Without taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees--he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodstar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost...For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.
Fictionalizing African-American folklore about the ability of slaves to fly back to Africa if they wanted, Toni Morrison chronicles the search for identity by Milkman Dead, who discovers his identity by tracing his family history. Indeed, Song of Solomon draws upon folklore, myth, and oral history for its plot. In fact, Chapter 1 begins with the motif of flight as an insurance agent named Robert Smith stands atop Mercy Hospital prepares to fly off the building. With this symbolic beginning, Macon Dead (Milkman)III is born in a white hospital as his mother goes into labor in front of the building. Other major characters are also there: Pilate, the scorned sister of Macon Dead II and Guitar Bains, who lives with his grandmother in one of Macon Dead's tenements. The cruel Macon, Jr., demands payment from his tenants regardless of their circumstances. One tenant, Henry Porter commits suicide; as Macon, Jr., walks home from Porter's place in the slums, he feels compelled to stop at his sister Pilate's home. Milkman--called this because he nursed from his mother past the normal age--hides and watches and listens as his father talks with his sister.
This introduction of family is a significant moment for Milkman, who is unhappy still living at home at the age of thirty-two. He returns to Pilate's house and becomes acquainted with her family, especially her granddaughter Hagar who falls madly in love with Milkman and, later, tries to kill him several times because he breaks with her. Unlike her brother who constantly tallies his accounts, and Ruth who is dead inside and finds ways of escaping thought, Pilate is content selling her homemade wine. With her, Milkman finds someone genuine, and he begins to learn his family history. But, after Milkman's father expresses his belief that Pilate has a bag of gold, gathered from their youth when they had to hide in a cave, Milkman, who has embraced his father's materialistic values, decides to seek this gold. He tells his friend Guitar about this treasure, and Guitar becomes interested because he needs money to support his vigilante organization.
Milkman travels to an old family farm in Pennsylvania, stopping a the old, rotting Butler mansion where he encounters Circe, a mystical figure who relates that the Butlers were responsible for his grandfather and grandmother's deaths. She also tells Milkman that his grandfather Solomon escaped slavery by flying back to Africa and leaving behind twenty-one children. From the Butlers' Milkman goes to Shalimar where he discovers more and more of his ancestry. Guitar tries unsuccessfully to kill Milkman because he believes Milkman has found the gold. After this, Milkman returns home, and learns that Hagar is dead. Pilate accompanies him back to Shalimar where she wants to bury her father's bones. But, Guitar has followed them and shoots Pilate in his attempt to kill Milkman. Like his grandfather before him, Milkman leaps into flight as a bird carries off Pilate's homemade earring, bringing the narrative full circle from Robert Smith's flight from Mercy in Chapter 1.