South in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: Initiation, healing, and home, The
Lee, Catherine Carr
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison’s third novel in an increasingly varied and rich body of work, is a remarkable narrative. The novel’s power lies not only in its recovery and representation of African American experience in the midtwentieth century but also in Morrison’s insistence on the necessity of healing her broken, alienated protagonist, Milkman Dead. Central to both his maturation and his healing is Milkman’s recognition that the cultural past of the African American South continues to create his twentieth-century present in ways that are not constraining but liberating. Critics have typically understood Milkman’s growth and his healing in the context of the mythic quest or the classic initiation story.’ To be sure, Morrison’s novel reflects archetypal initiation patterns found throughout western literature, as Milkman follows a quest, first for gold, then for knowledge about his ancestors. Like his predecessors in the bildungsroman, Milkman moves from a selfish and juvenile immaturity to a complex knowledge of adulthood.2 Yet, Morrison does not merely reinscribe the initiation motif. Rather, the novel subverts the dominant model of initiation found both in American fiction in general and in African American literature in particular, as Morrison rewrites the classic American initiation story.
In stories as diverse as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux” and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the American protagonist usually moves from a rural to an urban area, from the protection and identity of the nurturing family and friends to the isolation and alienation of western individualism. Such a movement allows the youth to escape the confines of the past in order to create himself as an individual acting outside of time and convention. This freedom comes with a price, however: such an initiation typically brings separation, restriction, and a knowledge of evil.3 This trope is problematized in many African American works, such as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative and Harriet Jacobs’s Incident in the Life of a Slave Girl, in which the protagonist moves from an oppressive, enslaving, agrarian South to an enabling, industrial North. For the authors of these slave narratives, leaving behind family, friends, and even names was often essential for escape. For the African American community in the twentieth century, however, Morrison suggests that the isolating individualism that erases the memory of the South destroys spiritual and moral identity.
Thus, the trip to the South is central to Morrison’s subversion of the classic American initiation story. For the conventionally poor, naive, sensitive youth from the provinces, Morrison substitutes Macon Dead III, nicknamed Milkman, an emotionally isolated, alienated black man who has grown up in the industrial northern midwest, in a Michigan city on the shores of Lake Superior. 4 As the protagonist, he is youthful only because he has “stretched his carefree boyhood out for thirty-one years” (Morrison 98). Still living in his parents’ home, collecting rents for his father, Milkman has yet to reach emotional and social maturity. His poverty is spiritual, not material; his sensitivity is that of adolescent self-centeredness. His initiation takes him physically from the urban North through a progressively rural and southern landscape to the home of his ancestors in Shalimar, Virginia. What begins as a selfish quest for gold, for material success and escape, becomes a quest for knowledge of his family history and an identity based on that history. Song of Solomon is, finally, the story not just of one man’s individualization but of the potential for healing of a community.
Milkman is indeed naive about himself, his family, and his community, but the very nature of the knowledge he acquires marks Song of Solomon as a different kind of initiation story. The initiate’s knowledge is typically defined as a loss of innocence and a recognition of restriction. Milkman begins, however, at the point of restriction that comes from separation, from the hyperindividualization that grows out of the American culture of competition, capitalism, and racism. Like the traditional American initiate, he must recognize his own capacity for evil, but the knowledge of his family’s past and his place in a community that evolved from that past enables Milkman to ascend rather than, conventionally, to “fall through knowledge” (Fiedler 22). His journey into an African American South strips him of superficial external moorings and submerges him in the communal and spiritual culture of his larger family. With his initiation, Milkman moves from a passive, irresponsible ignorance to an active, authentic, and liberating participation in the corporate life of black community.
The American South is crucial to this narrative of healing, because the problem for Milkman and his family concerns not just the relationship to the past, but to a past that is specifically caught up with the history of slavery in the South. Morrison signals the importance of the South with the very name of the section of town where Milkman’s aunt Pilate lives. Just as “Southside” serves as a reminder of the southern origins of the Black people who populate the novel, so Pilate offers Milkman an emotional connection to his southern ancestors. Less directly, the novel predicts the necessity of Milkman’s journey to the South with his strange, dream-like walk down Not Doctor Street, in the wake of a disturbing conversation with his father about his mother. As he tries to make his way down the street, on his way to Southside, he keeps running into people, “all going the direction he was coming from” (78). Milkman will have to move against the tide of Black migration north in order to transcend his aimlessness, to live for something other than superficial satiation and pleasure.
Deeply connected to Milkman’s aimlessness is his namelessness. Morrison uses knowing one’s name as a metaphor for knowing one’s past, and it is the South that holds the secret of Milkman’s family name and family past. The novel’s epigraph beckons to the power of the ancestral name: “The fathers may soar, and the children may know their names.” It is a kind of blessing that Morrison bestows on her fictional black community, and, as Linda Krumholz has argued, it captures “the tension between black men’s mobility. . . and familial and communal responsibilities” (555). Milkman’s family has lost its ancestral name, achieving mobility at the cost of intimacy and identity. The original Macon Dead, Milkman’s grandfather, received his name from a drunken Yankee at the Freedman’s Bureau. According to Milkman’s father, the first Macon kept the name because his wife insisted on it, because “it was new and would wipe out the past” (53). Yet losing the name of the ancestor causes the Dead family to lose history, community, and tradition as well; the past becomes “dead,” and the loss of name damages the present an understanding of that past.
Names in Song of Solomon are, of course, fraught with significance. The novel points, on the one hand, to the importance of names in traditional societies of West Africa-the origin of most Africans enslaved in North Americawhere names are identified with the individual’s essence, with the core of one’s being.5 For American slaves, names provided a link with the African past; in the new world slaves conducted secret naming ceremonies and used their African names when they could avoid the presence of Whites. Yet the novel also points to the complicated status of surnames for African Americans in the United States. The denial of a family name, like the denial of marital legitimacy and the breaking apart of families, prevented stable family identities for enslaved Americans. As historian Leon Litwack points out, many slave holders did not want Blacks, be it before or after the Civil War, to take their own last name, and former slaves in turn rejected the surnames of their White owners as signs of illegitimate claims to ownership. But upon emancipation, when to be a citizen meant possessing both a first and a last name, freedmen sometimes took their most recent master’s name; more often, they claimed the name of the earliest master they could recall, in order to retain a sense of family and identity.6 Others wanted to choose their own names, rejecting suggestions from Freedman’s Bureau officials and choosing instead names that, although they were of European derivation, allowed them a sense of self-determination.
The healing of Milkman’s own brokenness-not only as an individual but as a representative of an entire Black generation-requires Milkman’s restoration to the community of his ancestors, and that requires, literally, the discovery of their names. Because Milkman has lost his name-and his heritage-he can not establish meaningful connections with his family and his community. He grows up feeling excluded and alone. The first of several symbolic markers of Milkman’s separation and his brokenness comes when he is the first Black infant born in the all-White Mercy Hospital. His prolonged nursing also sets him apart. At the age of four, having discovered that he cannot fly, Milkman loses “all interest in himself’ and likewise has no interest in those around him (9). His older sisters display only “casual malice” (10), while other children exclude him from neighborhood singing games-the kind of game, ironically, that will provide the answer to the mystery of his great-grandfather’s life and identity.
As he grows older, Milkman’s failures come from his sense of alienation. This alienation originates, in part, in his lack of awareness and insight and his inability to empathize with others. At the age of 22, he is still trapped emotionally in the symbiotic state of the infant; for, as Morrison writes, he had never “thought of his mother as a person, a separate individual, with a life apart from allowing or interfering with his own” (75). Limited as they are, his efforts to connect with his family end only in failure. He tries to forge a bond with his mother, by hitting his father in her defense, but he realizes that “there was no one to thank him-or abuse him. His action was his alone” (68). In turn, he resists his father’s invitation to a shared understanding. Macon tries to explain his abuse by telling Milkman about Ruth’s incestuous love for her father. Milkman responds with a sense of disassociation: it was “as though a stranger that he’d sat next to on a park bench had turned toward him and begun to relate some intimacy…. he himself was not involved or in any way threatened by the stranger’s story” (74-75). He is blind to his selfishness in his relationship with his cousin, Hagar, who is Pilate’s granddaughter. Morrison conveys both Milkman’s self-perception and the inaccuracy of that perception in four taught sentences that follow the assault on his father: “Sleeping with Hagar had made him generous. Or so he thought. Wide-spirited. Or so he imagined” (69). When he tires of Hagar, he contemplates writing a note that demonstrates his utter self-absorption: he will tell her that he is leaving her for her own good, in order not to be selfish.
Even Milkman’s dreams and aspirations show his lack of imagination and engagement. Until his father offers him the prospect of finding Pilate’s gold, Milkman has virtually no idea of what he wants to do with his adult life. He wants the gold to enable his escape from Not Doctor Street, yet he can “not visualize a life that much different from the one he had,” writes Morrison (180). “New people. New places. Command. That was what he wanted in his life” (180). This litany of desires is curiously without detail. Later in the paragraph, ironically juxtaposed to his dreams of escape, Milkman thinks that “he wanted to know as little as possible” (180).
Milkman’s alienation stems as well from his refusal to take responsibility. He exploits Hagar for twelve years, long after she has become “the third beer. . . . the one you drink because it’s there” (91). His failure to accept commitment is evident in the “dream” he relates to Guitar, in which the plants in the garden grow rapidly over his mother, finally strangling her. Guitar wants to know why he did not try to help her, but Milkman insists that his mother enjoyed it; besides, it was a dream, he says, so he cannot be held accountable. Yet his own logic incriminates him, since he is not actually sure that it was only a dream. To his sister, “Magadelene called Lena,” he insists that he has never interfered with the family, that “I live and let live,” but that deliberate isolation is precisely his offense (216). He has never taken any notice of the conditions of their lives; he has lived with the members of his family as if they were strangers. As Lena tells him, he has been “peeing on” the family all of his life.
The news from Mississippi of Emmett Till’s murder for whistling at a white girl illuminates the narrowness of Milkman’s involvement with his community. The other men at Tommy’s Barbershop react with “tales of atrocities, first stories they had heard, then those they’d witnessed, and finally the things that had happened to themselves,” as they link the events of their own lives with those of the larger world (83). But Milkman’s response is “Yeah, well, fuck Till. I’m the one in trouble” (88). Not only can he not engage with the larger world, Milkman cannot recognize that his alienation has its roots in the very white racism that allowed for the lynching of Emmett Till.
At the age of thirty-one, then, Milkman is still a narcissist; his life is stagnant and his growth suspended. Throughout, however, he has encountered a series of teachers who, in the tradition of the initiation story, push him forward to commitment even as they draw him inexorably to the South. He cannot respond immediately to their lessons, often feeling puzzled and confused, but he stores these experiences until the night of the Shalimar bobcat hunt, when he undergoes a metamorphosis. The lessons begin when Milkman is twelve, with his introduction to Pilate, the aunt who functions as a benevolent sorceress or a witch figure in his life. She helps his mother conceive him, then gives him a place where he can be “surrounded by women who seemed to enjoy him and who laughed out loud” (47). As “Mama” to her granddaughter, Hagar, as well as to her own daughter, Reba, Pilate is the primal earth mother, with her “berry-black lips,” surrounded by oranges and peaches (37-38). She is united with the nature with which Milkman must reconcile in order to survive his initiation. Pilate begins by instructing Milkman in practical, everyday knowledge: to say what you mean, how to cook a perfect egg. Because she values nothing but human relationships, Pilate refers to Milkman as Hagar’s brother, because, she says, “you treat them both the same” (44). She intersperses this instruction with information about the Dead family’s past. Milkman learns that his father grew up on a farm and saw his own father shot from behind, blown five feet in the air by the white men who resented his success. The Macon Dead that Pilate tells him about is a different man than the father Milkman has known. Milkman would have liked the man his father once was, says Pilate: “he would have been a real good friend to you, too, like he was to me” (39).
Meeting Pilate makes Milkman feel for the first time that his name is important, that it joins him with someone to whom he wants to belong. When Pilate tells young Milkman that there “ain’t but three Deads alive,” Milkman screams that he, too, is a Dead. He misses, of course, Pilate’s unintentionalor Morrison’s deliberate-irony, for he is one of the Deads who is spiritually dead, and he will insist on his “deadness” for years to come. But Pilate is the only person to provide Milkman with what feels emotionally like a home, so he hesitates to steal the bag hanging in her house that he thinks contains her gold. Guitar tells him that “this ain’t no burglary. This is Pilate…. They’re your people” (182). But Milkman has a vague understanding that Guitar misses: that in robbing his family, his community, he diminishes his own dignity and humanity. Milkman begins to make this connection when he and Guitar are arrested and Pilate must do her “Aunt Jemima act” to get them released (211). What humiliates Milkman is not just her act, “but the fact that she was both adept at it and willing to do it-for him” (211). He recognizes, briefly, that his actions affect other people, and he also realizes that by hurting Pilate, he has hurt himself. Pilate is also Milkman’s closest link with the sustaining power of the past. She has misunderstood the message from her father’s ghost, that “you just can’t fly on off and leave a body” (209). Pilate thinks he meant that “if you take a life, then you own it. You responsible for it. You can’t rid of nobody by killing them [sic]. They still there and they yours now” (209). So she continues to carry what she thinks are the bones of the man that Macon killed years before. As Milkman discovers later, the first Macon referred to his father, Solomon, who abandoned his wife and twenty-one children, but Pilate’s interpretation points to the responsibility that Milkman must take.
Milkman’s family members are his teachers too, although it takes years for him to realize it. Macon’s knowledge is of a very different sort than Pilate’s, as he erroneously tells Milkman: “Pilate can’t teach you a thing you can use in this world. Maybe the next, but not this one” (55). Macon’s world is the material one, but he provides additional links to the past. Macon tells his son about Circe, the black woman servant whose employer, Butler, killed his father; about the farm in Danville, Pennsylvania; and about the misnaming of the original Macon Dead. Macon also says that he “worked right alongside” his father, which Milkman later realizes is an expression of the love and respect his father shared with the first Macon Dead (51). Perhaps most important, though, Milkman understands the kind of man his father once was; as he hears his father’s voice changing, becoming “less hard, and his speech was different. More southern and comfortable and soft” (52). For a moment Milkman glimpses what it is like to feel “close and confidential” with his father (54). Milkman’s mother, Ruth, also provides information that he will understand only much later. She tells Milkman about his conception, about Pilate’s early devotion to him, and about the sexual deprivation that Milkman eventually sees, and how it “would affect her, hurt her in precisely the way it would affect and hurt him” (303). His sister Lena is another teacher, confronting him with his irresponsibility and selfishness, reminding him that he has been “using us, judging us: how we cook your food: how we keep your house” (216). Her final condemnation, that he is a “sad, pitiful, stupid, selfish, hateful man,” will serve him later when he realizes that “hating his parents, his sisters, seemed silly” (218, 304).
As Milkman’s best friend, Guitar plays a complex role. He functions as a teacher as well as an enemy.7 As a teacher, Guitar pushes Milkman to recognize his weaknesses, his flawed priorities, and finally his identity. Guitar repeatedly reminds Milkman of his alienation and aimlessness, of his failure to commit himself to person or place, and he forces Milkman to acknowledge his boredom and inability to risk himself. Guitar knows that one must take chances, and when Milkman hesitates to steal the bag from Pilate’s house, Guitar prods him on with “You got a life? Live it! Live the motherfuckin life!” (184). In this case Milkman’s reluctance is well founded; he does not want to steal from the woman who first gave him a home. But Guitar aptly defines the problem of Milkman’s emotionally unlived life.
With Part II, Milkman begins his journey south ostensibly to retrieve the gold that his father and Pilate found years ago in a cave in Pennsylvania, gold which Macon believes Pilate stole from him. Critics tend to focus on the quest elements in Part II, at the expense of the preparation for the quest in Part I.8 Still, Morrison introduces something of the magic of fairy tale when in the opening paragraph she compares Milkman with Hansel and Gretel and thereby signals that the usual limits of realistic representation no longer operate. Milkman’s lust for the gold is also paired with Hansel and Gretel’s hunger for candy, and in the world of Song of Solomon, the search for gold, as for candy, is corrupt.9 It is the “shit that weighs you down,” and is symbolized by the peacock that vainly spreads its tail just as Milkman and Guitar confirm their plans to steal the gold. For Milkman to fly, to transcend his alienation, he has to shed his inauthenticity.
The journey south introduces the first of Milkman’s new set of teachers and helpers. Milkman perceives these teachers as instruments to bring him closer to the gold, but as the quest for gold becomes a quest for identity, their meanings change. In Danville, Pennsylvania, Milkman meets the Reverend Cooper, who provides important information about his ancestry and at the same time gives Milkman a sense that he is included in the larger Dead family. He greets Milkman with “I know your people!” and tells him the stories of his grandfather’s murder and of Circe’s caring for Pilate and Macon in the days to follow (231). During the next four days the old survivors come to visit, the ones who knew his father and grandfather-a chorus of teachers reciting a litany of the earlier days-and Milkman learns something new about the relationship between the two men for whom he is named. Milkman cannot “recognize that stern, greedy, unloving man in the boy they talked about, but he loved the boy they described and loved that boy’s father” (237). As the past becomes vivid in the words of the old men, Milkman sees the patterns of his father’s life emerge, and he understands that the past he hears about shaped the present he knows. But the drive to own property that meant liberation to the first Macon Dead has been perverted into selfishness and endless acquisition by the second. It is a sign of Milkman’s continuing corruption that the talk about his father’s current financial success makes him long even more for Pilate’s gold. To the other black men in Montour County, Macon Dead’s farm symbolized the richness and possibility of the community. If Macon Dead could have a home, then “you got one too!” (237). And the message was “pass it on!” (238). This is what the second Macon Dead has forgotten; it is what Milkman must learn.
Circe, Milkman’s second helper in Part II, tells Milkman how to find the cave where Macon thinks the gold still lies, but she also provides information about Milkman’s ancestors that he will later use in deciphering the Solomon song, chanted by the children in Shalimar. Circe tells him that his grandmother, an Indian named Sing, came with his grandfather, the first Macon, to Pennsylvania from Virginia, and she tells him the town’s name, Charlemagne, a corruption of Shalimar. She also knows that Old Macon’s body was dumped in the very cave in which the gold was discovered, and later Milkman will realize that it was her father’s bones that Pilate found when she returned to the cave. Finally, she reveals his grandfather’s real name, Jake. But Circe serves as more than just a teacher; she is a living relic of the past that Milkman has previously only heard about. Circe mistakes Milkman for the Macon Dead she knew, Milkman’s father. Although Morrison never indicates that Milkman and Macon resemble each other, Circe’s mistake makes it clear that Milkman looks exactly like his father. With Circe, the past reaches out and intrudes on Milkman’s present as surely as Circe reaches out to embrace him.
Milkman’s trips through the woods to the Butler house and to the cave are part of his initiation as well, and they anticipate the bobcat hunt in Shalimar that will bring the shedding of his old, inauthentic self. Going into the Pennsylvania woods, Milkman is “oblivious to the universe of wood life,” just as he has been oblivious to the emotions and experiences of the people around him (221). To find the house he must make “a mile-long walk over moist leaves,” dodging branches of overhead trees (240). To find the cave he has to go deeper into the woods, crossing and falling into a creek, then climbing the rocky hillside. His watch and cigarettes, those emblems of distraction and city life, are smashed and soaked; his thin-soled shoes are of little help. Once inside the cave, he has only his hands, feet, and instincts to guide him. His lighter sputters only long enough to show that the gold is gone. In this confrontation with a nature much wilder than the “tended woods” he knew back home, Milkman finds that some genuine feeling begins to emerge, experienced as a ravenous hunger unlike any he has known before (252). Afterwards, Milkman sees the landscape with new eyes. As he travels to Virginia, the hills ahead of him are “no longer scenery…. They were real places that could split your thirty-dollar shoes” (259).
Milkman still has much to learn when he reaches Shalimar. He begins to take southern hospitality for granted, to feel at home in the South-especially so when his car breaks down in front of Solomon’s Country Store. In Shalimar, Milkman hears the local children singing “a kind of ring-around-the-rosy or Little Sally Walker game” (266). This is the Solomon song, which Milkman later realizes holds the key to the mystery of his ancestry. At this point this feeling of being at home is an extension of his sense of entitlement, and the mistakes he makes in Shalimar reflect his separateness. Milkman’s first mistake underscores the power of naming and the importance of community. He calls the men in the store “them,” and by failing to ask their names, Milkman denies their personhood and revels his distrust. When he locks his car and then suggests that he would like one of their women, this serves only to isolate him further. In the ensuing fight Milkman defends himself with a broken bottle before Mr. Solomon rescues him. Although Milkman is obviously marked as an outsider, he is beginning to lose the inadequate trappings of his old, superficial self. In Shalimar his money cannot save him; his daddy cannot bail him out of trouble. All he has to fight with is what he finds immediately at hand.
In the community of Shalimar, the home of his ancestors, Milkman is still the ignorant, irresponsible, passive adolescent. To gain the knowledge of responsible adulthood, he must leave behind the fixed boundaries of his old, immature self and experience the chaotic, liminal, near-death experience of initiation. Like the quest-hero, Milkman is, in the words of Vladimir Propp, “tested, interrogated, [and] attacked” (39), but the bobcat hunt that the older men invite him to join is more accurately a male initiation rite at the hands of the elders and wise men of African tribal cultures. As they usher the initiate into the ways and wisdom of the community, the men enact a ritual dressing of Milkman before the hunt; his city clothes are not adequate for the night ahead, just as his city self cannot serve him during the changes he will undergo.10 Calvin Breakstone takes Milkman under his wing as a protoge, and Milkman’s next step toward shedding his old self comes when he realizes that Calvin’s lamp, prevents his eyes from adjusting to the dark. In order to see what the night holds, he must “look at what it was possible to see” (276). Finally, Milkman’s gaze now penetrates. At the moment he hears the wailing from Ryna’s Gulch, and Calvin tells Milkman about the old legend that “a woman named Ryna is cryin’ down there”-the Ryna who was abandoned by his great-grandfather, Solomon (277). By letting go of the secure but superficial mooring of artificial light, Milkman begins to gain access to the mysteries of his ancestry.
Milkman must still come to terms with a physical nature from which he has long stood apart and he must do so without his teachers’ help. In order to heal his spiritual brokenness he must confront his physical limitations as he tries to keep up with the older men. After several hours of following the dogs, he gives up and reclines against a tree, only to find that he cannot avoid thinking about what has happened to him in Shalimar. He recognizes that he may have offended the men in Solomon’s store, but he does not think he deserved their hostility. With all of its implications of privilege,”deserve” is the key word that triggers Milkman’s recognition. The turning point in his journey of self comes when Milkman realizes that:
he thought he deserved only to be loved-from a distance though-and given what he wanted. And in return he would be . . . what? Pleasant? Generous? Maybe all he was really saying was: I am not responsible for your pain; share your happiness with me but not your unhappiness (280).
At this point, Milkman is still convinced that he has come to Shalimar either to find the gold or to be convinced that it has disappeared. As he sits in the silent darkness, he experiences a metaphorical death that releases him from an alienating self-centeredness, and provides for the concomitant acceptance of his responsibility for sharing both the joys and the sorrows of his family and friends. ”
In this state of separation-apart from all safety and security, all external makers and markers of identity-Milkman realizes that all he has is “what he was born with, or had learned to use. And endurance” (280). As he listens to the dogs and men signaling each other, he begins to draw upon the sixth sense he did not know he possessed: “an ability to separate out, of all the things there were to sense, the one that life itself might depend on” (280-81). He learns that the men and dogs can talk to each other, and Milkman himself realizes that these are the tribal elders with all the wisdom of the world, “because if they could talk to animals, and the animals could talk to them, what didn’t they know about human beings? Or the earth itself, for that matter” (281). Milkman is an initiate to the community of hunters. He tries to “listen with his fingertips,” and that sixth sense warns him of Guitar’s approach (282).
Like the hero of the archetypal folktale, Milkman must engage in combat with the villain-who in this novel is his best friend-and receive a brand or wound.12 His throat and fingers are cut, and as he succumbs to the sorrow he feels at dying, he relaxes his throat muscles. The last vestiges of his former self perish. With Milkman’s spiritual rebirth into the community of the hunters, he can locate the baying dogs. His sixth sense is with him now: “He didn’t miss; his sense of direction was accurate” (283). The men give Milkman a good-natured ribbing about tripping over his gun, but they offer no meanness this time, as they ask “Was you scared?” (284). Milkman’s response reflects his new sense of confidence and belonging, as well as an almost literal truth: he was “scared to death” (284). When he leaves the woods with the hunters the next morning, Milkman is no longer alienated from the earth nor from his fellow human beings; he is “walking [the earth] like he belonged on it” (284). The men reward him with the heart of the bobcat, then send him to Sweet, “a nice lady up the road a ways. She’d be proud to take you in” (288). The encounter with Sweet is a healing experience for Milkman and signals Milkman’s integration. In the course of the novel, Milkman has never volunteered to do anything for another person, but his love-making with Sweet is mutual and redemptive.
Milkman cannot uncover the mystery of his great-grandfather, however, nor can he enter the community that will complete his new identity, until he admits just how much he wants to “find” his “people” (295). And he cannot make that admission until he realizes that “his people” include the very ones he was so eager to escape. Vernell, the wife of one of the hunters, sends Milkman to a local Indian woman, Susan Byrd, but she suggests that these are not his family after all. Ready to abandon the search for both gold and ancestors, he makes the connection of past and present when he realizes that “there was something he felt now-here in Shalimar, and earlier in Danville-that reminded him of how he used to feel in Pilate’s house” (296). Pilate is the link, for having first experienced “home” with Pilate, Milkman can recognize it again. It is Pilate he misses most; he becomes “homesick. . . for the very people he had been hell-bent to leave” (303). Paradoxically, the closer Milkman comes to discovering the legend of Solomon and the key to his ancestry, the better he can understand the lives of his mother and father. He does not yet know about Hagar’s death, but as he admits his responsibility for degrading her, he again hears the children sing the Solomon song. This time he recognizes it as a version of “Sugarman done fly away” (5), a song he has heard Pilate sing all of his life. The names of Solomon, Jake, Ryna, and the others now make sense. He realizes Susan Byrd is his grandmother’s niece. She confirms this and tells him the secret of Solomon: he was a flying African, and he tried to carry his youngest child, Jake, with him, but had to let him fall. Jake was Milkman’s grandfather, the man who changed his name to Macon Dead. By learning his ancestors’ names, Milkman has learned who he is. As he says to Sweet about the Solomon song and the circle game played by the children in Shalimar, “I can play it now. It’s my game now” (331).
Milkman’s trip south to Shalimar, to the liberating discovery of family and past, parallels Solomon’s return to Africa, to origins, and to freedom. 13 Even so, Solomon abandoned his community, and though he tried to carry his youngest child, he flew to Africa and freedom fully intending to leave his wife and twenty other children behind. With a recognition of his responsibility for Hagar’s death Milkman, carries the knowledge of his family’s southern past back to his community in Michigan, along with a new understanding of his parents, his sisters, and Pilate. He has learned that, in the words of his grandfather’s ghost, “you just can’t fly on off and leave a body” (336). He understands, too, that “names had meaning…. When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you do” (333). Gone is his failure to attach to place. Now he has roots in every place that Pilate, his father, and his grandparents have lived. He shares that heritage.
In a conclusion that is problematic for many readers, Milkman and Pilate return to the cave in Pennsylvania so that Pilate can properly bury what she now knows are her father’s bones. They are tracked down by Guitar who believes Milkman has found the gold and betrayed him by cutting him out of his share. As Milkman and Pilate stand on a plateau at the mouth of the cave, Guitar fells Pilate with a bullet meant for Milkman. With the final realization of his love for Pilate, who could fly “without ever leaving the ground,” Milkman prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice of love for Guitar (340). He stands up, fully expecting to be killed instantly, and calls to Guitar, shouting “Over here, brother man! Can you see me? . . . Here I am!” (341). Guitar is still his “brother,” and if Guitar needs his life, Milkman can give it:
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. (341)
This conclusion raises the question of whether Milkman really flies in the triumph of individual will, or if he plummets to his death in a statement of existential despair, by what Susan Blake calls a “solitary leap into the void” (79). Both possibilities, however, invite mistakenly individualistic readings. Milkman does offer his life to Guitar, but Morrison writes that “it does not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother” (341) Milkman’s flight, the final parallel with Solomon, is not away from something but to his “brother” Guitar, a member of his present community. Milkman, who by his initiation into community now embodies that community, leaps not into the void but to the “arms of his brother” 14 Such a death would be a healing sacrifice of love for Guitar.
Yet this leap may not bring Milkman’s death at all. Many critics have failed to note that just before Milkman leaps off the plateau, Guitar sets his rifle aside. Perhaps, then, Guitar no longer wants to kill Milkman, and the “arms of his brother” may not be killing at all (341).’5 In this conclusion, Morrison continues to overturn the conventional initiation story that previous generations of literary scholars have described. Northrop Frye, for example, claims that the “central form of romance is dialectical: everything is focused on a conflict between the hero and his enemy, and all the reader’s values are bound up with the hero” (81). Morrison, however, transcends this dialectic. It does “not matter,” she writes, “which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother” (341). Significantly, the pronoun “his” refers not to Milkman or Guitar alone, but to both.
Thus, where the classic American initiation story takes the youthful initiate from the bosom of hearth and family, leaving him isolated and alone, Morrison begins with a twentieth-century modern man, alienated and fragmented, and ends with that man’s successful connection with a people. Through his initiation into the Southern community of his ancestors, Milkman gains not the typical knowledge of limitations, or the knowledge that comes through the fall into evil, but rather the understanding that the past continues to constitute the present in ways that are not constraining but liberating. He discovers both the fact and the meaning of his African American heritage. Morrison reverses not only the structural pattern found in the typical American initiation story but the ontological pattern as well. Song of Solomon addresses the need for the contemporary African American psyche to embrace community, the community that comes from a shared culture and history, and so she denies historical discontinuity and transcends the postmodernist impulse toward despair.”16 The novel ends with the triumphant hope of continuation for an interconnected African American culture and heritage.
‘ For discussions of Song of Solomon as a quest or initiation story, see Barthold, Blake, Bruck, Campbell, Fabre, Harris, Lee, Royster, and Smith. Classic descriptions of the archetypal initiation theme and the heroic quest motif appear in Eliade, Frye, and Propp. 2 For a discussion of the bildungsroman, see C. Hugh Holman, Windows on the World. 3 West writes that initiation brings “a knowledge of the limitations of existence-the limitations of both nature (the present) and the myth (the past).” To come to terms with the “problem of existence,” he suggests, the protagonist has “to recognize that there is a problem,” and then “understand [that] the problem is capable of only a limited solution” (96-97). Fiedler argues that the initiate, like Adam and Eve in the Christian originary myth, must “fall through knowledge” (22). 4 On the classic story of the “Young Man from the Provinces,” see Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society.
‘ According to Byerman in Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction, Milkman’s discovery of his family name carries connotations of “certain magical qualities connected with black folklore.” Byerman suggests that naming for Morrison “has associations with African cultures in which the name is the expression of the soul” (201). For a discussion of names in African culture, see Janheinz Jahn, Muntu: An Outline of Neo-African Culture and Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. As Jahn explains, childnaming in some areas has been ritualized for years: “the new-born child becomes a muntu [a person] only when the father or the ‘sorcerer’ gives him a name and pronounces it. Before this the little body is a kintu, a thing; if it dies, it is not even mourned” ( 125). Stuckey points out that, in Africa, “a man’s name is often identified with his very soul, and often with the souls of ancestors” (195). 6 Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery suggests that such a choice was made from “a sense of historical identity, continuity, and family pride … not to honor a previous master but to sustain some identification with the freedman’s family of origin” (250).
7 Dorothy Lee and Peter Bruck discuss Guitar in their considerations of the novel as quest. According to Lee, “Guitar operates in the tradition of the trickster and other ambivalent archetypal figures who, by challenging the hero, push him to his destination” (66). Bruck calls Guitar an “alter ego” and suggests that “Milkman and Guitar represent two sides of one aspect: the alienation of the black man from himself and his people.” As Bruck puts it, the philosophies of both individuals “turn out to be inadequate within the context of the action” (300).
s See Bruck, “Returning to One’s Roots,” and Krumholz, “Dead Teachers.” Bruck notes that Milkman’s departure “introduces several elements which clearly place Song of Solomon in the tradition of the novel of initiation” ( 14), while Krumholz points out that the events in chapter 11 (the second chapter of Part II, beginning with Milkman’s arrival in Shalimar and ending with his lovemaking with Sweet) “enact most clearly the form and function of an initiation ritual” (558). 9 See Barthold, Black Time, for her comments on “the association of sweetness with death” in the novel ( 176).
1o See Byerman, Fingering the Jagged Grain; Bruck, “Returning to One’s Roots”; and Lee, “Song of Solomon: To Ride the Air.” Byerman calls the hunt “the male initiation rite that Milkman has never had” ( 205); Bruck describes it as “a traditional action in which man unites himself through shared activities and a reverence for the wilderness with both his ancestors and his fellow men” (295-96). Dorothy Lee suggests that with names like Omar, King Walker, Calvin, Luther, and Small Boy, the old men on the hunt are “the circle of village elders, of poets, kings, and men of God” (69). ” Krumholz turns to anthropologist Victor Turner to explain the separation and reincorporation that Milkman as quest-hero must undergo. Turner, she says, “divides the ritual process into three stages: rites of separation, rites of limen or margin, and rites of reaggregation … Turner theorizes
‘marginality’ or ‘liminality’ as a space and time within ritual in which social-classifications break down and social relations are transformed. . .. Within the limen all participants, having temporarily put off their status, will see the world differently” (“Dead Teachers” 558). See Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, 51-52.
13 Susan Blake points out that Morrison uses a highly individualistic variant of a folktale about flying Africans. She suggests that “in making Milkman’s flying ancestor a single individual and focusing his story on the wife and children he left behind, Morrison refers not to a community united by its political experience, but to a conflict of identification between political and personal communities” (“Folklore and Community” SO). This folktale was collected from a number of people by the Georgia Writers’ Project in Drums and Shadows (see index for “Africans, flying”), and by Langston Hughes and Ama Bontemps in The Book of Negro Folklore (62, 64).
1 Samuels notes that, in traditional African societies, the initiate must be “carefully tutored in the art of communal living” (63). The individual then exists “only as a representative of the whole” (63).
” Wahneema Lubiano, “The Postmodem Rag: Political Identity and the Vernacular in Song of Solomon,” in New Essays on Song of Solomon,notes “that Guitar places his rifle on the ground does not make him any less deadly” (Ill). Lubiano overlooks, however, the fact that Milkman has already provided Guitar with another chance to kill him. Morrison writes that Milkman “knew there wouldn’t be another mistake; that the minute he stood up Guitar would try to blow his head off. He stood up.” Milkman proceeds to shout: “Guitar! . . . Over here, brother man! Can you see me?” He waves his hand over his head, then continues to call out: “Here I am! . . . You want me? Huh? You want my life?” (340-41). Guitar has ample opportunity to shoot Milkman before he finally sets aside the rifle.
2o See Lubiano,”The Postmodem Rag.” Lubiano describes Song of Solomon as “a postmodernist text” and argues that the novel “dramatizes the deconstruction of narrative convention, the complications of race, and the struggles over identification in ways that bring to narrative life the nexus of the personal and the political” (93, 95). While her discussion of the novel’s postmodernist use of “black American vernacular Signifying” is illuminating (93), I disagree with her conclusion that the novel’s ending is not unifying and transcendent.
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