by Toni Morrison, 1977
I don’t think I will cease to be impressed with how deftly Toni Morrison incorporates historical events, cultural criticism, and societal strife into stories with such highly flawed, damaged, and unenlightened characters while managing to make the result nothing short of luminous. Here we have the story of Milkman Dead, born the only son to Macon Dead and sharing his name except for the fact of his troubling nickname which was bestowed upon him by a town member who was witness to an incident with his mother. Song of Solomon is at once a coming of age tale, one that tells of a man who has truly does not have to answer to anyone or be responsible for himself, struggling to learn his place his in family’s history, yet it is also a story of black history itself, of those who fight to remember who they are while whites work to erase it.
I was recently having the discussion that what makes African-American genealogy so difficult is that it’s nearly impossible to trace our names. They mean little, signifying only which owners we were sold to and not the people we came from. Unless you had someone keeping records of births and deaths, which required the ability to read and write and most slaves could not or were not permitted to, our lineages are lost. I, for one, do not know my ancestry beyond my great grandparents and I do not know how our last name came to be what it is. This erasing through names is at the forefront of Morrison’s story, as the first Macon Dead was so named because, upon gaining freedom, the person registering him mistook his city of origin to be his first name and the fact that his father was dead to be his last. His son, the second Macon Dead, subsequently places great importance on the practice of naming and is therefore ashamed of his son’s nickname and refuses to use it.
While Song of Solomon is Milkman’s journey to find out who his people are, it is also a chronicle of significant events in black history. As black lives are taken without consequence – Emmett Till, the 16th St. Baptist Church bombing, numerous anonymous lynchings – we see a line drawn in the sand between Milkman and his friend Guitar, the latter taking a Malcolm X-inspired eye-for-an-eye stance against black violence, and the former having yet learned to consider anyone other than himself to be of importance. There is a vibrancy in Guitar’s conviction that resonates even today – “He could of had a wad of bubble gum, they’d swear it was a hand grenade,” he says of the claim that Emmett Till had a knife – that is largely absent from Milkman’s being. In not knowing and not accepting responsibility for who he is, Milkman is the weak spot in his community and family.
A literal representation of the book’s title can be found in the story, but I feel as though I’m missing out on its larger significance. The “Song of Solomon,” or “Song of Songs,” can be found in the Bible, and although I did attempt to learn a little bit about it to increase my comprehension of the story, I’m left knowing that I need to get myself to the source material to fully understand Morrison’s meaning here. I’m coming to learn that this is part of Morrison’s brilliance, that her stories are so wonderfully multi-layered, fraught with not only the contemporary difficulties of black life, but with all that came before to give birth to those difficulties. Song of Solomon is, at its heart, one man’s journey, but it is about slavery and freedom and oppression and female subjugation and sexual desire and political retribution and personal worth all wrapped up in the life of Milkman Dead. It is a thoroughly exceptional piece of writing.