Essays and Criticism
Morrison's Depictions of the Male Characters in Song of Solomon
In Toni Morrison, Cynthia A. Davis writes that the narrative trajectories of Toni Morrison's novels are driven by "the Black characters' choices within the context of oppression." In Song of Solomon, as Jill Matus notes in her Toni Morrison, Morrison investigates "how Black men in America survive and how they position themselves in relation to dominant social and political structures" as well as to their own families and communities. Morrison presents the limited array of choices available to Black men through her portrayals of three living Black men, Milkman and Macon Dead and Guitar Bains, and through her mythic evocation of Dead ancestors, the first Macon Dead and his father, Solomon. As Matus notes, each man must either choose between "fight" and "flight" or find some way to combine the two alternatives. In this essay, I will examine each of the "choices within the context of oppression" that the Black male characters make as a way of illuminating Morrison's concerns in Song of Solomon.
Though Morrison's novel is a coming-of-age story, it follows the coming-of-age of a character, Milkman Dead, who is thirty-two years old and has been able to avoid making any choices about his life. Milkman is trapped by the circumstances of his life: within his family and the Black community, he is privileged and pampered, but in the larger world, he is limited by his race. He is separated from the Black community by his class, and hindered from advancing in the larger world by his race. As a result, Milkman avoids making choices or commitments, and is disconnected from his community. As Guitar notes, "[y]ou don't live nowhere. Not Not Doctor Street or Southside." Milkman doesn't "live" on Not Doctor Street, the home of his family, because of the negative history between his parents, but he is also disconnected from Southside, the working class Black community, because of his privilege. Indeed, Milkman's father, Macon, owns rental property in Southside and does not hesitate to evict tenants who have not paid their rent, as he does to Guitar's grandmother in one early scene.
Macon is portrayed by Morrison as angry and harsh, but throughout the course of the story we develop some sympathy for him. We learn that Macon's father valued many of the same things that Macon does, but that his death perverted Macon's values. Morrison writes of Milkman's realization that
[a]s the son of Macon Dead the first, he paid homage to his own father's life and death by loving what his father loved: property, good solid property, the boun-tifulness of life. He loved these things to excess because he loved his father to excess. Owning, building, acquiring—that was his life, his future, his present, and all the history he knew. That he distorted life, bent it, for the sake of gain, was a measure of his loss at his father's death.
Milkman's father, the second Macon Dead, loves what his father loved, but he also makes choices to try to keep himself safe from his father's fate. Instead of competing with whites, as the first Macon Dead did, he exploits his fellow Blacks. This is a historically accurate portrait of the Black middle class during this period; unlike today, the Black middle class of the 40s, 50s and 60s mostly worked in, and earned their living from, the Black community. But Macon's harshness toward the members of that community also separates him from it, in contrast to his father. An early scene in the novel has Macon listening to his estranged sister singing, emphasizing the joy and life that Macon has given up for the sake of propriety. Unlike the men of his father's community, the Blacks of Southside do not see Macon's success as belonging to them in any way, perhaps because his success comes at their expense. By contrast,...
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Song of Solomon: Raising Dead Fathers
Song of Solomon (1977) is a novel about fathers, or more specifically, the loss of fathers. At its heart are two revelatory incidents of traumatic loss which govern the novel's investigation of the history and future of African American men in relation to society and their own families. A brother and sister, Pilate and Macon Dead (the second), witness their father being shot to death by greedy white neighbours who resent his prosperity and covet his land. But this father himself experienced the traumatic loss of his father, who, legend has it, decided to fly away from America and his condition of enslavement. He attempted to take his baby son Jake with him, but dropped the child a few moments after he took off in flight back to Africa. His bereft wife lost her mind through grief and the child was reared by others. Knowledge of the second of these traumas, withheld almost to the close of the novel, explains not only the riddle on which the novel turns, but reveals the generational transmission of traumatic effects that hampers all the Dead men, descendants of Jake, who is also known as the first Macon Dead. The multivalent meanings of Solomon's flight in the novel allow Morrison to celebrate an early and marvellous escape from slavery, while also registering the trauma of those who must function without the father. Though Solomon's flight may offer inspiration as a version of the celebratory legend of the Flying African, the novel also emphasises the grief and mourning of those who were abandoned.
The trauma of the father's abandonment or death infects the descendants of Solomon—as it does the text—with a series of distortions in memory and obstacles to interpretation. Among these, for example, is the cryptic admonition that Pilate's father utters when he appears to her on a number of occasions after his death. Guiltily, she interprets his saying that you can't just fly off and leave a body as an injunction to return to the bones of the man she and Macon left dead in the cave. When we later learn the history of Jake, we understand that his poignant refrain relates repeatedly the central loss of his own childhood—the fact that he was the body left when his father flew off. Another example is the name of Macon Dead, created by a slip of the pen. Failing to fill the information in the correct boxes, the Yankee clerk at the Freedmen's Bureau takes the place of origin as the first name, writing the condition of the father in the box for the surname. Though one point about this history of naming is that a careless drunk official has the power to change the name of a family, another, and more significant, point is that the new name further emphasises the death of the father. Like the riddle of the children's song, which tells the story of Solomon's flight but cannot be understood until Milkman can hear it properly, the name 'Dead' is a riddle, which also draws attention to the question of the father's survival. In Milkman's world, the 1930s to the 1960s, the father is 'already Dead'. Milkman tells his friend Guitar about the naming:
'Say, you know how my old man's daddy got his name?'
'Uh uh. How?' 'Cracker gave it to him.' 'Sho 'nough?'
'Yep. And he took it. Like a fuckin sheep. Somebody should have shot him.'
'What for? He was already Dead.'
In the genealogy of the Deads, the trauma of paternal loss reveals one father who flew away and one who died violently at the hands of whites while trying to make good in America. The two instances record different responses to life in racist America, each of which entails traumatic consequences—Solomon miraculously flies off, becoming a symbol of transcendence and escape, but bequeathing also a legacy of bereavement, loss and forgetting; Jake stands his ground but is cut down, leaving his family similarly bereft. Both modes raise the question of how black men in America survive and how they position themselves in relation to dominant social and political structures. In confronting the loss of the father, Morrison's novel looks at the ways in which the history of its consequences might be rewritten.
The extent to which the novel is focused on the traumatic loss of the father may be gauged in the narrator's accounts of Macon Dead's death. Early in the novel, after Milkman has returned from talking with his strange aunt Pilate, whom his father has forbidden him to visit, Milkman raises the question of his grandfather's death. In the course of this clandestine visit, Pilate has given Milkman her account of her father's violent death and now Macon is moved to remember and talk about the event:
His son's questions had shifted the scenery. He was seeing himself at twelve, standing in Milkman's shoes and feeling what he himself had felt for his own father. The numbness that had settled on him when he saw the man he loved and admired fall off the fence; something wild ran through him when he watched the body twitching violently in the dirt.
The death of the first Macon Dead affects not only his son, but, as Milkman later learns, an entire community of men who took Macon as an exemplum of success and self-improvement. Talking to the men of his father's generation in Danville, Pennsylvania, Milkman functions as
the ignition that gunned their memories. The good times, the hard times, things that changed, things that stayed the same—and head and shoulders above all of it was the tall, magnificent Macon Dead, whose death, it seemed to him, was the beginning of their own dying even though they were young boys at the time. Macon Dead was the farmer they wanted to be, the clever irrigator, the peach-tree grower, the hog slaughterer….
Macon Dead seems to preach to them in the same style in which Baby Suggs in [Morrison's] Beloved will speak to the feed slaves. Whereas she tells black folk that they have to love themselves because no one else is going to love their flesh, Macon's farm and attitude to life speak of helping oneself:
We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this country right here. Nowhere else! ….. Grab it. Grab this land. Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on—can you hear me? Pass it on!
But, the narrator continues, 'they shot the top of his head off and ate his fine Georgia peaches. And even as boys these men began to die and were dying still'.
Macon Dead (the second) takes to heart that injunction to 'rent it, buy it, sell it, own it' by becoming a heartless landlord. Setting great store by the symbols of power and success—the keys in his pocket, the big Packard in which he takes the family for a joyless Sunday ride—he relentlessly pursues the bourgeois dream. Only his visit to Pilate, secretly at night in order to hear her sing with her daughter and granddaughter, suggests the vestigeal remains of an emotional life. 'As Macon felt himself softening under the weight of memory and music, the song died down'. For the most part, Macon Dead has spent his life suffering from a dissociation of feeling. Milkman meditates on his father's life:
And his father. An old man now, who acquired things and used people to acquire more things. As the son of Macon Dead the first, he paid homage to his own father's life and death by loving what that father had loved: property, good solid property, the bountifulness of life. He loved these things to excess because he loved his father to excess. Owning, building, acquiring—that was his life, his future, his present, and all the history he knew. That he distorted life, bent it, for the sake of gain, was a measure of his loss at his father's death.
The loss of the father as a central concern of the novel is also expressed in the case of Guitar Bains—'my father died when I was four. That was the first leaving and the hardest'. Bains' s father dies from traumatic amputation—his body is sawn in half in an accident that exposes the exploitation of 'coloured' workers in unsafe working conditions. The children are given a sack of 'Divinity'—candy to recompense them for the loss of their father, and forever afterwards Guitar is sick to his stomach at the thought, let alone the taste, of sweet things. However, he confesses later in the novel that it was not really the candy that made him sick but his mother's smiling gratitude for the four ten-dollar bills that the foreman gave her. Guitar recalls the horrific...
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Myth as Structure in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon
In Song of Solomon Toni Morrison has faced the tale-spinner's recurring problem—making contemporary, localized events and characters speak to those who cannot share her characters' background or experiences. Morrison's solution in this dilemma is not new. She turns to myth to underpin her narrative, but does so without transforming her novel into pure fantasy or overloading her story with literary allusions. Morrison's success in making one black man's struggle for identity universal is partly explained by her structural use of myth to show man's constant search for reassurance in myths.
According to Mircea Eliade, myth is sacred history, the breakthrough of the supernatural or divine into the human to explain...
(The entire section is 3475 words.)