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, the first Macon Dead was an example to all, as Milkman learns when he journeys to Danville and meets his grandfather's contemporaries:
He had come out of nowhere, as ignorant as a hammer and as broke as a convict, with nothing but free...
(The entire section is 8,611 words.)