FOLKLORE AND BLUES IN SONG OF SOLOMON
NAOMI VAN TOL
Sugarman done fly away
NAOMI VAN TOL
Sugarman done fly away
As an African American author, Toni Morrison writes with a strong and ever-present sense of people and place. Calling her work "village literature," she believes that good novels ought to "clarify the roles that have become obscured . . . and they ought to give nourishment" (LeClair 120-121). The attempt to sharpen these indistinct social roles involves a cultural journey that "compels us to question Western concepts of reality and uncover perceptions of reality and ways of interpretation other than those imposed by the dominant culture" (Wilentz 61). This visionary approach is apparent in all of Morrison's literary works, which demonstrate a deep concern for validating and enriching an African American culture that has long been under attack by both external and internal forces. Arising out of both the blues tradition and a magical African folktale, Morrison's Song of Solomon illustrates with particular clarity this obligation to bear active witness to the past in order to feed the hearts of a people.
Through her literature, Morrison deliberately works to counteract the loss of the folklore tradition that constitutes one of the basic elements of African American culture. Critic Cynthia Davis notes that Morrison's skillful "combination of social observation with broadening and allusive commentary gives her fictions the symbolic quality of myth," further adding that "the search for a myth adequate to experience is one of Morrison's central themes" (323). As Morrison explains:
This intentional examination of cultural myths in order to explain and broaden reality necessitates a distinctly Afrocentric literary approach. Thus, Morrison's style contains key elements of "African modes of storytelling" which provide "a way of bridging gaps between the Black community's folk roots, and the Black American literary tradition" (Wilentz 61). Throughout her writing, Toni Morrison suggests that "[l]iving with unexamined roots as much as living with no roots . . . creates a stunted and deformed tree" (Schultz 143) and she has clearly taken this lesson to heart in the creation of her own storytelling style.
Because she does not make literary concessions to white ignorance of African American language and tradition, Morrison has been accused of a sort of cultural exclusivism. Addressing such comments from white critics, Morrison declares:
Morrison believes that truly good literature always has something meaningful to say about what it is to be human, whether speaking of whites or people of color, and suggests that critical demand for a "universal novel" is often merely a disguised request for literature written from a white point of view. Morrison notes that "[i]nsensitive white people cannot deal with black writing, but then they cannot deal with their own literature either" (Tate 160). While the white world that surrounds Morrison's black characters is usually a symbol of violation and oppression, she "rarely depicts white characters, for the brutality here is less a single act than the systematic denial of the reality of black lives" (Davis 323). Morrison's writing, then, is an ongoing attempt to reclaim the collective past of African Americans in order to allow the definition and maintenance of a personal and cultural identity.
In her widely acclaimed 1978 novel, Song of Solomon, Morrison "bears witness to . . . a society in which the fathers soared and the mothers told stories so that the children would know their names" (Wilentz 62). This book provides a clear expression of Morrison's belief that "understanding self and past is always a project of community" (Rushdy 304) through Milkman Dead's extraordinary journey of awakening. One critic has suggested that Morrison's "apprehension of the possible loss of the orature and cultural history" of African Americans provides the impetus for much of her work (Wilentz 64). The preservation and continuance of these vital traditions are only possible through the "magic of memory," which "exists as a communal property of friends, of family, of a people. . . .[and] is the basis for constructing relationships with the other who also remembers" (Rushdy 321). Here, in order to more clearly understand the memories that inspire Morrison's writing, a brief historical examination and definition of African American culture is necessary.
Lawrence W. Levine states that his landmark book, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, "abandons the popular formula which has rendered black history an unending round of degradation and pathology" (xi). This reduction of all black people to the monodimensional role of passive victims in the genocidal grasp of slavery, Levine argues, ignores the enduring strength of the cultural cohesion that existed and still exists among African Americans. Scholarly opinion has often concluded that "because United States slavery eroded so much of the linguistic and institutional side of African life it necessarily wiped out almost all of the fundamental aspects of African cultures" (Levine 4). Although those African cultures were clearly disrupted by the tribal scattering caused by the slave trade and the dehumanizing brutality of slavery, Levine suggests that culture "is not a fixed condition but a process: the product of interaction between the past and the present" (5). Thus, a culture's strength is not determined by its static rigidity but rather by "its ability to react creatively and responsively to the realities of a new situation" (5). To understand the extent and importance of this ability in African American culture, we must study not only "the educated, the intelligentsia, the elite" but also the stories of the common folk (xi).
While many slaves retained traditional African beliefs, most augmented their folkloric wisdom with various elements adopted from the European world view commonly shared by their masters. Magical folk beliefs encountered Christian myths, and the result allowed slaves to "exert their will and preserve their sanity by [imposing] a sense of rationality and predictability upon a hostile and capricious environment" (Levine 63). Both the African and European schemata were capable of providing hope and assurance for a people in great need of both. Christianity furthered a communal spirit among members of different tribes, while promising an eventual heavenly respite from the sorrows of slavery. Traditional folk beliefs held a more immediate appeal, as they "actually offered the slaves sources of power and knowledge alternative to those existing within the world of the master class" (63). Thus, the attempted European cultural subjugation of slaves failed to annihilate African culture altogether, and even the successful imposition of Christianity upon America's slaves often had the unintended result of further unifying and empowering the African American community.
Although the black cultural worldview that gradually emerged during the slavery era might be interpreted as merely an elaborate assortment of coping mechanisms, a means for human survival amid barbaric conditions, Levine asserts that such an interpretation falls far short of the mark. The prolonged cultural blending of European and African socio-religious attitudes "resulted in a style which in its totality was uniquely the slaves' own and defined their expressive culture . . . at the time of emancipation" (Levine 135). This unique cultural style was often outwardly expressed through two activities that are usually found intertwined in symbiotic unity with each other: music and storytelling. Zora Neale Hurston's lifelong study of African American cultural traditions led her to conclude that "the sound-arts were the first inventions and . . . music and literature grew from the same root" (Hurston 877).
In a 1960 interview, blues musician Sidney Bechet identified the source of the essential connection between music and storytelling: "Me, I want to explain myself so bad. I want to have myself understood. And the music, it can do that. The music, it's my whole story" (qtd. in Levine 190). Slave spirituals were among the earliest forms of artistic self-expression available to African Americans; the songs were based on Christian hymn tradition, but often departed radically from the complacent austerity of white hymns. This spiritual tradition provided the birthing ground for what Levine calls "the most highly personalized" genre of African American music: the blues (221). By the early twentieth century, the blues had emerged as a dynamic and powerful addition to the music of black America: "In the spirituals, black Americans first started to sing of their feelings of homelessness; in the blues, they continued to sing it" (Schultz 127). This statement is perhaps an oversimplification of the subject matter of black music, but the basis for such a judgment is firm. Although gospel and blues often differ in focus and style, both genres are musical expressions of the cultural need to tell the story of a people (Levine 221).
Mahalia Jackson once remarked that blues songs "are the songs of despair, but gospel songs are the songs of hope" (qtd. in Levine 174). This comment is not necessarily a pejorative judgment of blues singers; perhaps the blues developed to fill a need that gospel could not address. The deep despair that fills so many blues songs provides a communal outlet for emotions that would otherwise choke the singer; the blues may provide a way of recognizing and sharing human pain in order to overcome it. According to John Lee Hooker, the blues are "not only what's happened to you, it's what happened to your foreparents and other people. And that's what makes the blues" (qtd. in Levine 237). This historical and cultural breadth of the blues illustrates the vitality and strength of the close connection between music and folklore. Zora Neale Hurston suggests that "[s]omewhere songs for sound-singing branched off from songs for storytelling until we arrive at prose" (Hurston 877) and asserts that folklore is nothing less than "the boiled-down juice of human living" (875). In his haunting short story, "Sonny's Blues," James Baldwin illustrates the transcendant power of the intermingled storytelling-blues tradition, for "while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness" (Baldwin 139).
Clearly, singing the blues and telling a story have long been integrally linked elements in African American culture. Joyce Wegs suggests that Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon constitutes a literary blend of the two elements, and is in fact a blues song thinly disguised as a novel. Morrison's frequent employment of Pilate's "Sugarman" blues song is the most obvious indication of her intention to sing the blues in writing. The character of Guitar, aptly named after the chief musical instrument associated with the blues, provides an additional musical connection and serves as "a counterweight to the kinds of criticism of contemporary black men which Morrison, the female blues singer, is suggesting" (Wegs 212). Further, Morrison's novel addresses one of the main themes that dominate blues music: the conflict that occurs because of the "difference between the male and female response to harsh experience" (212). Wegs refers to a blues lyric, documented by Levine, to illustrate this point:
A dominant and compelling image in Song of Solomon is that of the men who "fly away, and leave their women to sing the blues" (Wegs 212). Morrison admits a fascination with this male rootlessness, which she finds "one of the most attractive features about black male life. . . .the fact that they would split in a minute just delights me" (Stepto 26).
Despite Morrison's enchantment with this black male characteristic, such perpetual motion always carries a heavy price. When the men fly away the women are "left behind not only to sing the blues but to sing of home" (Wilentz 64) and women become the de facto guardians of cultural history. Someone must teach the children their names and the names of dead ancestors in order to maintain familial and cultural history, and that responsibility falls heavily on the shoulders of the wives and mothers who remain behind. In Song of Solomon, Milkman Dead's great-grandmother is overcome with sorrow when she is abandoned by her husband and fails to perform this traditional function, resulting in the Dead family's ignorance of their past. As Wilentz points out: "Just as the spirituals transformed the slaves' misery into music . . . women storytellers . . . pass on the memory of the names that were stolen and the stories suppressed" (73).
In order to sing this particular song, Morrison utilizes the framework of a traditional slave myth of an African tribe whose people could fly. One of the earliest written versions of this story is contained in The Book of Negro Folklore, a groundbreaking book of black folktales collected in the 1950s by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps. Told to the authors by a Gullah man living in the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia, the story was said to be of Angolan origin. Other slaves often regarded the Angolan Gullahs as a magical people, perhaps because of their unusually tall stature and dark skin, and thus their traditional stories were widely told and respected. The folktale begins like this:
A particularly cruel master bought a group of these magical people, and worked them mercilessly. One woman had recently given birth to her first child, and was beaten by the overseer when she fainted from overwork and heat. She began working again, but soon faltered. This time when the slavedriver approached to whip her she leaped into the air at a signal from the oldest man in the group, and flew away. The overseer was furious, and worked the other slaves harder. Soon a man fell, was beaten, and also rose into the air and flew away with the help of the old man. When they realized what was happening the master and overseer rushed to kill the old man, but he laughed at them and raised his hands. Suddenly, all of the slaves "leaped into the air with a great shout; and in a moment were gone, flying, like a flock of crows" over the fields and back to Africa (64).
Song of Solomon begins with this myth, as an insurance agent and sometime assassin named Robert Smith announces that he will "fly away on [his] own wings" (Morrison 3) from the roof of the local hospital. On the appointed afternoon, a small crowd gathers to watch as Mr. Smith prepares to spread his blue silk wings and fly over Lake Superior. A pregnant woman in the crowd goes into labor as the winged man launches himself into empty air and plunges to his death. The child who is born the next day is forever affected by the circumstances of his birth, for "when the little boy discovered, at four, the same thing Mr. Smith had learned earlier -- that only birds and airplanes could fly -- he lost all interest in himself" (9). Christened Macon Dead III, and later renamed Milkman because his mother nurses him well past babyhood, this bereft child spends his life searching for the wings that will finally give him the power of flight.
Milkman Dead's childhood realization that he cannot fly serves to set him apart from other people; in a way, he even detaches himself from his own life. Although Milkman grows up, finds friendship with Guitar Bains, meets his mysterious aunt Pilate, and falls in love with his cousin Hagar, these human connections are curiously stilted. Milkman's loss of "interest in himself" does not constitute selflessness, for he becomes astoundingly selfish, but rather indicates a lack of real involvement in life and an ignorance of his true personal and racial identity. As Elizabeth Schultz observes, it is only "when an individual . . . can establish a specific connection with his people's origins [that] he becomes rooted" (129). Milkman wants to fly, but his wish for flight is a selfish escapism that can never give him true freedom. Milkman is "struggling toward an acceptance of the fact that an active commitment to others is paradoxically the best of all possible means for fulfilling oneself and one's personal freedom" (136). Until he completes an odyssey of discovery and realizes this absolute paradox -- that a person must be rooted in order to fly -- Milkman must remain flat-footed on the ground.
Milkman's inability to fly is exacerbated by another perceived handicap. Living in the large shadow of his abusive and acquisitive father, Milkman grows up with a secret and shameful flaw. At age fourteen, Milkman "noticed that one of of his legs was shorter than the other. . . .It bothered him and he acquired movements and habits to disguise what to him was a burning defect" (Morrison 62). Milkman "knew, because of the leg, that he could never emulate" his physically powerful father (63). Because he feels that he cannot measure up to his father's standards, Milkman outwardly rebels by adopting a different personal style, but he inwardly becomes more like his father: "dead" in both name and spirit. As Milkman grows older, it becomes apparent that his short leg is merely an outward manifestation of his internal shortcomings. Milkman's emotional and moral growth has been severely stunted by his parents' twisted and barren relationship with each other, which denies their children the nourishing love they need to be whole.
A further indication of Milkman's dilemma, and an additional impediment to his spiritual growth, is found in another childhood memory. When the Dead family's shiny Packard, "Macon Dead's hearse" as it is half-jokingly called by the neighbors, rolls sedately through the city on afternoon drives, Milkman's view is restricted to what he can see out of the rear window. To watch the passing scenery he kneels on the seat, but "riding backward made him uneasy. It was like flying blind, and not knowing where he was going -- just where he had been -- troubled him" (Morrison 32). Later in life, Milkman's necessary journey of discovery "follows an uneven path" because although he "has a desire to know his origins, both of his name and his family . . . . he has a conflicting desire to remain ignorant, to rest secure in unknowingness" (Rushdy 312). The final truth that "Milkman must learn is that to see the future, he must see, remember, and reconcile himself to the past" (312). Identifying the past, for Milkman, becomes the process of naming his ancestors. Only through knowledge of the names that have gone before can Milkman arrive at an understanding and acceptance of his own name, and at last feel true love for himself and his people.
The vital importance of naming in African American culture is clearly illustrated throughout Song of Solomon; a name has the power to define and to possess that which it identifies. Several compelling examples of the significance that black tradition attaches to the process of naming can be found in the first pages of the book. Milkman is born at Mercy Hospital, called No Mercy by the African Americans who were previously denied admittance to its birthing wards, in a neighborhood referred to by residents as the Blood Bank "because blood flowed so freely there" (Morrison 32). After Doctor Foster, the first black doctor in the city, established his office on Mains Avenue the street was popularly renamed Doctor Street until the city declared the invalidity of that name as a mailing address. Following this official pronouncement, residents promptly changed the name to Not Doctor Street.
The extreme attention displayed by the Song of Solomon community to the appropriateness of particular names implies a deep cultural requirement that names must have meaning. Descriptive nicknames are prevalent in Milkman's society, as his own name shows, and are often bestowed by the community in recognition of some personal attribute. Railroad Tommy and Hospital Tommy are named after their respective careers, Guitar Bains is named after his love of musical instruments, while Empire State acquires his amusing nickname because "he just stood around and swayed" (Morrison 330). A name for each new member of the Dead family is randomly chosen from the Bible: Pilate, Hagar, First Corinthians, and Magdalena are a few of unusual names that result from this technique. Morrison explains that "I used the Biblical names to show the impact of the Bible on the lives of black people, their awe of and respect for it coupled with their ability to distort it for their own purposes" (LeClair 126).
A deep truth about human nature may be found in such actions: the ability to choose our own names verifies the power of individualistic creation that underpins our freedom. This general human truth is rendered immeasurably more significant and poignant for those whose ancestors are nameless slaves. Because African Americans have traditionally been denied their own names, such resistance to unchosen names is no small matter. The deliberate refusal of the black community in Song of Solomon to accept arbitrarily imposed names constitutes an act of defiance toward an oppressive white power structure and a concomitant act of collective self-love. Throughout Morrison's novel, the "constant censorship of and intrusion on black life from the surrounding society is emphasized not by specific events so much as by a consistent pattern of misnaming" (Davis 323). As a result of this misnaming, "a whole group of people have been denied the right to create a recognizable public self -- as individuals or as community" (327).
Clearly, then, "[p]ower for Morrison is largely the power to name, to define reality and perception" (Davis 323), and no character exemplifies this belief more than Pilate. Because her mother dies while giving birth to her, the infant Pilate fights her way out of the birth canal without assistance. As a result, the self-made Pilate has no navel. This bizarre feature, compounded by her "Christ-killing" name (Morrison 19), sets Pilate permanently outside of society, forcing her to name and love herself. Taking the scrap of paper upon which her illiterate father copied his baby's notorious epithet, Pilate places her name inside a metal snuffbox-earring and wires the box through her earlobe. In accordance with Morrison's view of traditional African American reactions to the Bible, Pilate finds within herself the courage to take her name, subvert it, and make it stick. With this acceptance of her own name, its sinister implications notwithstanding, Pilate links her past and present together with the unshakeable love needed to create the possibility of a real future.
Despite Pilate's example, most of Song of Solomon's extensive cast of characters are unable to recognize or accept their own personal and cultural identities, and thus are rendered incapable of truly embracing others. Milkman and his family spend much of their lives locked into a selfishly false way of loving; their ignorance of the past kills any hope for a future, and so present joys are poisoned. Milkman's father loves the possession of property above all else, while Milkman's mother loves the deified memory of her father: this double distortion of love renders Macon and Ruth "dead" to each other within their mutually antagonistic marriage. Toni Morrison portrays such illustrations of love gone wrong as a clarion warning of how not to love; the story of Guitar Bains provides an especially incisive example of the danger of misplaced love.
As a child Guitar develops a violent dislike for sugary foods when he is given divinity by a white woman after his father's grisly death in a sawmill accident. The mill owner gives Guitar's mother forty dollars in compensation for her husband's death, which she accepts with fawning gratitude, and uses to buy candy sticks for her children. Guitar cannot eat his candy and drops it into his mutilated father's grave, later associating the taste of sugar with both death and submission to whites. This early experience leads Guitar to later become a member of the secret African American vigilante group called the "Seven Days," whose mission is to kill randomly selected white people in direct numerical retaliation for black deaths. Despite the ruthlessness of such a response to white violence, the Seven Days claim that their actions are justified because they stem from a pure motivation: love for the black race. When Milkman questions this love by suggesting that in-kind retaliation will only increase the general white animosity toward blacks, Guitar asks poignantly: "What good is a man's life if he can't choose what to die for? . . . . It is about love. What else but love?" (Morrison 223).
According to Ralph Story, the disagreement that Milkman and Guitar display over proper ways to respond to acts of white hatred demonstrates "a dissonance which has always characterized" the African American community (150). Comparing Guitar to a young Malcolm X and Milkman to Martin Luther King, Jr., Story suggests that Guitar "has come to reject not only the values and attitudes of the black middle class but also the life of the black working and lower classes" (154) through what the Seven Days see as radical action in defense of their people. Thus, Guitar's ungrounded love becomes hatred and his motives become meaningless. Morrison refers to the perversion of Guitar's love through his murderous involvement in the Seven Days as "the decomposition of a beautiful idea" (Koenen 75). When Milkman and Guitar spot a white peacock that has escaped from a zoo, Guitar derides its awkward tail-heavy flight, saying "Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down" (Morrison 179). For Guitar, the shit that weighs him down eventually includes true love, and he is driven to pursue Milkman's death even at the possible expense of his own.
Even before Guitar's love turns murderously upon its object, Milkman's life is threatened by a different but equally misguided love. At age twelve, Milkman is smitten with his beautiful cousin Hagar, and their relationship later deepens into one of sexual love. For Hagar, this passion fills a deep emotional vacuum, providing a substitute for the stability that her mother and grandmother have never been able to provide. Because society rejects Reba's carefree libertinism and Pilate's general "otherness," Hagar is deprived of the ordinary communal love that she needs to be truly happy. Milkman's love becomes vitally important to Hagar, and when he breaks off their relationship one cold Christmas by sending her money and a thank-you note, Hagar picks up an ice-pick and walks out into the snow in search of Milkman Dead. Because she can only love herself in the reflected light of Milkman's false love, Hagar's world is suddenly turned upside down, and her love mutates into an impotent rage that rules her body and soul. After Milkman leaves town in search of fabled family gold, Hagar focuses her love-turned-hatred upon herself, and soon spirals into bottomless sadness.
When Milkman first undertakes his odyssey toward freedom, he flies away from the unbearable pain of his spurned lover Hagar, the conflicting demands of his parents, and the disturbing intensity of Guitar Bains. This attempted escape is coupled with Milkman's greedy interest in gold, the lost fortune from his family's past. As he flies away from his lifelong home for the first time, Milkman is elated:
This airplane ride provides only a shadow of what Milkman later seeks. After a lifetime of trying to satisfy his wants, Milkman will soon begin to finally realize what he needs. The feeling of freedom he finds in the air is only a pale illusion, for Milkman still thinks freedom can be found only outside of "real life" and apart from his past.
After leaving the airplane Milkman must travel by Greyhound bus to Danville, Pennsylvania, his father's boyhood home. The cave that contains the mythical family gold is located near the home of an old black woman named Circe, who sheltered the young siblings Macon and Pilate after their father was killed and his farmland seized by local whites. Here Milkman begins his true journey when he encounters Circe, the image of a witch from his childhood nightmares, and enters her terrifying embrace. Circe directs Milkman to the cave, and he plunges into the dark and treacherous woods in search of gold. Milkman's citified clothes and shoes are gradually ruined as he undergoes a "ritualistic stripping of his sense of power and egoism" (Schultz 138). Finding nothing in the cave but "rocks, boards, leaves . . . . no fat little pigeon-breasted bags of gold" (Morrison 252) Milkman is deeply disappointed. Deciding that Pilate may have earlier retrieved the gold and hidden it near her birthplace in Shalimar, Virginia, Milkman resolves to continue his quest.
After a determined search, Milkman finally locates Shalimar through serendipitous chance when his seventy-five dollar used car breaks down in front of Solomon's General Store in the center of town. Here, as his journey expands and the layers of his family history begin to peel away, Milkman's money and possessions quickly become useless and "the family fortune ironically proves to be its past and its people, not its gold" (Schultz 137). Shalimar, pronounced Shalleemone, is "a dream-like place that is not listed on the Texaco map . . . a place where women carry nothing in their hands and men have no money in their pockets" (De Arman 58). Milkman's unconsciously condescending demeanor soon provokes a vicious broken-bottle fight with a local man. After this public test of skill and courage, Milkman is subjected to a further trial when a group of Shalimar's men invite him to accompany them on a night hunting expedition.
This hunting trip marks an unmistakable epiphany in Milkman's journey, which occurs after he becomes separated from the other men. Following the baying dogs is a difficult and unaccustomed ordeal for Milkman: he begins to limp on his aching short leg, and he is soon left behind. Suddenly alone in the woods, Milkman's "[i]solation, fear, and pain prompt memory, affection, and guilt" (Schultz 138). Guitar had once taught Milkman a macabre joke: "My name is Macon . . . . I'm already Dead" (Morrison 118) and
Sitting in moonlit woods with his back against a tall and firmly-rooted tree, Milkman finally understands and accepts his name for what it is: "'Milkman' as a testimony to his mother's need for love after the loss of her father, 'Dead' as a testimony to his father's need for possessions after the loss of his father" (Rushdy 316) and acknowledges his own responsibility for the pain he has caused others through his lifelong selfishness. Ironically, Guitar chooses the moment of Milkman's enlightenment and repentance to try to strangle him. In the ensuing struggle Milkman manages to fire his gun into the air, and Guitar quickly runs away and disappears into the trees. Leaving the woods after this encounter, Milkman "found himself exhilarated by simply walking the earth. Walking like he belonged on it . . . . And he did not limp" (Morrison 281).
Returning to Shalimar, Milkman spends the night with a local woman, appropriately named Sweet. Unlike Milkman's many previous sexual encounters, his lovemaking with Sweet is unselfish and mutually fulfilling. For the first time, Milkman understands that giving love must be wedded to taking love. Later, in his dreams, Milkman flies "over the dark sea, but it didn't frighten him because he knew he could not fall. He was alone in the sky, but someone was applauding him, watching him and applauding" (Morrison 298). The unseen source of this applause may be the ghostly hands of his ancestors, with whom he is finally beginning to connect. The next morning, Milkman continues this new way of interacting with a loved one: "He made up the bed. She gave him gumbo to eat. He washed the dishes. She washed his clothes and hung them out to dry. He scoured her tub" (Morrison 285). Later, Milkman regretfully acknowledges that although "his mother and Pilate had fought for his life" since he was in his mother's womb, "he had never so much as made either of them a cup of tea" (Morrison 331).
After these enlightening experiences, alone in the woods and together with Sweet, Milkman begins to discover the names of his ancestors: his roots. The town's children sing a circle rhyme that tells the story of a flying African named Solomon; now Milkman realizes that this is the story of his family. Revealing the true source of Pilate's "Sugarman" blues song, the children repeat the plaintive words sung by Solomon's wife, Ryna, who died of sorrow after his Africa-bound departure:
The rhyme's verses contain an oral history of Solomon's family, listing the names of the twenty-one children who were left behind when Solomon flew back to Africa. As Milkman memorizes his ancestors' names, he becomes "as excited as a child confronted with boxes and boxes of presents under the skirt of a Christmas tree" and "as eager and happy as he had ever been in his life" (304). Elated by his new knowledge, Milkman grabs Sweet and races to Shalimar's nearby river for a baptismal celebration. Plunging into the water, Milkman "began to whoop and dive and splash and turn. 'He could fly! You hear me? My great-granddaddy could fly! Goddam!' [Milkman] whipped the water with his fists, then jumped straight up as though he too could take off" (328). Milkman's joy blinds him to the bittersweet sorrow of Sweet's question: "Who'd he leave behind?" (328).
Filled with prideful elation at his discovery of these magical family roots, Milkman returns home to Pilate's righteous wrath. Pilate's precious granddaughter Hagar has committed suicide, shattered by Milkman's cold rejection of her possessive love. Pilate welcomes Milkman home by breaking a wine bottle over his head as a just reward for his prodigal behavior. While Milkman was away learning to fly like Solomon, Hagar's sorrow led her to Ryna's fate: the old pattern has been repeated once again. Milkman finally realizes that the joy of flying away is exceeded by the pain of those left behind, for "the consequences of Milkman's own stupidity would remain, and regret would always outweigh the things he was proud of having done" (Morrison 335). Shortly before her suicide, Hagar concludes that Milkman left her for another woman because "he don't like hair like mine" (315). Pilate asks her granddaughter how Milkman can "love himself and hate your hair" which is "his hair too" (315) but Hagar is inconsolable. After he learns of Hagar's death, Milkman goes back to his parents' house "with almost none of the things he'd taken with him. But he returned with a box of Hagar's hair" (334). Although he can never undo his past mistakes, Milkman at last achieves honest human understanding through sorrow, and thus gains a shot at redemption.
Milkman allays the ferocity of Pilate's anger by revealing his recent discoveries, which finally explain the true origin of the bag of bones Pilate has carried with her for decades. After their father's death, Pilate's brother Macon attacked a white man in panicky self-defense and left the body in a cave. Years later, Pilate dreams of her father, who tells her: "You just can't fly on off and leave a body" (Morrison 147). Pilate interprets this admonition as a command to return to Pennsylvania to collect the skeleton of the white man, and does so, placing the bones in a sack which she hangs from the rafters of her house. Now Milkman informs her that the bones are actually her father's, and Pilate realizes that she must bury her father's remains in Shalimar where he was born. "Peace circled" Pilate on the ensuing trip to Shalimar, and Milkman "felt it too" (334). Climbing to Solomon's Leap, the rocky site of their ancestor's legendary flight, Pilate and Milkman find enough earth for a burial: "Pilate squatted down and opened the sack while Milkman dug. A deep sigh escaped from the sack, and the wind turned chill . . . . Pilate laid the bones carefully into the small grave" (335). Instead of a rock or cross, Pilate "reached up and yanked her earring from her ear, splitting the lobe" (335) and placed the snuffbox atop her father's grave. Then, as Pilate stood up, "it seemed to Milkman that he heard the shot after she fell" (335).
Guitar Bains' twisted love has driven him to stalk and attack the very people he wants to protect, and he fires the bullet that kills Pilate. As Pilate's life bleeds away on Solomon's Leap, her only regret is this: "I wish I'd a knowed more people. I would of loved 'em all. If I'd a knowed more, I would a loved more" (Morrison 336). Dying, she asks Milkman to sing for her. Like Ryna and Hagar before him, Milkman pleads in abandoned despair: "Sugargirl don't leave me here / Cotton balls to choke me / Sugargirl don't leave me here / Buckra's arms to yoke me" (336). When Milkman realizes that Pilate is dead, he sings "louder and louder as though sheer volume would wake her. He woke only the birds, who shuddered off into the air" and one of the birds "dived into the new grave and scooped something shiny in its beak before it flew away" (336). As Pilate's name-earring soars away, Milkman suddenly knows "why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly" (336).
Now Milkman stands up to face the murderous love of Guitar Bains, ready to give everything for love, replete with the hard-won knowledge that a truly connected love is not bondage but freedom. Duplicating the flying leap of his famed ancestor, without "wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees" (Morrison 337), Milkman launches himself into the cold night air:
As Gay Wilentz notes, "in the end, [Pilate] bequeaths to Milkman not only his birthright but a legacy which allows him, too, to fly" (72). Learning the truth of Pilate's lifelong understanding that "the closer I'm bound in love to you / the closer I am to free" (Indigo Girls) Milkman reaches the end of his journey as he begins a new one.
Song of Solomon's final scene is disturbing and unsatisfactory for readers who prefer a definitive conclusion to stories. Toni Morrison answers such critics by reiterating her ties to the African storytelling tradition: "The folk tales are told in such a way that whoever is listening is in it and can shape it and figure it out. It's not over just because it stops" unlike the standard ending usually found in a "Western folktale where they all drop dead or live happily ever after" (Darling 253). Regarding the apparent dilemma of Song of Solomon's ending, one critic suggests that "the question the reader should ponder in this interrogative text is not whether Milkman lives or dies, but whether Milkman dies or flies" (Wilentz 74). By allowing the reader this freedom of interpretation, "Morrison exposes the conflict of Western and African cultural perceptions" yet again, in which white slave-traders saw Africans committing suicide by jumping overboard in the Middle Passage while black slaves saw their brothers and sisters flying back to Africa (74).
Morrison suggests that finding a satisfactory ending in writing is similar to musical closure, because
Through her insightful and far-reaching exploration of a kaleidescopic variety of themes, all arising from the joy and pain of being human, Toni Morrison sings the story of Milkman Dead's painful journey of discovery but also something more. Carrying on the inherently dual tradition of the blues, Morrison tells a communal story through the experiences of a unique individual who must first experience despair in order to gain the ability to sing of hope. By the end of Song of Solomon, Milkman recognizes the truth:
Much of Milkman's life is spent in an attempt to "fly solo" without human connections, without knowledge of the past, without true love. Morrison's blues song provides a vibrant analysis of the dangers of this way of living, which is capable of killing not only an individual but also a culture. Pilate's paradoxical rooted flight arises out of her true understanding and acceptance of the intertwined love, hatred, hope, and despair that define the existence of herself and her people; embracing the contradictions of humanity allows Pilate to live and die in joyful freedom. Seeking this freedom, Milkman takes flight at last, and Toni Morrison concludes that "you'll never know who you are, you'll never be a complete person, until you know and remember what Milkman had been knowing and remembering" (Koenen 74).
COPYRIGHT BY NAOMI VAN TOL
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