The Main Themes Present in Morrison’s Song of Solomon
Macon Dead II, the father of Milkman and husband to Ruth Foster, has been traumatized by watching his father be mistreated and eventually murdered during a brawl over the family farm. “Your father was a slave?” “What kind of foolish question is that? Course he was. Who hadn’t been in 1869? They all had to register. Free and not free. Free and used-to-be-slaves. Papa was in his teens and went to sign up, but the man behind the desk was drunk. He asked Papa where he was born. Papa said Macon. Then he asked him who his father was. Papa said, ‘He’s dead.’ Asked him who owned him, Papa said, ‘I’m free.’ Well, the Yankee wrote it all down, but in the wrong spaces” (Morrison 99).
The way that Macon responds to Milkman at the beginning is probably due to how much this situation has scared him. He has had to see his father go through so much pain and suffering even after slavery had been abolished. The amount of disrespect that they must have had towards the entire African-American community to make both free and used-to-be-slaves register. What was the purpose of them registering? This kind of disrespectful behavior is what resulted in the misnaming of Macon which caused him to have the wrong last name, “Dead”. The word Yankee is often used to describe the good guy in American History. The soldiers that served during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II are often referred to as heroes and rightfully so. However, the fact that this Yankee soldier is drunk, being very disrespectful and not caring about the information that he is putting onto Macon’s forms, shows the side of the United States history that is not told to the public.
Guitar Bains, Milkman’s best friend, has had a lifelong hatred for white people. He sees them as the main cause for all of the evil in the world. Bain has a hatred for Macon Dead II, Milkman’s father for charging them too much rent and causing a great deal of pain for him and his family. “Since I was little. Since my father got sliced up in a sawmill and his boss came by and gave us kids some candy. Divinity. A big sack of divinity. His wife made it special for us. It’s sweet, divinity is. Sweeter than syrup. Real sweet. Sweeter than…” He stopped walking and wiped from his forehead the beads of sweat that were collecting there. His eyes paled and wavered. He spit on the sidewalk. “Ho—hold it,” he whispered, and stepped into a space between a fried-fish restaurant and Lilly’s Beauty Parlor” (Morrison 112).
Guitar is explaining to to Milkman why he despises sweet foods so much. Those childhood memories have made an enormous impact on Bains behaviors. Despite the abolishment of slavery in 1865, African-American workers were still not being treated right even though they had now been given the same rights as white men. What surprised me is how so many employers were actually able to get away with it and how little the government really cared. It was pretty obvious that African-Americans were not being treated equally as they promised, but there was still nothing being done about it. Like when Bain’s father was killed. The white employer really had no remorse over what had happened. He basically just shrugged his shoulders and said oh well. It should not have taken nearly one-hundred years for the government to finally take action and give the African American community the rights they so promised.
Guitar explains to Milkman that violence that is caused without any consequences is not an accident, but rather intentional. The deaths of countless of African-Americans at the hands of these white people, he argues, makes the world unequal.“There is a society. It’s made up of a few men who are willing to take some risks. They don’t initiate anything; they don’t even choose. They are as indifferent as rain. But when a Negro child, Negro woman, or Negro man is killed by whites and nothing is done about it by their law and their courts, this society selects a similar victim at random, and they execute him or her in a similar manner if they can.
If the Negro was hanged, they hang; if a Negro was burnt, they burn; raped and murdered, they rape and murder” (Morrison 259). At the time African-Americans were falling victim to multiple hate crimes and those who were committing them did not receive any sort of discipline. It is similar to what happened in Birmingham Alabama from May 2 to May 10, 1963 during a battle for civil rights. These African-Americans were legally allowed to hold their peaceful protest under their first amendment right, however, the police decided to stray them down with high powered water hoses and let their police dogs loose on some of the protesters. The police used these tactics on men, women and even children alike without any remorse leaving multiple people with injuries. The police also arrested many of the protesters just for wanting to be treated the same as white Americans. You can understand why Guitar despises white people so much based on their actions and blames them for all of the evil that goes on around the world.
Guitar Bains has grown tired of the white community killing and using African-Americans for their own personal purposes. “Look. It’s the condition our condition is in. Everybody wants the life of a black man. Everybody. White men want us dead or quiet—which is the same thing as dead. White women, same thing. They want us, you know, ‘universal,’ human, no ‘race consciousness.’ Tame, except in bed. They like a little racial loincloth in the bed. But outside the bed they want us to be individuals. You tell them, ‘But they lynched my papa,’ and they say, ‘Yeah, but you’re better than the lynchers are, so forget it.’ And black women, they want your whole self. Love, they call it, and understanding” (Morrison 363). Slavery had no longer been a thing at that point for nearly one-hundred, however, the white community still continued to take advantage of African-Americans. These actions sort of remind me of the Harlem Hellfighters from the First World War. Over 400,000 African-Americans were drafted under the 1917 draft. They spent more time overseas than any other American unit during the war as well as suffering more casualties than any other unit with 1,500 in just the first 191 days on the front lines. Their bravely won them France’s highest honor. Despite their bravery and their sacrifices they made for their country, the Harlem Hellfighters returned home to racism and segregation for their fellow Americans. The United States Military had more or less used them as cannon fodder. At times they would not even let them serve under a U.S. commander. They would just give them to their French allies and let them use them as they pleased. Their French counterparts end up treating these men better than their own country would.
After Guitar kills Pilate, Milkman holds her in his arms. He can barely make out Guitar Banes, but he knows that his time may have come. “Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees—he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it” (Morrison 544). Milkman at this point does not seem afraid of death. As a child he was upset because he could not “fly”. By this he meant that he was stuck in his community and with his family. He finally learns to fly and how to ride the air by just letting it take full control. Once he jumps at Guitar we get the feeling that he no longer cares for himself. He has become selfless like Pilate was. He is showing mercy and forgiveness to Guitar. He knows all about what he has gone through and understands it. Part of his pain comes from what his own father did to his family. However, the fact that Milkman decided to jump at Guitar Banes leaves the question of whether or not Milkman will try to avenge Pilate unanswered. Or maybe Milkman will just forgive him and remember all of the times Guitar had helped him and showed compassion.
Toni Morrison’s novel, Song of Solomon, has many underlying themes that are present throughout the novel. The main ones being The Power of Names, Racism, Memory and Storytelling, Masculinity and Femininity and Mercy and Forgiveness. Names have power. They write history. They build communities and tell stories. Racism was big of the time era the novel took place in. It was during the time of the civil rights. There are almost no white characters in Toni Morrison’s novel. Racism is mainly directed towards the African-Americans in the novel. The characters’ actions in the novel are main controlled by some of their past memories. The way that they act and the events that occur in the novel are heavily influenced by them. Morrison dramatize the relationship between men and women in her novel. Obviously, the white men are cruel to their African-American counterparts, however, some of the black men in the novel are very cruel to black women. It shows black women as being less black during a time when black were not even considered much. The novel from a state of mercy to one of no mercy as well as from forgiveness to no forgiveness. Macons cruelty in terms of collecting rent leads to Milkman getting cruelly later on. When Guitar does not shoot at Milkmans there seems to be at least some sort of forgiveness, but it seems to be lost once Milkman jumps at Guitar. Toni Morrison’s novel has been considered such a powerful piece of literature because it dives deeper into the black experience in America. The novel discussed many ideas and concepts that affect every individual person. Toni Morrison wants the reader to be immersed in her work and she succeeds in doing so in the creation of this novel.
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