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.
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