submits to the infiltration of white power within the realm of the black community is Guitar. As a member of the Black Power organization, entitled The Days, Guitar is responsible for enacting violence of equal force against any white person to replicate a form of retribution. Guitar clearly believes that his motives and actions are distinctly justifiable in contrast to the same violent actions done by white men. Guitar reflects, “’I am not, one, having fun; two, trying to gain power or public attention or money or land; three, angry at anybody” (157). Though Guitar is attempting to justify his actions he does so by presenting them in a way that separates him from the same modes of terror that exists in white power groups. Guitar is thus, unknowingly, participating in a system that he wishes to destroy. Though Guitar is clearly knowledgeable about the disparities in the value of black and white lives his mission to kill white people demonstrates the opposite of his supposed intentions. Guitar questions, “What that means is that a black man is a victim of a crime only when a white man says he is” (160). Guitar’s understanding of the justice system relies on the fact that white bodies are perceived as more valuable than black bodies but Guitar chooses the enact violence on white bodies to target his white oppressors. This violence takes into account Guitar’s belief that white bodies somehow are worth more therefore his murderous motivations will combat all of the institutional oppression that he faces.
Though Milkman eventually exists on a higher plane of life that is free from oppression, Milkman and Guitar’s attempt at stealing Pilates’ gold can be simply viewed as a way in which these two men seek to maintain the notion that money is power. The American Dream or in this case the white American Dream is the notion that everyone should have the opportunity to achieve success. Guitar and Milkman desire the end result of the dream and try to target Pilate to achieve this ending. This aspiration for money is the result of a desire for some form of power within the black community. Throughout the book desire for money is seen as something that exists in people who do not empathize with other black members of the community, like Macon Dead. However, Morrison describes Milkman’s desires for wealth in a negative way to the point where it appears to be a perverse. “Milkman’s own excitement was blunted. Something perverse made him not want to hand the whole score to his friend on a platter” (175). The greed that Milkman possesses is due to the fact that he adheres to notions of capitalism that he believes will eventually give him something in his life that he has never had: agency, ownership, and power. Ultimately, what these men desire is to maintain control and power and to invoke a sense of fear. In both Sula and Song of Solomon black male characters seem to persistently exist on the margins of the narratives, looking for a way in. Milkman and Guitar find that pathway through their understanding of terror as a means to be heard or seen as human. Morrison writes, “Now they were men, and the terror they needed to provoke in others, if for no other reason than to feel it themselves, was rarer but not lighter” (177). For these two men, terror becomes their only means for comprehending the world, Milkman believes he can terrorize, or at least obtain power and agency, by obtaining wealth and Guitar believes he can terrorize by replicating the tactics of the Ku Klux Klan. However, it is their subtle adherence to racist and capitalistic ideologies that forces them surrender to the truth that is embedded in their past.
Though Milkman Dead seems to be the central focus of Song of Solomon, Milkman cannot obtain the truth or seek the truth without the help of Pilate who, according to Susan L. Blake in her essay “Folklore and Community in Song of Solomon, represents, “the spirit of community inherent in the folk consciousness” (78). It is through Pilate that Milkman is able to question his own motives and presumably fly by the end of the text. The magical realist elements are not in question within the text, the only question that Milkman and Pilate must face is whether or not they can learn to comprehend their past as a way for them to push towards the future. Flight, whether it is physical or not, becomes the mode of ultimate unification of ones’ roots to the truth of the narrative: the surrender of the material (greed, power, oppression) yielded the ability to transcend all that is earthly and Pilate is the mode by which Milkman is able to discover this truth.
In Sula there is not a concrete manifestation of truth through something like the ability to fly, truth lies in resistance of white infiltration not solely relying on the modes of escapism that slave ancestors implement. Helene Wright represents the influx of white ideals and internalized feelings of inferiority manifesting through her insistence of being holier than though in relation to other black townspeople. Helene is devastated when she finds out about her sick grandmother because she feels that she must debase herself in order to return to a town with people who are darker and thus less intelligent and cultured than she is, but it is her perpetual adherence to racist stereotypes that force her to become passive in the face of white people. For example when Helene is on the train and she accidentally enters the whites only section she becomes fearful, weak, and complacent. Nel observes, “Then, for no earthly reason, at least no reason that anybody could understand, certainly no reason that Nel understood the or later, she smiled. Like a street pup that wags its’ tail” (21). Helene effectively submits to the white man on the train but in doing so socially conditions Nel to do the same. Her submission extends beyond her experience on the train, Helene believes she is somehow better than other black people because she is Creole and therefore a more cultured woman with lighter skin. Her haughtiness comes across as pride and despite her air of callous self-perceived exceptionalism Helene, “lost only one battle – the pronunciation of her name. The people in the Bottom refused to call her Helene. They called her Helen Wright and left it at that” (18). This resistance to Helene’s desires to fit into a perfect mold of black exceptionalism demonstrates the resistance of the townspeople to the infiltration of the notions of black inferiority that Helene adheres to in her everyday life. Helene is determined to separate herself from other black people and in doing so she strategically places herself in a middle ground where she can never really belong.
Shadrack, on the other hand, represents the respective opposing force to Helene’s narrative function. Though Shadrack is clearly oppressed by war and marginalized, it is his indifference to belonging that gives him the key to understanding life and death without fear of either. Racial, gendered, and sexual promiscuity that the town perceives as evil in Sula do not effect Shadrack because his is almost completely separated from the community. Through Plum and Shadrack experience the same residual effects of war they both react in two very different ways. Plum turns to drugs and Shadrack decides to express agency in a way that gives him a renewed sense of self. In war, Shadrack views a soldier get his head blow off, Morrison describes, “the rest of the soldier’s head disappeared under the inverted soup bowl of his helmet” (8). It does not matter if the soldier is black or white what matters is the literal consumption of bodies in war that make men disposable agents of the state. In order to combat this role Shadrack creates National Suicide Day as a way to demonstrate the control and order he can have over death. Shadrack does not fear the ultimate threat of non-existence which is a tool of white power structures but rather he orchestrates a way in which he can exist in a liminal space of separateness from anything and all things that can hurt him.
What Morrison argues through these texts and through all of her texts is that she has the right to interrogate how political, economic, and social institutions attempt to control black people and how black people react when they are faced with these challenges. In both Sula and Song of Solomon Morrison uses words like veteran, exceptional, and black to describe her characters but in using these words she attempts to show the meaning of these words void of white ideology. For example, blackness in The Bottom does not have a negative connotation, whiteness does. It is imperative in these two works to understand how language and ideologies function within a black community that do not lean on white oppression to garner meaning. Morrison writes in her essay “Unspeakable Things Unspoken”, “The most valuable point of entry into the question of cultural distinction, the one most fraught, is its language-its unpoliced, seditious, confrontational, manipulative, inventive, disruptive, masked and unmasking language” (17). Morrison uses language and the ideologies of her characters to show varying sides of the black condition and how these characters function both in and outside of white ideologies. Characters like Pilate and Shadrack and ultimately Milkman in the end of Song of Solomon are able to subvert white ideologies and in doing so demonstrate how blackness can be, in and of itself, a neutral term that does not necessitate whiteness or white ideologies to validate it.
A Separate Identity: Song of Solomon as Black Literature
One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro: two souls, two thoughts two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost… He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American.–W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black FolkThis quote from Du Bois describes what he termed “double consciousness,” which is the idea that blacks must understand their own unique American identity by simultaneously seeing themselves in two separate ways: first, as black, with their own unique cultural traditions and history, and second, in the manner that whites would view them. Having to experience life through a split identity produces unique tensions and challenges that must be overcome in order for a black member functioning within the larger, more dominant white society to construct his or her own self-concept. In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, the main male character, Milkman, must come to an understanding of his family’s historical and cultural past in order to truly understand himself. However, it is not just Milkman who must learn to deal with a sense of double consciousness: all of the black main characters are linked together as a part of the same cultural community. By highlighting the struggles and oppression faced by African-Americans trying to understand their own identity in relation to the broader white society, Song of Solomon is able to function as a black narrative. In this essay, I will explore the use of double consciousness along with other various elements utilized by Morrison to allow this book to function as a piece of black literature containing a distinctive historical and cultural story of the black experience in America.Song of Solomon is representative of black literature because many of its themes, motifs, and symbols emphasize the journey of black integration into white society in America. Morrison’s book creates “an honest appraisal of both past and present [and] define[s] both an individual and collective memory that [takes] into account their rights as American citizens and their unique experience as a race of people who shared a history of oppression” (Kirschke 20). This journey from oppression and division to freedom and unity is a story and experience unique to the black racial community and is characterized within Song of Solomon, thus allowing the novel to function as a piece of black literature. The presentation of the black characters in this book serves as a representation of the black experience in America by exemplifying a sense of double consciousness. Morrison’s main characters are all black, and whites only operate on the fringes of the story as instigators of violence responsible for the deaths of Guitar’s father and Milkman’s grandfather, the murder of Emmett Till, and the Birmingham church bombing. Because these events occur outside of the main narrative frame of the story, it becomes evident that the focalization of the entire story is from a black perspective representing the entire black racial community. Furthermore, placing the violence of the whites on the outer edge of the black narrative creates a contrast between the white and black racial communities, stressing the social and historical tension between these communities. Race then becomes a dominant theme throughout the entire novel, as the characters in the story, especially Milkman, must create an identity capable of expressing who they truly are as a black community. The black characters are most notably representative of the black experience in America in the way they are portrayed as having a double consciousness; they are not necessarily aware of that double consciousness, but the reader is able to recognize it nonetheless. For instance, when the characters of Ruth Dead and Pilate are first introduced, obvious contrasts are created by the way they are dressed: “The singer [Pilate], standing at the back of the crowd, was as poorly dressed as the doctor’s daughter was well dressed” (Morrison 5). These differences create a gap in the social status of two women of the same race, demonstrating a theme of inequality. This inequality is able to generate a significant division within the black racial community, which allows it to mirror many of the traditional divisions between whites and blacks. One interpretation of the contrasts and divisions found in the novel suggests that Macon Dead’s household can serve as a symbol expressing a degree of whiteness, or even that the family can serve as a symbol of the white race because of Macon Dead’s obsession with control, oppression, and material wealth. Pilate, on the other hand can be viewed as a symbol of blackness or the black race, as she is the character often portrayed singing traditional African-American songs; moreover, her household emphasizes the dynamics of a close-knit family, with three generations living together in the same house. Macon Dead and his sister, Pilate, are obvious foils for one another. This is especially apparent when Macon explains to Milkman, “Pilate can’t teach you a thing you can use in this world. Maybe the next, but not this one. Let me tell you right now the one important thing you’ll ever need to know: Own things.” (Morrison 55). These lines show the disparity between the worldview of two siblings raised under identical circumstances. Macon believes that his sister’s values and lifestyle are not desirable for his son to imitate in any way; therefore, Macon is trying to alienate Milkman from his own black race. This alienation has already occurred in Macon’s life, as evidenced by his claim about the importance of owning things. Macon’s obsession with ownership shows that he has adopted white cultural norms into his identity and has estranged himself from the link to his own historical connection with the black community (Terry 100). The characters of Milkman and Guitar are also able to comment on the black community. These two characters serve as foils for one another, with contrasting worldviews that emphasize the historical divisions and social tensions that have traditionally existed between the white and black racial communities. Milkman’s worldview, much like his father’s, symbolizes whiteness in his inability to relate to his community and his ambivalence toward his own racial identity. Guitar, however, is able to understand his own black racial identity, taking it to the extreme of joining the Seven Days terrorist group because he is unable to construct any understanding of relating to the white community. The setting and landscape found in Song of Solomon are able to function as a metaphor for telling the story of black Americans and their cultural and historical past. Morrison’s use of setting and landscape to comment on a black past is apparent in the very first sentence of the book, which states, “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’ clock” (Morrison 3). By using a North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent along with his flight from the top of Mercy Hospital in Michigan, the setting of this book is able to blend together aspects of the North (Michigan) and South (North Carolina), just as the black characters in the book are also tied to the North and South. The idea that Mr. Smith is planning on flying to Canada is significant with regard to the historical past of blacks, as Canada represented a place of escape from the slavery found predominantly in the South. Another example of blending the North and South occurs when discussing the mail addressed to Doctor Street: “Later, when other Negroes moved there and when the postal service became a popular means of transferring messages among them, envelopes from Louisiana, Virginia, Alabama, and Georgia began to arrive addressed to people at house numbers on Doctor Street” (Morrison 4). Here the letters sent to Michigan are able to serve as a material link to the South, where many of the blacks originally migrated from and where most of their histories are rooted (Terry 97).Setting also plays a major role in establishing the differences between Macon Dead and his sister, Pilate, and the ways in which the communities they live in serve to represent the North and South even though they both live in the same town. Those who visited Macon Dead’s house often “envied the doctor’s big dark house of twelve rooms and the green sedan” (Morrison 9). Macon Dead is a self-made man whose lucrative investments in property allow his family to enjoy an upper-middle class lifestyle in an affluent neighborhood. This contrasts with the poor run-down setting where his sister lives in Southside, a predominantly black neighborhood. Pilate’s house is described as a “narrow single-story house” that “had no electricity” (Morrison 27). The stark differences between these two settings seem to metaphorically imply the cultural differences between the North and South, with Macon Dead symbolizing the North and Pilate signifying the South (Terry 100). Other elements that qualify Song of Solomon as a work of black literature are the black cultural staples evident throughout the entire novel: for example, music, the motif of flight, and the use of traditional family structures. Music has a long history in the African tradition dating back to songs that told the history of a tribe. This idea seems to have carried over into American history during the time of slavery, when slaves used to sing songs to embrace their racial identity and past. Singing was also used as a literal talking cure for slaves, who would sing about what they desired to have most of all: freedom (Visvis 19). Therefore, this tradition of singing has much historical and cultural meaning to the black community. In Song of Solomon, Pilate is often singing the song “Sugarman,” which demonstrates the motif of flight, which in turn holds historical and cultural significance to the black community. During the days of slavery, blacks often created myths using the flight motif as a way of escaping slavery (Lee 64). The fact that Pilate is singing a song about flight shows the significance of myth and the motif of flight to the black community. The theme of flight is also one of the major themes of the book, as Milkman leaves the North in search of his true identity. Throughout the book, the motif of family life is also seen as being significant in conditioning the characters for how they will come to understand the world (Gilroy 191). Milkman’s privileged upper-middle class life characterizes his ambivalence to understanding his own race and himself. Likewise, Hagar’s family life without a father seems to lead to her obsession with loving Milkman. Guitar’s family life, including the death of his father as the result of a white man’s negligence, leads to his joining the Seven Days group. The black experience found in Song of Solomon is apparent in the portrayal of characters, the use of landscape, and the use of black culture, including music, myth, and the motif of flight. These elements all convey a sense of black identity and racial community that is distinct from the white racial community. Morrison’s use of double consciousness in the novel allows the reader to understand how characters who are polar opposites of each other — such as Macon and Pilate, Ruth and Pilate, and Guitar and Milkman — are able to tell the story of black Americans. These characters, although all are black, are able to represent divisions, such as white and black and North and South, that characterize the cultural, social, and historical identity of the black racial community from a definitively black perspective. Works Cited Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ., 2000. Print. Kirschke, Amy Helene. Art in Crisis: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Struggle for African American Identity and Memory. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana UP, 2007. Print. Lee, Dorothy H. “Song of Solomon: To Ride the Air.” Black American Literature Forum 16.2 (1982). JSTOR. Web. 28 Apr. 2010.
Appreciation, Escape, and Resurrection
In literature, what does it mean for somebody to fly? Ovid’s Metamorphoses, chronicles of Greco-Roman mythology dating over 2000 years ago, depicts the failure of flight through the fates of Icarus and Phaeton, victims of hubris. Written by Toni Morrison and published in 1977, Song of Solomon opens and ends with the image of attempted flight. An array of paradoxical connotations emerges from this image such as triumph and failure, heroism and cowardice, and life and death. One can justify those dichotomies as a direct result to Morrison’s decision to leave the reasoning behind Robert Smith and Milkman’s leap into the air open to interpretation. Although it is unclear as to why Smith and Milkman attempt to fly, the readers discover the deterrent of flight through Milkman and Guitar’s observation and interlocution about the grounded, ostentatious peacock. The conclusion is “the shit weighs you down” (179). To realize what it means to fly in this novel, this “shit” must be defined, as well. In Song of Solomon, images of flight reflect elements of past, present, and future: appreciation of one’s origin, escape from societal domestication, and resurrection of the human spirit.Whether it be a bird or plane, anything that can soar in the air must have its origin from the ground. Hence, before one can fly, one must be rooted. From the moment Milkman realizes that humans cannot fly, he detaches himself from the community as a consequence of this disheartening recognition. Although he befriends Guitar Bains, meets his enchanted aunt Pilate, and has coition with his cousin Hagar, Milkman is still aloof, for his desire to fly compels him to enervate and eventually abandon these human connections on the ground. When the Dead family’s Packard rolls sedately through the city on Sunday afternoons, Milkman feels troubled because his sight is restricted to what he can see out of the rear window, illustrating Milkman’s tragic flaw of depreciating the past in an attempt to catch a glimpse of what will pass. To watch the passing scenery he kneels on the seat, but “riding backward made him uneasy. It was like flying blind, and not knowing where he was going – just where he had been – troubled him” (32). The past should be one’s cushion, not discomfort. In a dream, Pilate sees her father and her father tells her, “You just can’t fly on off and leave a body” (147). Jake’s admonition suggests that one can only fly once all earthly affairs are resolved, for Pilate still has not interred the bones that she had been carrying for all those years. And only after Pilate buries her father’s bones on Solomon’s Leap can Pilate fly. Milkman’s odyssey to ascertain the origins of his name and family meets opposition with his conflicting desire to remain ignorant, for in ignorance he finds a superficial happiness and security. When Milkman is in the airplane for the first time in his life, the feeling of freedom he finds in the air is only a pale illusion, for Milkman still thinks freedom can be found only outside of reality and apart from his past. Milkman cannot fly without embracing his past as the air underneath his wings.Raised by a man who talks black, lives white and thinks green, Milkman cannot see beyond the money, the house, and the Packard, for materialism and vanity is the “shit” that weighs him down from flying. For Milkman to truly fly, he must relinquish all that corrupts one’s mind to disregard the values of identity and culture and instead embrace humanity. The peacock serves as the icon of societal domestication. Only once the peacock releases the heavy, ornate feathers on its tail will the peacock be able to soar freely without constraint. While belittling Pilate through his anecdote about the baby snake that eventually ate its caretaker, Macon Dead also teaches Milkman “the one important thing you’ll ever need to know: Own things” (55). Macon Dead was not born into wealth, so he had to work with just ambition to reach the pinnacle of the black hierarchy; however, Milkman was born into wealth and took it for granted, which is even worse. Society corrupted Macon Dead’s mind to such an extent that Macon Dead believes “money is freedom. The only real freedom there is” (163). Milkman adopts this principle, when he writes the word “gratitude” and includes money in a breakup letter to Hagar so that he can be liberated from Hagar’s love. Money is not freedom or a liberator, especially in opposition to love. The laws of man may revolve around money but the statute of the skies does not acknowledge the value of materialism. As Milkman’s journey develops and the layers of his family history begin to peel away, Milkman’s money and possessions quickly become useless, for the fortune is not gold but rather the past and its people. “Without ever leaving the ground she could fly” because Pilate realized that no earthly possession held any value in her heart, which the reader learns through Pilate’s disregard for her hair and social conventions (336). Milkman cannot fly until he strips off the weight of materialism and vanity on his back.Although Robert Smith and Milkman leap into the air with no evidence of success, Pilate, even after her death, soars via the birds carrying her name in the air, which insinuates a spiritual resurrection. Death is not the end of the cycle for those whose spirits were pure. Resembling Christ’s birth, life, and death, Pilate enters the world through her dead mother’s womb unaided, carries the bones of her father as society condemns her a pariah, and dies with love as her last words for the sins of Milkman and Guitar’s fatal ambition toward wealth. Yet she flies. Milkman regards Pilate’s death as a graceful flight of freedom: “Now he knew why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly” (336). Not only does Pilate resemble the life cycle of Christ, but she is an example of a human that came from the earth, for she is born without a bellybutton, eats what she grows, and is aware of her origins, which all contrast with Macon Dead, a man of society rather than earth. Robert Smith’s letter about his scheduled flight from Mercy to Lake Superior bears resemblance to Christ’s journey. His departure from Mercy connotes that Smith no longer wanted to be at the mercy of society, so he flew to Lake Superior, the symbol of haven or even heaven. Convicted for claiming to be the Son of God, Christ did not receive clemency from the throng of Jewish people and eventually was crucified, but He did rise from the dead and ascended to heaven. Hence, flight can be perceived as resurrection. After Guitar murders Pilate, Milkman realizes that only in death will Milkman be able to rise from the dead and fly like Solomon and Pilate, so he asks Guitar, “You want my life? You need it? Here” (337). He leaps off the cliff. Milkman realizes that “if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it” (337). Pilate’s rooted flight arises out of her true knowledge and recognition of the entangled feelings of love, animosity, faith, and anguish that define the existence of herself and her people; embracing the contradictions of humanity allows Pilate to live and die in joyful freedom. Seeking this freedom, Milkman takes flight at last.If one attempts to fly solo without human connections, without knowledge of the past, and without true love, then not only is that one capable of killing others but also one’s identity and culture. In order for Milkman to see the future, he must recognize, recollect, and reconcile himself to the past. Staring death, via Guitar, in its catlike eyes, Milkman gives everything for love, knowing that love is not a burden or oppression but freedom. Although the final image of flight in Song of Solomon lacks a definitive conclusion, one must not mettle with the question of whether he lives or dies, but rather whether he dies or flies.
Love as an Identity in Song of Solomon
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison is a classic novel that tells the story of a man’s coming of age. When the protagonist Milkman truly matures, he is in his mid-thirties, and has lived, up until his journey, a life of privilege, complacency, and wealth. Realizing that he is an adult, alcoholic, with little empathy or ambition, he begins a journey to find the gold his aunt ‘took’ from his father when they were children. Instead of a physical treasure, Milkman discovers his history, culture, and identity. Morrison’s analysis of love of family, culture, material goods, and empathy follows the story: Milkman comes of age when he is able to empathize and find love for his history, himself, and the people around him. While certain characters in the novel revolve around their love of material goods, Morrison uses these characters as counterexamples to her thesis that love creates an identity.
Milkman begins the novel as a young boy subject to his mother’s perversion. This introduction to ‘love’ as a physical obligation, and later, the removal of it, alienates the idea of true love to Milkman. His family is abusive towards one another, and he grows up smoking and drinking in order to fill the absence of meaning in his life. By the time Milkman is in his mid-thirties, he still has not found something to fill the void- to inspire his love. When his best friend, Guitar, points out how recklessly Milkman leads his life, he reflects that he has never been empathetic, and that his life is defined by his apathy. “Maybe Guitar was right-partly. His [Milkman’s] 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 of, inconvenience himself for” (Morrison, 107). However, the prospect of finding his family’s gold and returning it to his father motivates him to leave his small town.
Milkman’s incentive is influenced by everyone he grew up around, but particularly by his father, Macon Dead II, and his aunt, Pilate. Macon Dead II is a greedy man. When he was a young boy, his father was killed and his farm taken from him. As an adult, Macon owns and rents properties, and is one of the wealthiest colored people in the city. He makes his belief that nothing animate is as important as material goods very clear to Milkman. When Milkman is 12, Macon says to him: “‘Let me tell you right now the one important thing you’ll ever need to know: Own things. And let the things you own own other things. Then you’ll own yourself and other people too,’” (55). As an adult, Milkman emulates this in his original incentive for finding the gold: his only motivator is money. In contrast, Pilate is full of life, and places much more value on people and emotions than on materials. Macon says about Pilate: “’Pilate can’t teach you a thing you can use in this world. Maybe the next one, but not this one,’” (55). Additionally, when Pilate dies, she says “‘I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would a loved ‘em all. If I’d knowed more, I would a loved more,’” (336). Pilate’s intuition and love gives her a sense of vivaciousness that inspires Milkman, and which he desires to find in himself and others during the latter half of his journey. It is this query- for emotional wholeness and a connection to the greater world, that ultimately drives Milkman’s discoveries.
Milkman’s journey follows the route of Pilate’s when she was a girl, and as he travels, his motivations for finding the gold develop. When Pilate was a girl, she traveled because she was isolated because of her lack of a navel. On her journey, she sought to answer the questions: “When am I happy and when am I sad and what is the difference? What do I need to know to stay alive? What is true in the world?,” (149). Pilate’s query led her to find a place in the world despite a physical defect. Like Pilate, Milkman feels isolated from his community because of his lack of identity. He hopes that returning the gold to his family will give him a sense of belonging and acceptance. In the beginning of his journey, Milkman is solely motivated by the gold. After his first attempt at finding it in Danville, Milkman admits: “There wasn’t any gold, but now he knew that all the fine reasons for wanting it didn’t mean a thing. The fact was he wanted the gold because it was gold and he wanted to own it. Free,” (257). Milkman ‘realizes’ that his desire to please the people he has met, and to discover more about his own past, are not his true reasons for wanting the gold, and is able to admit that he, like his father, is motivated solely by greed. Morrison uses Milkman and Macon to illustrate that this motivation is fruitless.
On her journey, Pilate went to Shalimar, Virginia to find her family; Milkman follows Pilate’s trail to Shalimar in search of stashed gold. However, what he finds is much more valuable. On his first night there, Milkman goes with some men into the woods to hunt. Exhausted, he sits and is introspective: “…his self- the cocoon that was ‘personality’- gave way… There was nothing here to help him- not his money, his car, his father’s reputation, his suit, or his shoes… all a man had was what he was born with,” (277). He is able to recognize that monetary motivation is ‘ignorant and vain’ (276), and that he is not entitled to anything, his material goods hold no value, and that the most valuable result of the trip is his sense of belonging. After the hunt he walked back to the car “like his legs were stalks, tree trunks, a part of his body that extended down down down into the rock and soil, and were comfortable there- on the earth and on the place where he walked. And he did not limp,” (281). Milkman’s ability to overcome a life-long physical defect (his limp) only after such introspection and alignment of his motivations, like Pilate’s, symbolizes that in order to be whole one must overcome their emotional shortcomings.
The day after the hunt in Shalimar, Milkman encounters Guitar, who accuses him of his familiar egocentric behavior. Milkman realizes that “in all his life, Guitar had never seen Milkman give anybody a hand, especially a stranger… Guitar had accused him of selfishness and indifference; told him he wasn’t serious, and didn’t have any fellow feeling-none whatsoever,” (297). Startled by this realization that all of Guitar’s accusations were substantiated, Milkman is finally able to piece together his identity. He laments who he was before he traveled: “… the consequences of Milkman’s own stupidity would remain, and regret would always outweigh the things he was proud of having done,” (335). His actions as a selfish, careless man had alienated people important to him, and prevented him from finding love as a young adult. It is not until Milkman discovers what he deems most important: his family, culture, and love, that he is able to transform his identity into a caring, loving man.
Morrison illustrates Milkman’s transformation by portraying him as happy and whole. About to finalize his tracing of his lineage, Milkman was “as excited as a child confronted with boxes and boxes of presents under the skirt of a Christmas tree… He was as eager and happy as he had ever been in his life,” (304). Morrison compares Milkman’s emotional growth to material goods, Christmas presents, in order to starkly juxtapose Milkman now and Milkman before his journey. After he learns his family’s history, Milkman is instantly elated. He goes swimming with a woman and ‘leaps, dives, grins, and splashes’ (327) in the water out of pure happiness. This happiness symbolizes the final part of Milkman’s maturation- he has learned what he came to learn, and found that love defines him.
Throughout Song of Solomon, Milkman Dead undergoes a transformation from a selfish, hating young adult, to an empathetic, loving man. Author Toni Morrison emphasizes this maturation by comparing and contrasting Milkman to his father, Macon Dead, and his aunt, Pilate Dead. When Milkman has matured and found his identity, he is most like Pilate and has abandoned his traits similar to Macon. Like Macon, when Milkman is motivated by greed, he is unsuccessful in finding love. By following Pilate’s footsteps, Milkman is able to go through tremendous personal growth. Milkman’s coming-of-age gives him an identity as someone full of love and life; he has achieved the vivaciousness he desired. At the end of the novel, after Pilate dies, Milkman attempts to fly over a ravine, surrendering himself to the power of the winds and relying on his newfound power of love. This sweeping gesture signifies that Milkman has finally learned that life is “‘not about living longer. It’s about how you live and why,’” (160); he chooses to live with love.
Freedom is a State of Mind
Freedom is a seemingly simple word. General definition states that it is the power to act, think and speak as one pleases. If one wanted to become less concrete, it can also be suggested that freedom itself, is a state of mind. In addition to this, generally, when an individual expresses a desire for freedom, it is explained why said freedom is a necessity and freedom what situation. However, concepts, such as freedom have a tendency to lack simplicity when interpreted within literature. It is arguably common within literature for the theme of freedom and the concept of flight to coincide. Morrison’s Song of Solomon emphasizes the use of flight imagery in order to greatly contribute to the theme of freedom.
This novel begins with a strong emphasis on the importance of flight, as Mr. Robert Smith, the insurance agent, commits suicide by jumping off of the roof of Mercy Hospital. His suicide note read, “…I will take off from Mercy and fly away on my own wings” (Morrison 3). It is suggested that Mr. Smith’s jump, and his supposed ability to soar, is symbolic of his spiritual and mental freedom. Though the morbidity behind this reasoning could be somewhat overwhelming, it can be interpreted that the jump off of Mercy hospital was Mr. Smith being granted mercy, and the ability to finally find his own freedom. As the story progresses, the audience later learns from Guitar that his suicide was an escape from the overbearing reign of the Seven Days organization; an organization in which crimes in the name of revenge are performed in secret. Guitar explains the importance of secrecy in this organization while talking to Milkman. He then went on to say, “…if it ever gets to be too much, like it was for Robert Smith, we do that rather than crack and tell somebody” (158). In this instance, and in others that will later be referenced, even in death, flight is representative of freedom. Mr. Smith’s lack of flight deeply impacts the four-year old Milkman to the point that “…he lost all interest in himself” (9). At this young age, the belief that he would never achieve freedom due to his inability to fly, was a concept that he carried with him throughout the duration of this novel.
The narrator continues the story and begins to depict Sunday afternoon car rides that aside from Milkman, were found enjoyable to the entire family. He was described as being stuck between this parents and only being able to see “…the winged woman careening off of the nose of the car” (31). The winged woman is symbolizing freedom in flight to the rest of the family, the ability to move faster than any human and a form of superiority, in a sense. The physical manifestation on the nose of the car was the perfect representation of the family’s desire to escape their duties, even if it were just for a little while. However, as mentioned before, Milkman was not particularly fond of these rides. For him, the winged woman was simply a painful reminder of both his lack of personal freedom and his inability to fly. The narrator goes on by stating that although Milkman was uncomfortable, it was better than sitting backwards. “It was like flying blind, and not knowing where he was going – just where he had been – troubled him” (32). This is highly symbolic due to the fact that it mirrors his existence. In other words, his personal belief that he would never be granted freedom affected his ability to see into the future and find peace and meaning in his life. In this instance, it becomes clear that the fact that he only knows his past, and has no future planned, is terrifying.
As Milkman grows up, he becomes very comparable to his father in the sense that they both seem to be obsessed with wealth – gold in particular. As his obsession grows, he becomes aware of a green tarp in which Pilate, his aunt, supposedly stored gold; although it is revealed later that it was in fact not gold. Soon after his “discovery”, Milkman goes to Guitar and a conversation pertaining on methods to acquire the loot ensues. While this conversation is taking place a white peacock mysteriously ambles into their view. A peacock, being a symbol of ostentation is extremely relevant due to their conversation of wealth. However, it is well known that peacocks are not able to sustain long periods of flight, thus making them a symbol of flightless ostentation. Guitar goes on to explain to Milkman that peacocks are not able to fly due to their ostentatious structure. He says, “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 weighs you down” (179). Since the peacock is a symbol of both wealth and the inability to fly, Guitar is suggesting that in order to achieve true freedom, one must first liberate themselves of the constructs that both themselves and society has placed on them.
Milkman takes this conversation to heart and sets out on his search for gold in Montour County, Pennsylvania. The very beginning of his trip set the stage for his personal development and the solidification of the importance of the theme of flight within this novel. Because of the fact that Milkman chose to travel by airplane to Pennsylvania, his theoretical or possibly even spiritual flight began. Morrison strengthens this by having the narrator inform the audience that while he is in the air, he is free from responsibilities, with a feeling of invulnerability. But when on the ground, he feels trapped and constrained (220). After his quest for gold fails, Milkman purchases a car and leaves his hometown in search of his ancestral history in Shalimar, Virginia. He is metaphorically “flying” away from his personal struggles – a form of liberation. “And now, sitting behind a steering wheel, he felt even better. He was his own director” (262). Since Milkman not only owns this car, but is driving himself to find answers to his questions, he is experiencing his own freedom. This deeply contrasts the last time a vehicle held as much emphasis within this novel. As opposed to Milkman’s childhood, he finally is beginning to feel as though he is in control of his own life.
When Milkman returns to his hometown after his journey through his familial history, it is evident to the audience that he has come of age. Rather than chasing wealth and prosperity, he is able to find peace within himself because he is aware of others that came before him. At this point in the novel, it would be accurate to describe Milkman as having a certain degree of freedom; freedom from the constraints that he placed on himself in his early childhood. However, the rest of his family has not been through the same spiritual journey, and although Milkman feels at peace, the rest of his family and town are in the same state in which he left them – trapped by both societal expectations/constraints and personal duties. When he returns home, the novel unfolds in a series of rather unfortunate events. Following the off-screen death of his cousin and lover, Hagar, comes the on-screen, heart wrenching death of Hagar’s mother, Pilate. Pilate, after being accidentally shot by Guitar, passes away. Immediately following her passing, birds begin circling above them, one swoops down, picks up a shiny object, and flies off. This is once again representative of the notion that even in death, flight represents freedom. In this moment, Milkman then comes to the conclusion that he loved Pilate as strongly as he did because “Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly” (336). All along, Pilate had known that she had the power of freedom within herself; the power of courage and personal faith, but it had taken Milkman his whole life to finally witness her soar. She had this ability of flight naturally, while Milkman had to go on the journey of a lifetime, and dig deep within himself and his ancestry to achieve the exact same thing. The novel comes to a close with an interpretable ending of Milkman lunging at Guitar. The final line of Song of Solomon states, “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it” (337). Interpreting this with the thematic lens of freedom, it is suggesting that much like Pilate, Milkman is at peace with himself, and has found freedom in his death. In other words, he has finally been able to let his spirit soar.
The theme of freedom, although could be considered to be simplistic, is a highly complex topic, especially when paired with the extremely interpretable concept of flight imagery. Song of Solomon explores the vast potential of both of these thematic aspects in an extremely relatable way. The novel allows freedom to be interpreted as freedom from the constructs that are created by both society and themselves, as well as freedom from responsibilities and simple, daily life tasks. The consistent flight references pair with the desire of freedom very well in the sense that, possessing the ability to fly – the capability to escape any situation with a simple flap of the wings, is complete independence. This is something that the large majority of the “main” characters, such as Guitar, Pilate and Milkman, spend most of the novel either searching for, or achieving. Although the ending of the novel was essentially left to personal interpretation, after taking into consideration the power of flight, as well as the theme of freedom; it is acceptable to infer that Guitar, Pilate and Milkman, achieved a certain degree of their own personal freedom.
The Reader May Know Their Names: Intersectional Representation in Song of Solomon
Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel Song of Solomon is easily one of her best-selling novels and is often credited as contributing to her winning the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. However, despite its popularity Song of Solomon is in many ways radically different than other work Morrison has produced. As scholar Wilhelm Bertens points out, “Ever since her first novel . . . she has set herself apart… by portraying and celebrating unique, powerful voices of the marginalized women from American history and contemporary American life” (Bertens 115). While the majority of books Toni Morrison has published feature black women as protagonists, Song of Solomon, which is arguably one of her most famous works, features a black man as the protagonist, which represents a noteworthy departure from her typical form. Although the novel does not feature a black woman as the primary protagonist however, in writing a novel that features a male protagonist, Morrison effectively communicates the intersectional oppression black women suffer not only through the text, but through the very structure of the novel.
Before the novel even begins, Morrison firmly establishes that women in the novel, and by extension society, are marginalized. The epigraph of the novel reads “The fathers may soar / and the children may know their names” (Morrison ix). The brevity of the epigraph, the conditional statements therein, as well as the ambiguous pronoun/antecedent agreement surrounding the word “their” leave the epigraph’s meaning up for interpretation. Perhaps it means the children may know their father’s names as a result of their fathers soaring, and perhaps it means the children will come to a better understanding of their own identity through their fathers’ accomplishments. What is not left up to interpretation is the glaring absence of the mother figure in the epigraph. The presence of a child and a father biologically necessitates a mother at least at some point in the equation, even in the case of adoption, yet no matter how the epigraph is interpreted, the woman is not given a place within the scenario. It not only neglects to mention her, but it fails to even consider her. What makes the absence of a woman in the epigraph even more shocking is the juxtaposition between the content of the epigraph and the bible story from which the book gets its name. Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) in the bible is a fairly equitable conversation between two lovers in which the woman is given just as much of a voice to express herself as the man. By wholly excluding women from the epigraph of Song of Solomon, Morrison lays the foundation of a story that structurally excludes women just as they are excluded and marginalized in society.
The omission of women in the epigraph is illustrated in the first few chapters through the character of Ruth Foster, particularly in the driving scene. Her husband, Macon Dead, is in the driver’s seat as they drive to the beachfront property he hopes to purchase for a profit. Despite his aspirations, his child still asks “‘Who’s going to live in them? There’s no colored people who can afford to have two houses’” which serves to remind him, as well as the reader, that his goals are going to inevitably more difficult to realize because he is black (Morrison 33). Concurrently, Macon Dead subjugates his wife Ruth by reminding her she can not drive, and Morrison conveys her subjugation by placing her in the passenger seat, which is defined solely by the absence of control. It is no coincidence that Morrison includes Macon Dead’s setbacks due to race in the same scene that she writes about Ruth being marginalized and silenced by her husband. Through showing Ruth and Macon dealing with oppression at the same time, Morrison emphasizes how women are subjugated just as black people are and in doing so stresses the intersectional identity of black women.
Morrison further emphasizes the intersectional identity and consequent twofold oppression black women face through Macon Dead’s attitude on ownership. While working with his son, Macon Dead passes on some words of advice to Milkman which he claims to live by, saying “Let me tell you right now the one important thing you’ll ever need to know: Own things. And let the things you own own other things. Then you’ll own yourself and other people too” (Morrison 55). Ownership of “things” is one issue, but Macon Dead’s accepting, and moreover favorable view of owning people is troubling. Ownership in and of itself is always a form of oppression as it places one party in direct control of a subordinate party, and furthermore, the discussion of ownership when applied to people is in essence, an endorsement of slavery. Macon Dead’s apparent favorable attitude towards owning other people may come off as bewildering to the reader, but given Macon Dead’s attitude towards Ruth, it becomes clear that Morrison is using Macon Dead to communicate the message that oppression is intersectional. It harkens back to the idea Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about in his letter from Birmingham jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (King 2). Just as King writes about injustice transcending boundaries of race and gender, Ruth being absent while her husband talks about owning people forces the reader to consider the ways in which Ruth must be oppressed, and in a broader sense how women in general are sometimes oppressed by their husbands, regardless of race. As a result, Morrison is able to effectively use the structure of her novel in conjunction with the content to raise awareness of the difficulties black women face even without a black woman in the scene.
The idea of ownership in relation to the oppression of black women is further developed later in the book through Guitar’s opinion of Hagar. Early in the second part of the book, Guitar talks about his philosophy on the freedom of black men, saying “‘Look. It’s the condition our condition is in. Everybody wants the life of a black man… White men want us dead or quiet—which is the same thing as dead. White women, same thing… And black women, they want your whole self. Love, they call it, and understanding” (Morrison 222). His description of varying groups’ attitudes towards the lives of black objectifies black men as people that can be possessed, and the idea that black men’s lives can not only be possessed but are assigned value by groups outside of themselves alludes to the three fifths clause of the constitution. However, in keeping with the idea that black women face a sort of twofold oppression, Morrison then demonstrates how women are given even less power in society. Later in part II, Guitar faces a Hagar who is desolate from unrequited love and says “He can’t value you more than you value yourself,” which on the surface sounds like sound advice on the being comfortable with one’s self before entering a relationship (Morrison 306). However, Guitar is actually implying that whatever Hagar thinks of herself, though important insofar as it will have an impact on Milkman’s assessment of her, actually carries no weight in terms of what her value is as a person. Rather, he asserts, her true value, or the value that matters, comes from what Milkman thinks of her. By extension, Guitar is asserting that women are worth what men say they are worth. Through Guitar’s philosophy on women, Morrison draws a direct comparison to his attitude towards people assigning value to his life, and not only points out that he is a hypocrite, but also points out that black women are told what their value is by both white people and black men.
Morrison continues to explore the idea that women’s voices are absent in societal conversations of value through the character of First Corinthians. Corinthians is college educated, has spent a semester in France, and is ambitious, yet she can not only not get a job, but men are uninterested in her because it is implied that her intelligence intimidates them. Morrison conveys her situation to the reader through the lines “She was First Corinthians Dead, daughter of a wealthy property owner and the elegant Ruth Foster… Corinthians Dead, who had held herself pure all these years (well, almost all, and almost pure), was now banging on the car-door window of a yardman” (Morrison 197). Corinthians’ unemployment despite qualification is an all too familiar aspect of black life in America. However, Morrison is sure to couple the idea that Corinthians can not get a good job because she is black with the fact that men overlook her because she is too smart. It is also worth noting that she works as a maid, which is one of the most stereotypically feminized job in existence Through Corinthians’ struggle to find work or a suitable partner, Morrison once more effectively raises the issue of intersectional oppression.
Furthermore, the structure of the book itself marginalizes Corinthians just as society does. She is hardly mentioned through the first part, and suddenly the reader is given her life’s story and struggles. It is as if she had to fight to even get mentioned in the book, and when she does the moment is fleeting and the narrator soon returns the story of Milkman, showing how society, even when it focuses on the trials and tribulations of black men, often has no problem glossing over the struggles of black women. Morrison writes the freest woman in the novel in Pilate, who not only finds balance between her western identity and African heritage, but who also finds a balance between feminine and masculine energy. In analyzing the sense of balance Pilate maintains through the book, scholar Sophie Ahmad writes “Pilate…derides such values and draws sustenance only from her memories of the past, her father’s words, and a recognition of herself as part of a larger black community. She does not allow the white West to dictate or dominate her lifestyle” (Ahmad 67). Ahmad is absolutely correct in her assessment of Pilate. Whereas some of the other characters in the book lead lives in reaction to white people (i.e. Guitar’s hunting and killing, Macon Dead’s enterprising, and Hagar’s makeover), Pilate remains fiercely independent, and she is able to do so because she draws strength from her past and from those around her (something Milkman is not able to do until the very end of the book). Furthermore, she is able to escape some of the traps the other women in the book fall into because she dominates the men around her. Her very name is assertive; even though it carries some negative connotations. Pilate was still responsible for killing the son of God, which ethics aside is an incredibly impressive feat, and makes her name much more imposing than Milkman or Guitar.
It is important to note however that she does not compromise her feminine side, but rather, she strikes a balance. The first time Milkman and Guitar see her she is described as being “on the front steps sitting wide-legged, in a long-sleeved, long-skirted, black dress… she was all angles…knees mostly, and elbows. One foot pointed East and one pointed West” (Morrison 36). The dress Pilate wears is classically feminine, while the color black and the sharp angles are more typically associated with masculinity. Pilate encompasses both, and the balance she is able to strike is further demonstrated in one of her feet pointing East and the other pointing West. Through Pilate, Morrison endorses an ideology of not compromising one’s identity, but balancing it with what is needed to navigate one’s surroundings in order to live the freest life.
Though Song of Solomon features a male protagonist, a gender shift that represents a marked departure from Morrison’s typical protagonist, she is able to represent the intersectional struggle of black women just as well through either strategically making black women absent at key points in the novel or comparing the oppression of women to the oppression of black people. She demonstrates how Ruth, Hagar, and Corinthians are all oppressed both because they are black and because they are women, and uses the absence of women in some scenes to show the reality of intersectional oppression. However, she communicates a recommendation on overcoming that adversity in the way Pilate lives her life. From peeling an orange in the first scene to taking a bullet for Milkman in the last, Pilate remains perhaps the only consistent symbol of strength throughout the novel, for although Milkman had to learn how to fly, Pilate knew how to ride the wind all along.
Ahmad, Sophia. “Women Who Make a Man: Female Protagonists in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” Atenea, vol. 28, no. 2, Dec. 2008, pp. 59-73. Bertens, Johannes Willem. Postmodernism: the Key Figures. Blackwell, 2009. King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Received by Eight Alabama Clergymen, 16 Apr. 1963. Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. Vintage Books, 2016.
Gold’s Symbolism in Song of Solomon
Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison, explores how each character searches for something, and the novel examines the ways in which they cope when they cannot find it. In the novel, many of the characters are trapped by their materialistic desires. The need to fulfill those desires erodes their souls, making them bitter. For some of these characters, their wants and needs are in the form of gold. Song of Solomon examines the human condition of being physically, spiritually, and financially trapped through the classic symbol of desire, gold.
The protagonist, Milkman, is trapped physically and mentally. He feels as though his life has no meaning, and that if he could leave his situation on Not Doctor Street, he could be happy. From the time he was little, Milkman wanted freedom and escape from his life, or to “fly away.” He becomes sad and isolated from his friends and later, isolated from his family. He feels as though his future is defined by the events of his past and is constantly troubled by other people’s problems. He believes that he has done nothing to deserve the burden of the knowledge that people have given him and is too far inside himself to appreciate the love that his family members provide him. His desire to escape his life is shown when Morrison says “He wanted the money – desperately, he believed – but other than making tracks out of the city, far away from Not Doctor Street, Sonny’s Shop, and Mary’s Place, and Hagar, he could not visualize a life that much different from the one he had. New People. New Places. Command. That was all he wanted in his life” (179, 180). Milkman finally finds an opportunity to escape his life through his aunt Pilate’s gold.
For Milkman, the gold represents what he has always desired, freedom and flight. This is shown when Morrison describes Milkman and Guitar’s first encounter with what they thought was gold: “They both saw it [the sack of gold] at the same time. It hung heavy, hung green like the green of Easter eggs left too long in the dye. And like Easter, it promised everything: the Risen Son and the heart’s lone desire” (185). The idea of fulfilling this craving and achieving happiness makes Milkman selfish and cruel, causing him to betray his loving aunt by robbing her. When he discovers that Pilate does not have the gold, he goes on a journey to find it where he finds himself along the way. After gaining a sense of identity, the journey becomes more about freeing himself mentally than finding the gold and escaping physically. He has an epiphany where he is overcome with happiness and realizes that he no longer desires escape from his family’s problems or his life, and in the same way, gives up on finding the gold. This is described by Morrison’s quote, “[H]e felt a sudden rush of affection for them all… Apparently he thought he deserved only to be loved – from a distance, though – and given what he wanted… Maybe all he was really saying was: I am not responsible for your pain, share your happiness with me but not your unhappiness” (278). At the end of the novel, Milkman never finds the gold, but gains a new identity when he realizes that the freedom gold can bring him is not worth the betrayal required to gain it. Milkman’s experience supports gold’s symbolism for a worldly desires because his want for gold disappears just as his search for happiness ends. When he gives up what weighs him down, he finally is able to fly. However, other characters are not as fortunate as Milkman is in abandoning the worldly desires that trap them.
Guitar, Milkman’s best friend growing up, is strapped financially. He lives in poverty in the South Side of the city and wants so badly to escape and to live a more affluent life. He compares himself to wealthy white people who murder innocent African-Americans, and cannot understand how his situation is fair. He says “[E]verybody wants the life of a black man… Fair is one more thing I’ve given up” (Morrison 222, 224). These internal and external conflicts eat away at him, and he sees no other way to cope than to become a murderer. Like Milkman, he sees gold as an opportunity to free himself through the wealth it can bring him. This is shown when Morrison writes “…he [Milkman] wondered if Guitar simply could not resist the lure of something he had never had-money” (180). He speaks to Milkman about all the things gold can buy him, not knowing that the gold will lead him to attack his best friend. His perspective is ironic because once, while giving Milkman advice, he says ”[A]ll that jewelry weighs it [the peacock[ down… Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down” (179). His viewpoint shows that, like the peacock’s tail, materialistic desires weigh down your soul, and you must give them up in order to be free. This contradicts his obsession with wealth, which ultimately weighs him down to the point of committing murder and betrayal. When Milkman gives up on finding the gold, Guitar continues. In the end, Guitar remains trapped by his greed and obsession with bettering his life financially through the gold, which comes to a head when he kills Pilate.
Macon Dead, Milkman’s father, is a slave to his desire for property and power, making him spiritually trapped. A humble farm boy turned-wealthy realtor, he is bitter about his past. After witnessing his father’s murder as a boy, he runs away where he finds gold, beginning his desire for wealth and power that last for the rest of his life. “Gold… Life, safety, and luxury fanned out before him like the tail-spread of a peacock, and as he stood there trying to distinguish each delicious color, he saw the dusty boots of his father standing just on the other side of the shallow pit… Pilate darted around the cave calling him, looking for him, while Macon piled the sacks of gold into the tarpaulin” (170, 171), describes his transformation from a humble farm boy to a money-hungry man trapped by his craving for property and prosperity. As the quote describes, Macon is indifferent to the ghost of his father whom he claimed to care so much about. While he believes that wealth will be the solution to all of his problems, it actually isolates him from his family and the people who love him. The traumatic event of his father’s murder changed him, as Morrison describes what she writes “[T]he 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 in the dirt” (50, 51). This, combined with his desire for money, rejection by his wife’s father, and later, witnessing his wife kiss her father’s dead fingers, turns Macon into a cold, heartless, and broken man. He is trapped by his sadness, anger, and hunger for power, making him spiritually disconnected from love, his family, and immaterial things in life. When the possibility of obtaining gold resurfaces, he is naturally drawn in and gets behind the scheme of robbing his own sister, Pilate. The prosperity that gold could bring him is just another form of psychological imprisonment for Macon, pushing him farther from his sister and from love. His want for gold is stronger than his want for love, family, and loyalty, showing gold’s symbolism for desire.
In Song of Solomon, the main characters are trapped by their materialistic desires, which are symbolized by gold. Milkman, Guitar, and Macon, each see gold as a way to fulfil aspects of their lives that are missing. Gold’s symbolism for worldly desires is consistent with the fact that Pilate had no interest in the gold when she in Macon found it. Instead, she took her father’s bones with her, showing that she cares more about spiritual value than she does about materialistic value. This reinforces gold’s symbolism for acquisitive desires because Pilate does not chase the gold; the three men each have different materialistic desires, so they do pursue the gold. The wealth that comes from the gold is a temptation for the men because it seems like a solution each of their problems and an end to their longings. However, their attempts to retrieve the gold push them closer into deception and farther away from their loved ones, until Guitar becomes a murderer and Macon becomes cold and dead (hence his last name). In the end, Milkman is the only one of the three that abandons his need for “gold” and realizes the true value of the people in his life and of himself.
Home is Where the Cherries Grow: Symbolism in Song of Solomon
Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon tells the story of Macon “Milkman” Dead, a character completely alienated from his community, family and heritage. In the novel, readers follow his journey to the fictional town of Shalimar that he takes in order to fully understand the cultural heritage which has been left for him. He begins his travels as a person without a home or strong ties to family, but in the end, finds the place where he finally feels he belongs. The image of home in the book is often associated with the motif of cherries, which evokes nostalgia for different people in Milkman’s immediate family throughout the book.
Morrison develops a theme of the importance of home and belonging by using cherries to symbolize the ancestry of the Dead family.First, Morrison uses cherry trees to represent a loss of home. After Macon and Pilate, then teen-aged, flee the site of their father’s murder and stay the night at Circe’s home Pilate is immediately reminded of cherry trees. Macon and Pilate run to Circe’s home for refuge, but Pilate regrets what she will miss. “[Pilate] wanted her own cherries, from her own cherry tree, with stems and seeds; not some too-sweet mashed mush” (167). Morrison portrays the tragedy of twelve-year-old Pilate’s sudden loss of a home by showing Pilate as critical of Circe’s jam, which is said to not have “stems and seeds” and to be “too sweet”. While Circe is considered a close confidant for the children, they do not accept her place as “home”, which Pilate’s unenthusiastic opinion of Circe’s cherry jam shows.
While cherry trees represent a loss of home, cherry pies represent an attempt to re-establish familial connection. Macon tries to keep Pilate from Milkman while he could, “forbidding him to go near” (40) her and forces her to leave his son and his home and not to come back until she could “show some respect for herself” (20). This forced separation prevents them from forming a bond. Therefore, when Pilate invites Milkman into her home, she begins by extending a metaphorical olive branch. “Your father…he couldn’t cook worth poot. Once I made a cherry pie for him, or tried to…Our papa was dead, you see. They blew him five feet up into the air” (40-41). By beginning her tale with a cherry pie, and further expressing her willingness to provide information on a story from her point of view, she attempts to reclaim her relationship with her brother’s side of the family, one that knows less of the sordid history between Pilate and Macon. Her gamble works out in the long run, as by the end of the book, Macon helps Pilate bury the bones of her dead father and sings during her flight from life. She has finally reforged a link with her remaining family.
Later in the novel, Morrison uses artificial cherry flavoring to symbolize a lack of belonging. When Milkman’s car breaks down in Shalimar and he goes into a bar to recover, he buys a “Cherry Smash” soda from the bartender. Unlike Milkman and Pilate, Milkman does not understand the cherries’ symbolic value from the beginning, simply referring to it as a “red liquid” or “sweet soda water”. His indifference towards the artificial taste of his drink starkly contrasts with an earlier episode in the novel, in which Pilate tearfully rejects Circe’s cherry jam because it is artificial. While Milkman shows no particular emotion in regards to the flavor of his soda, Pilate “began to cry the day Circe brought her white toast and cherry jam for breakfast” (167). Pilate’s rejection of artificial cherry flavoring reveals her own recognition of what a real home is, whereas Milkman’s failure to react to the flavoring connects to his upbringing, which mirrors his disconnection to his family and community.
Toni Morrison uses cherries to symbolize nostalgia in her novel, Song of Solomon, in order to develop a theme of home and belonging. She introduces it as a means to initiate family ties in the midst of a dysfunctional sibling relationship and further uses it to establish the idea of home and Milkman’s ensuing search for a home of his own. It is a small fruit with a large pit, making it difficult to eat – similar to how finding a home for oneself is hard to do. Furthermore, processed cherries don’t have the seeds (such as the jam Circe gives Pilate and the cherry soda Milkman drinks) reflecting how an inauthentic home is easier to find, yet unfulfilling, but finding a real home and building family requires more work and dedication.
Magical Realism in Song of Solomon
Throughout the course of history, mystical concepts and magical elements have been woven into virtually every civilization’s culture. From angels and demons to fantastical creatures like unicorns and leprechauns, supernatural beliefs have permeated the songs, stories, and other fundamental aspects of numerous societies throughout history. This characterization is especially true in African culture. For thousands of years, indigenous Africans have worshipped a plethora of spirits and Gods-practices that have allowed them to accept seemingly supernatural events into their daily reality. Circumstances such as these have been recorded and documented extensively through art and literature, creating a genre of expression known as magical realism. This technique allows the author to blend realistic narrative with surreal elements of the supernatural. Examples of this can be seen throughout Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon. Morrison’s novel follows a young African American man by the name of Milkman Dead as he explores his heritage on an existential journey of self-discovery. Throughout Song of Solomon, Morrison incorporates magical realism to blur the line between the supernatural and plausible reality in order to challenge various elements of modern American society’s accepted sensibilities in regard to African Americans.
Morrison begins her transcendence into the world of magical realism as she presents Pilate Dead, Milkman’s aunt, without a navel. Pilate’s stomach “…was as smooth and sturdy as her back, at no place interrupted by a navel…there was not another stomach on earth like hers,” (Morrison 29). This almost supernatural absence of a navel, a scientific implausibility, sets Pilate apart from her peers. She is the only person on earth lacking this feature, and she is spurned by society because of it. People “…froze at the sight of that belly…became limp even…’What are you?’ one man had shouted…it isolated her…even a traveling sideshow would have rejected her…” (Morrison 148). Pilate is a person of tremendous character; she is honest, caring, and wise-yet these facts are forgotten when people discover that she is different from themselves. Kamal Pradhan, an English literature researcher with Academia, describes Pilate as “…a fearless mother who is selflessly devoted to others…she is responsible for Milkman’s safe birth and continues to protect him for years afterward…” (Pradhan 1). He continues to state “Despite these positive attributes…she is discriminated against because…she is different,” (Pradhan 2). It is through Pilate and her uninterrupted stomach that Morrison comments on the mistreatment of African Americans throughout history and even in present day America. She presents the reasoning behind Pilate’s isolation, a missing navel, as absurd and unrealistic. This allegorical message extends throughout the novel as racial tension and acts of discrimination are prominent. Morrison is suggesting society hating African Americans based solely on their skin color is just as irrational as a community isolating an individual who was born, through some act of magic, without a navel. She incorporates magical realism in order to challenge the audience to consider the progress made by their great nation in regard to African Americans over the last few decades, because–despite the Civil Rights Movement–many are still struggling for basic equality.
This theme of racial injustice continues as Morrison explores Pilate Dead’s connection with the spiritual world. Though her father died when she was a young girl, Pilate is constantly visited by his ghost. She “…sees him around…guiding…helping,” (Morrison 168-169). It is the Pilate’s ability to accept her father’s spirit that allows him to visit and assist her. His presence comforts her and guides her through troubling times, and her belief in the supernatural strengthens her connection with the natural world and her own self–allowing her to lead a more sincere, authentic life. Freda Kirkham, author of “Women and Voice in Song of Solomon” states that “…her spirituality…including her connection to her dead father…him speaking to her from the spirit world, telling her to ‘Sing’…defines Pilate as a person. She is willing to learn…accepting…and she introduces those close to her to this…connection with this realm…this use of spiritual song,” (Kirkham 4-5). Pilate’s open-mindedness and acceptance of the supernatural has led to her ability to live a happy, authentic life–unmarred by the corruption of capitalistic greed and motivation. This in stark contrast with her niece, First Corinthians Dead. Corinthians was raised in part by her father, Macon Dead, who “…behaves like a white man, thinks like a white man…brought his kids up like a white man…he’s greedy,” (Morrison 224-226). Throughout her childhood, Corinthians was never introduced to the possibility of a supernatural world beyond the one in which she lives. Instead, she was taught the conservative lessons of 1940’s America and is made to follow the path that is expected of her. Corinthians goes to college, and “Her education had taught her how to be an enlightened mother and wife, able to contribute to the civilization….she believed she was a prize for a professional man,” (Morrison 188). Corinthians is smart and well educated, but because she is unable to connect to the world of supernatural possibilities, she is closed-minded and unable to connect to herself fully and by truly successful and happy. She “…lacked the drive…no hunger, no hustle,” (Morrison 188). Morrison highlights this contrast between Pilate and Corinthians in order to address the issue of discredited knowledge among African Americans. Throughout history, African Americans and their knowledge was often disregarded because it was insinuated that blacks were morally and intellectually inferior to whites. By comparing Pilate’s innate, supernatural wisdom to Corinthians’ “white…academic knowledge”, which leaves Corinthians completely incapable of dealing with the harsh reality of society, Morrison is using magical realism in order to exhibit the importance of the knowledge African Americans possess (Morrison 187-188). Corinthian’s knowledge represents the idealistic vision of white education, but this intelligence leaves her helpless in a world of unexpectedly difficult realities, whereas Pilate’s seemingly useless wisdom, representative of African American knowledge, allows her to thrive.
Magical realism continues to establish itself throughout the novel as Morrison incorporates instances of human flight. From the moment Milkman comes into the world, human flight is accepted as possible by the community around him. The only person who is skeptical of this supernatural ability is Milkman himself. When “…he discovered, at four…that only birds and airplanes could fly–he lost all interest in himself. To have to live without that single gift saddened him and left his imagination so bereft that he appeared dull…” (Morrison 9). As an African American, Milkman is from a culture that regards flight and other surreal events as plausible. Since he is choosing not to believe in his own ability to fly, he is choosing to ignore an entire aspect of his own background. Because he does not accept his heritage in its completion, Milkman feels empty–like …”something is…missing,” (Morrison 159-160). It is only after his journey of self discovery that Milkman is able to accept the culture from which he came and become “…so happy…with his eyes and mouth full of light…laughing, hollering… finally felt right…” (Morrison 326-327). Through visiting the town his father and aunt came from and talking to townspeople that knew his grandfather, including Circe’s spirit and Mr. Solomon, Milkman is finally able to accept himself completely–he realizes that “some people…without ever leaving the ground…could fly…and if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it,” (Morrison 336-337). By accepting an apparently impossible concept such as human flight, and thus come to terms with the background of himself and his ancestors, Milkman is able to complete his existential journey and discover his complete self. Morrison uses this transformation to highlight the importance of self-acceptance. Throughout her novel, many characters put on a facade in an attempt to seem as something they are not. From Hagar’s attempts to appear lighter-skinned to impress Milkman to Macon Dead’s attempts to show off his family in order to appear happy, very few of the people in Milkman’s life are genuine. Morrison highlights the importance of self-acceptance through Milkman’s transformation in regard to his belief in flight.
As Morrison examines societal issues such as unjust inequality, discredited knowledge among African Americans, and self-acceptance, it is easy to feel disconnected from these problems. Most of the story is set between 1930 and 1960, and the novel was written in 1977, giving the illusion that Morrison’s concerns are outdated conflicts of the past. However, her writing style presents this story with a non-linear plot as narration jumps back and forth from past and present. Morrison jumps between time periods in order to suggest that there is no end to these problems, that they will not just solve themselves with time. These issues are recurring, planting themselves within each time frame of the story as well as every decade of reality. Toni Morrison utilizes magical realism throughout Song of Solomon in order to draw attention to timeless issues that are deep-rooted in modern American society.