Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
The purpose of an epigraph, or inscription at the beginning of a novel is to introduce the major themes of the text. The epigraph of Song of Solomon introduces the motifs of flying and naming as key elements to understanding the novel.
The flying motif derives from black spirituals and the gospels, and particularly from the legendary folktale of the flying African. This myth, which has been handed down from generation to generation, perpetuates the belief that black people can fly. The belief in the actual physical ability to fly is less important than the belief in flight as a metaphor for freedom, spiritual transcendence, or an escape from something unpleasant by divine means. Even after death, it is believed that the spirit flies back to the home of the ancestors of the dead person.
Milkman Dead, the protagonist of Song of Solomon, traces his family origins and discovers that his great-grandfather, Solomon, escaped from the oppression of slavery by magically flying away to his homeland. Reclaiming African myths of the past and, consequently, learning of his ancestral roots, are the keys to self-discovery for Milkman.
Equally important to Milkman’s quest for identity is the recovery of his true name. Historically, Africans enslaved in America often lost their original names to slave names. Milkman’s paternal grandfather’s name was misrecorded, when he registered as a freedman in 1869, as Macon Dead. With the loss of its family name, the Dead family is severed from its ancestral roots. It is only when Milkman journeys to Shalimar, Virginia, from his home in Michigan, that he solves the riddle of the song of Solomon and recovers his family name.
“Solomon done fly, Solomon done gone, Solomon cut across the sky, Solomon gone home,” the children sing.
The song mythologizes and keeps Milkman’s family history alive. With the recovery of his family name, Milkman redeems the history of his people that has been lost by an intentional erasure of African American culture at the hands of slavery.
Robert Smith: life insurance agent and member of the Seven Days; he attempts to fly
Dr. Foster: father of Ruth Dead, and the only colored doctor in the city. “Not Doctor” street is named after him. Died in 1921
Ruth Dead: Milkman Dead’s mother; Macon’s wife, and the “first colored expectant mother” to give birth at Mercy Hospital
First Corinthians: Milkman’s older sister by 13 years
Magdalene (Lena): Milkman’s oldest sister by 14 years
Pilate Dead: Milkman’s aunt and “spiritual mother.” Macon’s sister. The mother of Reba and grandmother of Hagar. Pilate sings the blues song about “Sugarman” in the first chapter
Freddy: one of the Dead family tenants, a janitor. He gives Milkman his nickname. Identified as the “gold-toothed man”
Midwife: character who delivers Macon Dead I’s daughter, Pilate. Later identified as Circe
The Nurse: white nurse who gives orders at the scene of Robert Smith’s suicidal flight
Mrs. Bains: identified as “the stout woman.” Grandmother of Guitar Bains
Cency: Guitar Bains’ mother and Mrs. Bains’ daughter
Guitar Bains: Milkman’s best friend and future member of the Seven Days. Referred to only as the “cat-eyed boy” in the first chapter
Macon “Milkman” Dead: the protagonist of the novel, and the only son of Macon and Ruth Dead; technically, he is named Macon Dead III
Macon Dead II: Milkman’s father and Ruth’s husband
Macon Dead I: Macon Dead II’s father and Milkman’s grandfather
Henry Porter: Macon Dead’s tenant and member of the Seven Days. Attempts to commit suicide in the first chapter
Reba Dead: Illegitimate daughter of Pilate Dead and mother of Hagar; Milkman’s first cousin
Hagar Dead: daughter of Reba, granddaughter of Pilate, and cousin of Milkman Dead
This chapter tells of the circumstances surrounding Milkman Dead’s birth in 1931 in an unidentified, racially divided city in Michigan. The day before Milkman’s birth, a crowd...
(The entire section is 1,762 words.)