By Dong June Jang and Allen Zhang
Song of Solomon is one of the most celebrated examples of modern African American literature. Written by Toni Morrison and published in 1977, the book describes the life of a black boy named Milkman Dead. Milkman’s life begins at No Mercy Hospital, just one of many ironically named locations in the unnamed town in Michigan that is Milkman’s hometown. As Milkman grows up, he becomes jaded to the world around him and finds himself lost as he pushes away his family, his friends, and even his own heritage. His only confidant is Guitar Bains, whom Milkman considers his wise and confident best friend. Guitar’s cynical view of the racial atmosphere, however, eventually leads him to join the Seven Days, a secretive group of seven black men that commit revenge killings against white people in response to unjust black deaths. Milkman himself, driven by nothing but material greed, sets out on a journey to find his grandfather’s remains and the gold supposedly buried with them. His quest for the gold takes him to Danville, Pennsylvania, and Shalimar, Virginia, each stop revealing a chapter in the family history he had tried to avoid. By the end of this journey, he realizes his folly and accepts his roots, maturing as a character and returning home with a fresh sense of identity. Set in the years when the Civil Rights Movement was sweeping throughout America, this novel explores what it was like growing up in a segregated America. Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Award and was accredited for helping Toni Morrison win a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.
Historical and Cultural Context
Song of Solomon takes place in America during the mid-20th century, when the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. This places the book only slightly in the past relative to time of writing. A time of social and cultural instability, the Civil Rights Movement years were characterized by strained and overt racial tensions even as the country prepared to address the issue of race. This unique atmosphere is reflected in the book, as Song of Solomon references actual events such as the lynching of Emmett Till and the Birmingham Church Bombing. In the former, a 14 year-old black boy was brutally murdered and dumped into a river following false accusations of verbal advances on a white woman at a grocery store. The acquittal of his murderers combined with his mother’s insistence on an open-casket funeral for the mutilated corpse drew widespread outrage and became a cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement. Angry barbershop customers discuss this news in Song of Solomon, reflecting the general outrage at the sheer ease with which whites could kill blacks in America and get away with it. In the latter, Ku Klux Klan planted 15 sticks of TNT under the stairs of the 16th Street Baptist Church, an African American church, where the blast killed four girls and injured 22 other people. In Song of Solomon, Guitar is assigned by the Seven Days to bomb a white church in the exact manner it was committed in Birmingham. Guitar’s conflict with Milkman arises from Guitar’s desire to use the gold that Milkman seeks to buy bombs for this end.
Since Song of Solomon is set so soon relative to time of writing, many of the circumstances surrounding the novel’s fictional setting overlap with its real world setting. This creates a strange sense of both distance from and nearness to the events in the novel. The Civil Rights Movement was undeniably a turning point in American history, as prejudices formerly enshrined in law were finally addressed and deposed from legitimacy. These prejudices, however, did not disappear. Instead, they continued to haunt American society as strongly as ever, something that the contemporary readers of Song of Solomon would have recognized immediately in the racial tensions that permeated American society. Thus, the novel becomes its own context in a sense, as it reminds readers of the greater, overarching context of the times they were living in, a context, the book recalls, that stretches back to the time of slavery. Thus, the context for the book is twofold: one which places the story in the past, amidst an era of revolutionary advancements in civil rights, and one which reflects the present, highlighting the need for continued progress in recovering from centuries of slavery and oppression.
Themes and Style
A major theme throughout Song of Solomon is the idea of heritage and connection to the past. Milkman represents the archetypical boy growing into a man, but in his case, this coming of age is a parallel to his acceptance of his heritage as well, tying together the two themes of timeless growth and context in the past. Much of this connection is represented in the idea of flight. Solomon, Milkman’s great-grandfather, flew back to Africa, leaving behind his family; Milkman dreams of flight and eventually learns to fly himself; and Guitar himself advises Milkman that if he wants to fly, he needs to “give up the shit that’s weighing you down” (Morrison 179). In both these cases, flight is symbolic of maturity and self-determination. By accepting his heritage and responsibility for his own life, Milkman unlocks the secret of flight – not by running away from his identity, but accepting it: “If you surrendered to the wind, you could ride it” (Morrison 337). Guitar, ironically, fails to take his own advice, as he is weighed down by the burden of the past he has imposed on himself. Unlike Milkman, who has found peace and acceptance with his identity, Guitar tries to deny it in vain, ultimately perpetuating the past he thought to destroy (Guth 581). Thus, in the second half the novel, Milkman and Guitar find their relationship reversed. Milkman, now the wise one, finds true freedom while Guitar only finds vengeance and self-destruction.
This need for connection to heritage is extended to community as well. In Milkman’s case, by constantly pushing away the people around him instead of seeking common ground, he finds himself alone, a feeling he likens to going one way on the street while everyone else is going the other way (Morrison 78). When Milkman arrives in Shalimar, the ultimate destination of his journey and the mythical hometown of Solomon, he finds himself hated as his aloof attitude instantly antagonizes the local residents. Some of these people invite Milkman on a bobcat hunt as a hazing ritual. During the hunt that was intended to bully and humiliate him, however, Milkman realizes his error and finally discovers connection with the the people around him and, it seems, the whole world. As Milkman leaves the hunt, he is able to laugh together with the men around him, accepting them and being in turn accepted as equal and a friend (Schultz 138). Song of Solomon suggests that nobody is above community, implying that without community, individuals cannot truly find themselves.
Legacy also plays an important role in the book. Milkman chases after the gold his grandfather supposedly hid long ago. In the end, instead of this false, materialistic inheritance, what he receives is the legacy of flight, a spiritual awakening and discovery of self. Guitar claims his mission is to uphold the legacy of black struggles, a claim that is undermined symbolically by the Seven Days’ inability to have children (and thus an inability to leave behind anything meaningful) and by Guitar’s own downfall (Guth 581). Pilate leaves Milkman one last message and a final unfulfilled wish, an episode that prompts Milkman to hope that “there’s gotta be one more girl like you” (Morrison 336). In each case, legacy defines the impact of the character’s life and carries on beyond death. Song of Solomon thus shows the power of legacy, of inheritance from past to present and present to future.
The book is an example of magic realism, depicting events that are mostly realistic and believable, while also incorporating surreal and even impossible events that suggest a mystical aspect to the story. The narrative of Song of Solomon is interlaced with aspects of magical and spiritual elements. Toni Morrison uses theses elements of magic realism to highlight the deeper symbolism of the actions themselves, not so as much the literal actions that are depicted. For example, Milkman’s coming-of-age comes to fruition when he learns that his ancestor Solomon was able to fly. The focal point of this tale is not that a human being literally flies; instead, Solomon’s flight serves to represent freedom and liberation. Upon discovering his heritage, Milkman is likewise liberated – not from the institution of slavery, but from his own self-inflicted imprisonment and personal bondage. In the end, Milkman flies at his erstwhile friend and nemesis Guitar, and the book ends. Whether he lives or dies is not important, for the story itself has already concluded. Through this abrupt yet appropriate ending, Morrison accentuates the importance of the symbolic over the literal in the story, as Milkman’s life is immaterial when compared to the idea of his life.
The Critical Conversation
Song of Solomon is typically studied under two main focuses. One discusses the novel as a coming-of-age story. The other focus discusses the novel as a tale of rediscovery of heritage and identity. In the former, Song of Solomon is a rather straightforward specimen of Bildungsroman literature and not particularly relevant to our focus. In the latter, the themes addressed most closely connect Song of Solomon and the Afterlives of Slavery. Song of Solomon explores the dynamic between heritage, community, and identity of African-Americans. In Milkman’s case, his heritage is something that is obscured by the past and not something he initially wants to accept. Even so, it is ultimately something that he cannot define himself without and something he is happier for understanding. In this way, Milkman’s quest to rediscover and reclaim his heritage serves as a representation of the overall African-American experience of self-discovery and restoration of identity. Although this identity may be blurred by years of oppression and generations of distance, it is nonetheless a vital part of African-American cultural identity, and the struggle to reunite with it is unique to the African American community. Song of Solomon is thus a story about cultural reclamation as a way of moving forward, just as by restoring the heritage he had previously lost, Milkman redefines the way he views the world around him.
In a scholarly article by Sean M. Kirby, a grant writer based in Buffalo, New York, Kirby analyzes the relationship that naming and identity have in Toni Morrison’s novels. Kirby states that “as an African American author, Toni Morrison is acutely aware of the pain that is intertwined with the history of her history” (Kirby, “Naming and Identity…”). Toni Morrison’s awareness of the deep-rooted pain in her history is reflected in the naming of her characters. When Africans were taken away from their homes and families in Africa to be sold as slaves in America, slavers effectively ripped away the identity and heritage of the slaves. They were transported to a foreign land, given foreign names, and subjugated under white ownership. This loss of identity makes its way to modern times as an afterlife of slavery. In Song of Solomon, Morrison pays particular attention to the naming of her characters in order to carve out an identity of black characters that is fully theirs. In an interview with Toni Morrison about her recent novel God Help the Child, Morrison explains that “naming is vital because we didn’t have any names” (Morrison). Morrison points out that the names given to slaves were meaningless and provided no sense of identity. In response, Morrison chooses names for her characters that accurately and/or ironically describe that character. For example, Milkman’s name is a reflection of his immature temperament. Similar to how a baby depends on its mother for milk, Milkman depends on his family to fulfill his materialistic needs. Guitar’s name is likewise double-layered, as the seemingly innocent anecdote of the young Guitar desperately wanting a guitar in a window that he could never have ultimately reflects Guitar’s cynical view of the world and his “love” for people, a “love” that quickly turns into despair and hatred (Dubek 101). Instead of looking for a path to the future, Guitar gives up any hope of a future, and instead of trusting in his friend Milkman after Milkman leaves to find the gold, Guitar concludes that Milkman is trying to take all the gold for himself and determines to kill him.
Some view Song of Solomon as a critique and warning of contemporary African Americans fighting for rights. References to the Civil Rights Movement, both direct and indirect, occur all across the story of Song of Solomon. In addition, Milkman’s personal growth that occurs only with acceptance of his heritage seems to suggest that black rights activists then and now cannot define their movement without remembering and considering the struggles of past movements, according to Laura Dubek of Middle Tennessee State University (Dubek 93). Deborah Guth of Tel Aviv University argues that both Guitar and Macon ultimately fail due to failure to accept their heritages, as “while Macon seeks quite consciously to beat the white world by joining it, Guitar’s apparently oppositional stance unwittingly adds up to the same thing, for through his system of hidden reprisals he does no more than inscribe himself invisibly into a society that has condemned him, and his people, to invisibility” (Guth 581). In both viewpoints, Song of Solomon reminds readers to consider the past even as they look to the future, lest they wander aimlessly like Milkman or condemn themselves to oblivion like Guitar.
Dubek, Laura. “”Pass it on!”: Legacy and the Freedom Struggle in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” Southern Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 2, 2015, pp. 90-109,196, ProQuest Central; Research Library, http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1674233994. Accessed 24 February 2018.
Guth, D. “A Blessing and a Burden: The Relation to the Past in Sula, Song of Solomonand Beloved.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 39 no. 3, 1993, pp. 575-596. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mfs.0.0197. Accessed 24 February 2018.
Kirby, Sean M. “Naming and Identity in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Song of Solomon.” Inquiries Journal, vol. 16, no. 5, 2014, pp. 3-6.
Morrison, Toni. Interview by Mario Kaiser and Sarah Ladipo Manyika. Toni Morrison in Conversation, 29 June 2017, https://granta.com/toni-morrison-conversation/. Accessed 22 February 2018.
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York City, Vintage International, 1977. Print.
Schultz, Elizabeth. “African and Afro-American Roots in Contemporary Afro-American Literature: The Difficult Search for Family Origins.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 8, no. 2, 1980, pp. 127, Periodicals Archive Online, http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1297890837. Accessed 24 February 2018.
Blake, Susan L. “Folklore and Community in Song of Solomon.” MELUS, vol. 7, no. 3, 1980, pp. 77-82.
Klein, Michael R. “Civil Rights & Black Identity.” The Atlantic. March 2006, pp. 78-88.
Stryz, Jan. “Inscribing an Origin in Song of Solomon.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 19, no. 1, 1991, pp. 31, ProQuest Central; Research Library, http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/274265192?accountid=11107.
Krumholz, L. “Dead Teachers: Rituals of Manhood and Rituals of Reading in Song of Solomon.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 39 no. 3, 1993, pp. 551-574. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mfs.0.0913