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.
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