Like Morrison’s first two novels, The Bluest Eye and Sula, Song of Solomon (1977) is a coming of age story. Unlike her first two novels, Song of Solomon centrally is the saga of a young man. In fact, Song of Solomon is the first of Morrison’s novels to have a male as a primary protagonist.
Song of Solomon draws on diverse mythological traditions, particularly biblical, Greco-Roman, and African to create a uniquely African-American narrative. The story requires the reader to participate in order to piece together the seemingly incompatible elements of the story to make a sensible and meaningful whole.
Milkman, the primary character in Song of Solomon, is a self-absorbed, petulant, and rootless man who begins a self-interested quest for financial gain and ends up discovering the story of his family. Through the process of learning about his history, Milkman matures, learns responsibility, transcends his own selfishness, and creates a meaningful existence for himself embedded in an embrace of his family history. Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977. Morrison credits the success of Song of Solomon with her selfidentification as a writer.
Part I Chapter 1
Song of Solomon begins with the story of the suicide of Robert Smith, the town’s African-American life insurance agent. The man posts a note on the door of his home two days before he plans to leap off the roof of the hospital on blue silk wings he has constructed for himself. The note asks for forgiveness and states Smith’s love for the entire community. Although the townspeople come to watch, no one intervenes in advance to stop Smith from his public demise.
In addition to introducing the story of Robert Smith, the first chapter demonstrates the subversive agency of the town’s African-American community. The town calls a particular street Doctor Street because the only black doctor in town used to live there. The town authorities want the street to be called by its official name, Mains Avenue, and not Doctor Street. The community defies authority by calling the place Not Doctor Street.
The daughter of the doctor who used to live on the street, Ruth Dead, is present at Robert Smith’s leap from Mercy Hospital. Ruth has her daughters First Corinthians and Magdalene, called Lena, at her side. Mesmerized by the scene, the girls drop the red velvet rose petals they spend their days making. Ruth is pregnant with her last child and only son, Macon Dead, who will be named after her husband, Macon Dead. After his birth, Ruth’s son Macon is more popularly known as Milkman. Milkman is born shortly after Robert Smith’s jump. Also present as the insurance salesman attempts to fly is Milkman’s aunt, his father’s sister, Pilate Dead, who tells Ruth that Milkman is about to be born.
The novel begins with this evocative and sensuous winter scene. With the snow, the blue wings, and the red petals, Morrison suggests that this is fundamentally an American story. As Robert Smith sways in the wind on the roof of the hospital, Pilate sings a song that seems to narrate the scene. Although Pilate does not know it, the song contains the primary story of the novel: the story of Milkman and the Deads.
Eventually Robert Smith jumps off the roof and his inability to fly marks the consciousness of Milkman as he is born the next morning. Although some people feel that Milkman has some supernatural qualities, others find him uninteresting. Milkman arrives in a family that is deeply unhappy and terrorized by its patriarch, Macon Dead. Macon is mean and verbally vicious to Ruth, for whom he has no respect. He criticizes everything about her, from her attempts to decorate to her cooking.
Seeking affection and affirmation, Ruth breastfeeds her son long past the time that he requires her direct sustenance. Macon’s helper, Freddie, witnesses Ruth breastfeeding the boy and christens him with the name that he retains for the rest of his life, Milkman. Although he does not know the source of the name, Milkman’s father, Macon, hates it and sees it as an example of a problematic naming tradition in his family. His own father chose Pilate’s name in a random selection from the Bible. Because Macon Sr. could not read, the midwife explained to him that the name referred to the Pilate who was responsible for Christ’s killing. Macon Sr., bitter about the death of his wife during childbirth, keeps the name for his daughter.
The family name, Macon Dead, was also acquired by chance. An intoxicated Yankee soldier puts all of the information for Milkman’s grandfather in the wrong blanks, leaving the family with the last name as Dead and the first name as Macon rather than his place of origin. In that inglorious way, the first Macon Dead receives his name and passes it down to his son, who, despite his disdain for it, likewise bestows it upon his own son, Milkman.
Macon Dead Jr.’s entire identity and sense of selfworth are built upon his possessions. Through ownership, Macon feels he has control of the world and that he has security. It is that sense of security that gives him the courage to ask Dr. Foster for permission to marry his daughter, Ruth. She appeals to Macon because of her status as the doctor’s daughter.
Not only does Macon show a lack of empathy and compassion to his family, but he also has no mercy for his tenants when they fall on hard times and are unable to pay their rent. One of his tenants, Mrs. Bains, comes to ask for an extension on the rent, and he simply repeats the date that the money is due. Mrs. Bains’s grandson, Guitar, who eventually becomes Milkman’s best friend, witnesses Macon’s disregard, and his eventual bitterness toward Milkman’s father and the Deads has its roots in that exchange.
Another tenant of Macon’s, named Porter, gets drunk and threatens to kill himself or someone else if he cannot find someone to have sex with. Macon is entirely unconcerned with any of the details of the situation. Knowing that Porter just got paid, all Macon wants is the rent money Porter owes him.
Macon’s character stands in stark contrast to that of his sister, Pilate. The two siblings value completely different aspects of the world. To make money, Pilate sells wine to the community. She lives simply in a one-story house without electricity. Pilate’s character is epitomized by the absence of her navel. Pilate comes into the world of her own agency and lives without dependency on others. Although Macon witnesses Pilate’s birth, which occurs after their mother’s death in childbirth, he disregards and devalues precisely what is unique about his sister.
As Macon walks home at the end of the chapter, he passes Pilate’s house and he loiters as he hears her singing by candlelight with her daughter, Reba, and her granddaughter Hagar as she gently stirs the contents of a pot.
Macon likes to display his possessions, including his family and his car, so on Sundays they go for rides so that he can display his wealth to the community. While out on the ride, the young Milkman has to urinate. He carelessly pees on his sister Magdalene, called Lena. The incident repeats symbolically over and over again in Milkman’s relationship with his sisters and with his family in general.
Although Macon tries to prevent Pilate and Milkman from developing a relationship, the boy seeks out the aunt he has heard so much about. During the first meeting between Pilate and her nephew, Milkman is enchanted by her presence. She gives Milkman and his friend Guitar a softboiled egg, and she tells them the story of her father, Milkman’s grandfather, Macon Dead Sr. She tells Milkman about how he was murdered for his land and that she and his father, Macon Jr., were left orphaned and wandering around in the woods. She also shares her encounters with her father after his death. He visits Pilate frequently and speaks to her.
While at Pilate’s, Milkman also meets his cousin Hagar and begins a lustful infatuation with her that lasts for many years. They also meet Reba, Pilate’s daughter and Hagar’s mother. Reba’s most notable characteristic is that she is lucky. Without trying, she wins things. The boys witness that all is not perfect with Pilate and her family when Hagar says that she has not always had all that she needs emotionally. The three women continue to enchant the boys as they break into song.
Macon is greatly displeased with his son’s association with Pilate, yet Milkman’s encounter causes him to reflect on the past and to share some of that history with Milkman. He tells Milkman about his father’s land in Montour County and of the farm they called Lincoln’s Heaven. He also tells Milkman more about his parents and their meeting on a wagon headed north right after the end of the Civil War.
In spite of his reverie, Macon still warns Milkman to stay away from Pilate. He tells him the story of the snake that, although nurtured and fed, kills the man who cares for him. When the man questions the snake about why, the snake says that the man always knew that she was a snake. This cautionary tale is meant to warn Milkman away from Pilate. Macon also says that he is going to teach Milkman about work and about some practical skills.
In spite of Macon’s efforts, Milkman continues to visit Pilate. He also works with his father and spends time with his friend Guitar. During one of their roams about town, Guitar tells Milkman that he is not able to eat sweets because they remind him of his father’s fatal accident in a sawmill. The sawmill owner’s wife gave Guitar and his siblings a candy called Divinity, and ever since that time, sweets make Guitar ill.
Guitar is Milkman’s bridge to a community that, because of his father, sees him as an outsider. As he grows, Milkman notices a physical abnormality—one of his legs is longer than the other. He is self-conscious about what he views as a deformity and expends a great deal of effort trying to disguise his leg. He also spends a great deal of energy trying to distinguish himself physically from Macon. All of this effort at identity formation is external and superficial, and Milkman spends no time developing an interior life, a self.
One act Milkman perpetrates that makes him feel as if he is a man is the evening he hits his father, presumably to protect his mother. Following Milkman’s assault, Macon tells his son the reasons he feels justified in hitting Ruth. He tells Milkman that he believes that the relationship between Ruth and her own father was unnatural. Macon claims that when the doctor died, he found Ruth naked in bed with his corpse, sucking on the fingers of his body.
After his father’s revelation, Milkman goes for a walk to reflect on what he has been told. As he walks he remembers the incident that earned him his name, Freddy’s observation of Ruth breastfeeding him when he was past the age to need his mother’s milk. This memory makes his father’s story seem more credible.
Milkman finds himself at Tommy’s Barbershop. When he walks in, the men are listening intently to a radio broadcast detailing the murder of EMMETT TILL. The men in the shop debate the situation and what they believe the outcome will be, given the racism of the time. Guitar and Milkman leave the barbershop and head for a bar named Mary’s where Milkman tells Guitar the story of his fight with his father. Trying to be empathetic, Guitar tells Milkman the story of accidentally killing a doe when hunting. Milkman and Guitar connect their situations with Emmett Till; eventually, with nothing resolved, they end the evening.
Milkman grows tired of his escapades with Hagar and decides to end the relationship. In the beginning, Hagar is in control of the relationship and Milkman is hungry for her. As the years progress, Milkman begins to lose interest in his cousin and, rather than speaking to her face to face, he writes her a note expressing his appreciation for the years they have spent together. The note deranges Hagar and causes her to respond violently in a desperate attempt to get Milkman’s attention.
Milkman also begins to feel a strain in his relationship with Guitar. Guitar begins to get serious about the realities of racial conflict and violence and Milkman is too self-involved to care about anything that is not immediately affecting him. Guitar accuses Milkman of being aimless. Freddie warns Milkman that Guitar has found an outlet for his frustration through membership in an organization. Thinking Freddie drunk, Milkman does not believe him.
Tired of running from Hagar’s monthly attempts to kill him, Milkman decides to confront his fear of her and of death. The night he expects Hagar, he goes to Guitar’s apartment in a half-hearted effort to hide.
The two get into a heated discussion about what is important and what they need to value in their lives. They do not agree. Guitar, however, concedes to let Milkman spend the night in his apartment. Alone, Guitar awaits Hagar’s impending, potentially murderous arrival.
While he waits, he thinks about the trip he took following his mother. Seeing her going out at an uncharacteristically late hour, he decides to go often her and see what she is doing. Milkman discovers that his mother travels to a nearby town, Fairfield Heights, where her father is buried. She spends the night at the cemetery on his grave. When she learns that she has been discovered, Ruth tells Milkman her side of the story.
Ruth tries to explain to Milkman her childhood isolation. She says that the doctor is the only person who cares about her existence, who is interested enough in her to be curious about her activities. She accuses Macon of trying to kill her father and the unborn Milkman. She maintains that Pilate’s guidance was the only force that allowed Milkman to survive his trials and to be born. When asked, Ruth tells Milkman that she was not naked with her father. She says she was in her slip and kissed her father’s fingers as the only part of him not ravaged by disease. Milkman also asks her about breastfeeding him too long. She says that her only intention was to guide him and to hope for the best for him.
Milkman’s reverie is broken by the sound of Hagar’s approach. She has been trying to attack Milkman once a month since she received his letter ending their relationship. Hagar is incompetent in her attempts to kill Milkman because she really does not want him to die. When she reaches the inside of Guitar’s apartment, she raises the butcher knife she carries up above her head and brings it down on Milkman’s collar bone. When she raises the knife again, she finds she cannot move her arms.
Milkman feels he has achieved the victory he sought. With no compassion for this woman, his cousin, who loves him so madly, Milkman utters an obscene suggestion for Hagar to plunge the knife into her genitals. In this decisive moment, Hagar despairingly gives up her monthly hunts.
Ruth learns of Hagar’s attempts to kill her son from Freddie and she is reminded of the other time Milkman’s life was threatened, when his father wanted to kill him before he was even born. After the doctor’s death, Macon stops having sex with Ruth. Pilate and Ruth conspire to get Macon to make love to her so that she can have another child. Macon is furious about Ruth’s pregnancy and tries to kill his unborn son. Ruth and Pilate together protect the child from Macon.
So when Ruth learns of Hagar’s attempts to murder her son, she again turns to Pilate for help. At Pilate’s house, she has a confrontation with Hagar in which they both declare their importance in Milkman’s life. Pilate interrupts to remind them that Milkman cares for neither of them. Pilate shares with Ruth some of the history of her father and of her travels after she and Macon go separate ways following the murder of their father.
Pilate headed for Virginia because she remembered that Virginia is the state her dead mother was from. Pilate finds herself with a preacher’s family who takes her in, but she has to leave when the wife discovers the preacher fondling her. With only a geography book she acquired during her stay with the preacher’s family, Pilate ventures out again on her own. This time she stays with a group of migrant workers and is nurtured by a root woman. While with this group, she takes a lover who casually mentions to the others that she has no navel. They ask her to leave, and Pilate learns that her stomach is different from everyone else’s in the world.
After several other rejections, Pilate learns to keep her stomach hidden. She ends up on an island off the coast of Virginia where she meets another lover. She becomes pregnant and gives birth to Reba. While she recovers from the delivery, her dead father comes to her. She finds the visit comforting and decides to follow what she believes is his advice and sing. The singing cheers her, along with her father’s other admonition that cryptically advises her that there is always responsibility when a person leaves a situation. Pilate believes that her father means that she needs to return to the cave where she and Macon went after he was murdered and retrieve the body of the man she and Macon killed there. She does this and carries the body around with her for the rest of her life.
Restless, Pilate leaves the island with Reba and wanders from place to place for the next 20 years and decides, because she thinks it will be good for her granddaughter Hagar, to find Macon and settle down near family. Although Macon does not welcome her arrival, Pilate stays because she thinks she can be of some help to Ruth.
The chapter begins with Milkman and Guitar’s discussion of Hagar as they sit in Mary’s Place. Guitar recalls that, when he returned to his apartment after her final confrontation with Milkman, he finds her standing in the same position she was in when Milkman left. Guitar asks Milkman what he did to Hagar, and Milkman takes no responsibility for her emotional state. Milkman confronts Guitar about his newfound secrecy and asks if Guitar trusts him. Guitar tells Milkman that he is not sure he can trust Milkman.
Eventually deciding that he can trust his friend, Guitar tells Milkman of his involvement in an organization called the Seven Days. Guitar explains that the Seven Days states as its purpose retribution for racially based injustice. The group consists of seven men. Their function is to make certain that if a crime is committed against a black person and goes unpunished, they will commit the same crime against a white person to even the score. Guitar explains to Milkman his belief that whites are unnatural and violent. Milkman tries to counter Guitar’s arguments but is unsuccessful. Guitar reveals that he is the Sunday man, responsible for replicating all racist violent acts that go unpunished and originally happen on Sunday.
Milkman senses his inertia and pleads with his father to be able to travel for a year, to go and do something on his own. As they discuss the situation, Milkman inadvertently mentions Pilate’s green bag—the one that, unknown to Milkman, contains human remains. When Macon learns of the bag, he immediately believes that it contains money and he tells Milkman the rest of the story of the days following his father’s death.
Following the witness of their father’s murder, the children run to the home of the midwife who delivered them, Circe. She takes them in without her employer’s knowledge. The children—Pilate and Macon—are in danger because they can identify the men who killed their father. While the children stay with Circe, Pilate pierces her ear and makes an earring of her mother’s snuffbox, the only item the children take from their home. In the box, she places the piece of paper from the Bible where her father wrote her name. They stay with Circe for two weeks and then decide to set out on their own.
At first the children are delighted to be out in the open air and free. Then they notice a man who looks like their father following them at various points in their journey. He appears to be there no matter which direction the children go. At night they find a cave and move toward its mouth. The man stands there and beckons to them to come into the cave. They follow the man who they believe is their father.
In the morning, Macon wakes and goes to find a place to defecate. As he returns to the cave, he happens upon a white man who had been sleeping in the cave. In his terror, Macon kills the man and covers him with a blanket. He then examines the man’s things and finds gold. The children argue about whether they should take the gold. Pilate argues that it does not belong to them and that taking the gold will make them more of a target for the people who are looking for them. The children fight and, eventually, go their separate ways. Macon always believes that Pilate takes the gold.
After hearing from Milkman that Pilate has a green sack hanging in her home, Macon feels that his long-term suspicion has been confirmed. Macon is certain that Pilate has the gold. In order to motivate Milkman, he assures him that if he gets the gold, he will let him go on the trip that he wishes to go on and that he will give his son half of the money.
The chapter begins shortly after the 1963 attack on the Sixteenth Street Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. As the Sunday man, Guitar becomes responsible for replicating the event. As such, he is in desperate need of money. So when Milkman approaches him about robbing Pilate he is more than eager to participate. Preparing for the task renews the bonds between Guitar and Milkman that had grown strained.
When the boys muse about what they will spend their money on, Guitar thinks of things for other people, while Milkman only dreams of buying things he wants for himself. On the other hand, Milkman is reluctant to rob his aunt and feels guilty about taking from a woman who has been so generous toward him. Guitar inspires him with a speech that encourages him to embrace and live his life. Milkman then begins to understand what it might be like to have a self, a personhood based on his own action and thought.
Guitar and Milkman go to Pilate’s house on a night when the air, inexplicably, smells like ginger. They cut the sack down from its moorings and walk out the door. Pilate, who of course is aware of what the boys are doing, wonders what they want with the green sack.
Chapter nine begins with the story of the now-adult Corinthians Dead. The college-educated woman says that she finds work as a secretary and personal assistant for the state poet laureate, Michael-Mary Graham, when in reality she works as her maid. While riding the bus to work, she is drawn into a courtship with Porter.
Although he is content for a while to have a furtive, secret relationship with Corinthians, eventually, after her repeated refusals to go to his room, Porter recognizes that she is ashamed of him and decides to end the relationship. Corinthians, recognizing that the relationship means a great deal to her, fights to keep him and agrees to go to his room. As Corinthians sneaks back into her father’s house, she overhears Macon and Milkman arguing.
Corinthians’s brother and father are arguing about the outcome of Milkman and Guitar’s robbery of Pilate. Guitar and Milkman are picked up by the police after they leave Pilate’s house. They discover in the police station that the green bag contains bones and rocks, not gold. Macon refuses to accept the reality of his son’s vulnerability—that his money and reputation will not prevent his son from being harassed by the police. He wants to blame the trouble on Guitar and the fact that he is poor.
In fact, the whole situation is salvaged by a combination of Macon’s money and Pilate’s willingness to perform for the policemen the stereotypes that they already believe. When Pilate arrives at the police station seeming like a witless, superstitious Mammy, the police are amused and see the entire episode as comic rather than as threatening.
Macon still will not let go of the idea that acquiring the gold is a possibility. He tells Milkman that the gold must still be in the cave. As Milkman reflects on the evening, he marvels at Pilate’s craft, worries about Guitar’s transformation into someone filled with hate, and, by association, figures out that Corinthians’s Porter is a member of the Seven Days.
Milkman’s next several days are spent in an alcoholic haze. He drinks rather than confronting the meanings of his act. His sister Magdalene, called Lena, confronts him and points out his ineffectual and parasitic relationship with his family. She reveals to him the results of his casual report to Macon of the relationship between Porter and Corinthians: Macon ends the relationship and Corinthians is devastated. Magdalene called Lena tells Milkman that his passive abuse must stop and that he should leave. Milkman decides to take her advice.
After taking his first flight and then a bus, Milkman begins his adventure away from home by visiting the home where Macon and Pilate ran to after the murder of their father. When Milkman arrives in Danville, Pennsylvania, for the first time in his life he is in a community where they know his family. He feels a sense of belonging and connection that he has never had before. He also gets a more generous, broader portrait of his father.
At the house, Milkman is shocked to discover the woman Milkman and Pilate sought when they ran there so many years ago, Circe. Whether Circe is alive or a ghost is unclear. She tells the story of her work with the owners of the house, the Butlers. She claims to have overseen the demise of the family and that she will remain in the house until everything is utterly destroyed.
Milkman learns many important details of his family’s story from his encounter with Circe. Two of the most important details are Milkman’s discovery that the men who killed his grandfather took his body to the cave to hide it after the body floated up out of a shallow grave and that his grandfather’s name before the drunken Yankees’ rechristening was Jake.
Milkman walks to the cave and finds that the gold is not there. The hunt has him energized, however, and so he decides to continue to look for the lost gold and leaves Danville on a bus headed for Virginia.
In Virginia, Milkman looks for a town that he eventually learns is called Shalimar. He also discovers that Guitar is looking for him. His friend leaves Milkman a cryptic and ominous message about days (a reference to Guitar’s association with the Seven Days) that Milkman recognizes as a threat.
The difference between Milkman’s way of functioning in the world and the mores of the town get him in trouble with the men in the town. He gets in a fight because he unintentionally offends the people by not getting to know them before he requests information and favors. After the fight with a young man named Saul, some of the older men of the town ask him if he would like to join them to go hunting. Finally, feeling somewhat accepted, Milkman agrees to go with the men.
As they walk through the woods, Milkman has a kind of initiation ritual. He has to communicate with the other men to follow what is happening. They are used to the woods and the arduous distance and Milkman is no match for them. He stops to rest and realizes that all of the props that he has used to support him his whole life, his money, his name, mean nothing out here. In the woods, with these men, he only has himself on which to depend. He also notes that there are other ways to communicate than the ones with which he is familiar. The language of the hunt is the language of survival, communicating necessary information rather than relying on systems of meaning that do not ultimately have relevance.
In the midst of his reflections, Milkman is interrupted by a wire pulled around his neck by Guitar. His oldest friend tries to kill him. Startled by the approaching men who have treed a bobcat, Guitar runs away. Milkman uses his own, newly acquired resources to join the men and help them to kill the bobcat. The encounter in the woods is critical to Milkman’s development. For the first time in his life he has a genuine connection to others that is based on experience and not on hierarchy. The men like him for who he is and Milkman begins to like himself more. He also loses his limp.
The next morning, Milkman awakes eager to find out more about his family’s story. He learns that his grandmother, Sing, may have been a playmate of one of the older ladies in town, Susan Byrd. He spends the night with a woman named Sweet, a woman whose care and attention he appreciates and who he wants to nourish and care for, an experience he has not had before.
Milkman begins the day by visiting Susan Byrd and asking if she has any information about his grandmother Sing. Susan tells him the story of Sing Byrd, but the information she has about her does not match the story Milkman knows. As he walks back to town from Susan Byrd’s, he runs into Guitar. Guitar accuses him of taking the gold from the cave and then sending it somewhere. Despite Milkman’s denials, Guitar does not believe him. The hatred that is at the heart of the Seven Days infects Guitar and distorts his judgment. He tells Milkman that he is going to kill him after the gold he believes Milkman has shipped arrives.
Milkman returns to Sweet’s that night and he dreams of flying. While he is at the general store, he overhears some children in the town playing a game that tells the story of his family. Although he has heard it many times, he finally has both the knowledge to understand its meaning and the ears to hear. He also experiences empathy and regret for the first time in his life. Milkman understands more about the way his father behaves and about his mother’s pain. He also regrets his treatment of Hagar and acknowledges his participation in her downfall. He realizes that Hagar’s craziness made him a celebrity and made him seem more desirable and manly.
The novel shifts back north and to Hagar’s story. After Milkman’s rejection, Hagar desperately tries to understand the reasons Milkman does not love her. She lies in bed until Pilate gives her a compact. When Hagar sees her reflection, she thinks that her appearance is the reason for Milkman’s rejection. She decides that the solution is to go shopping for new clothes, cosmetics, and a new hairdo. It begins to rain, and Hagar’s bags and her temporary recovery begin to disintegrate. Hagar cannot recover from Milkman’s rejection and, eventually, dies of a broken heart.
Ruth insists that Macon pay for the funeral. Reluctantly he does so. The funeral is filled with Pilate and Reba’s singing. The two women sing for mercy. Pilate proclaims that her lost granddaughter was dearly loved.
In Shalimar, unaware of the events that have transpired at home, Milkman returns to Susan Byrd’s house to ask her some more questions about the story that he is piecing together. He discovers that Susan Byrd simply did not want to tell the story of Sing in front of her nosy friend Grace. He learns that his great-grandmother and grandfather grew up together and that his grandfather is one of the flying Africans, the group of enslaved Africans who were said to be able to fly. Solomon, Milkman’s great-grandfather is the man of the legend. Milkman’s grandfather, Jake, is said to be the only one of Solomon’s 21 children that he tries to take with him when he flies off.
Milkman returns to Michigan energized by his knowledge that he comes from a family that can fly and has a real story. He cannot wait to see Pilate and Macon and to tell them about what he has learned about their family. He goes to Pilate’s house first and she greets him by breaking a green bottle over his head and knocking him unconscious. When he regains consciousness, he realizes that something must be wrong with Hagar. Eventually he learns of her death, and Milkman finally acknowledges his responsibility for her life and death. Pilate gives him a box of the dead girl’s hair as a way of accepting the burden of his failure.
Milkman tells Pilate that it is her father’s bones she has been carrying all of those years. He also tells her that her father’s ghost was not telling her to sing but was calling to Pilate’s mother, Sing. Pilate and Milkman return to Shalimar to bury Jake. After the twilight burial, Guitar fatally shoots Pilate. Milkman’s transformation into responsible adulthood is complete as he sings to Pilate the family song as she passes into death.
After Pilate dies, Milkman faces Guitar and offers him his life. The novel does not specify what the particular details are of the final encounter between Guitar and Milkman. What ultimately matters is that Milkman values himself and his family narrative enough to relinquish the illusion of control that prevents human beings from living, from flying with the currents of time and change.
One of the many long-lasting impacts of the slave trade and the subsequent dispersal of Africans throughout the countries of the Western Hemisphere was the erosion of a positive collective identity. The importance of a personal sense of history is particularly evident for African Americans given their involuntary severance from their heritage coupled with the inherent difficulties of minority life.
Song of Solomon highlights the personal and community impacts of the erasure of the histories of marginalized people. Through reclamation of his family’s lost history, the novel’s central male protagonist, Milkman Dead, becomes self-affirming and discovers his own worth with the assistance his aunt, Pilate Dead. In order to become self-affirming Milkman Dead must reconstruct his ancestral narrative and relinquish his selfishness and materialism. Through Milkman’s evolution, Morrison demonstrates the negative effects of the inability to construct an individual identity that is grounded in a historical foundation.
Milkman Dead is a character without rootedness. He is unable to progress spiritually or emotionally until he acknowledges, recognizes, and reclaims his connection to the past. Milkman’s search demonstrates the need for African Americans to maintain or to reestablish continuity with the past in order to create the sense of identity necessary for healthy survival. Milkman is able to become self-affirming and to access a balanced identity when he rediscovers and acknowledges his family’s legacy.
Before delineating the individual struggle Milkman undergoes in his search for his uniquely African-American narrative, it is important to examine the ways in which Morrison demonstrates his need for such a structure. Through self-conscious manipulation of certain biblical referents Morrison demonstrates their inability to provide a meaningful foundation for either Milkman or for his aunt, Pilate Dead.
Many sociological studies affirm the necessity of a relevant narrative for the successful development of individual identity. Connecting symbolically with a larger narrative provides a way to validate the significance of individual existence. The underlying narrative of a society functions as a common denominator and point of reference for the members of that group. In other words, the general ritual or narrative of a society is what provides an individual with personal and communal motivations.
Without a significant narrative, life can become meaningless. The situation is compounded when an individual, like Milkman Dead, is a member of a minority group, and, perhaps, excluded from the narrative structures of the dominant culture. As a result of the dissipation of a relevant cultural mythology, Song of Solomon suggests that African Americans must validate their individual existences by personally reconnecting with their particular past. Accordingly, Morrison emphasizes the fundamental, intrinsic importance of a larger relevant narrative to the formation of individual identity and structures her novel around the protagonist’s simultaneous acquisition of self-affirmation and his ancestral/racial narrative. Utilizing the larger narratives of Western society, particularly biblical mythologies, Morrison reveals their failure to satisfy the need to uncover an ethnically relevant story. Biblical reference points become a guide to Milkman’s discovery of a personal, unique, and particularly African-American narrative.
The opening scene of the novel graphically illustrates the loss of meaning in the fictional AfricanAmerican community in which Song of Solomon is set. During this once-upon-a-time establishing scene occur both a suicide and a birth. From its beginning, Song of Solomon establishes life and death as parts of a cycle rather than as opposites. The drama of both the birth and the death that occur in this scene are enhanced by equally disconcerting sensory data: red velvet rose petals falling against white snow, blue silk wings, and a haunting song. All of these elements, particularly the color images, suggest an American story but, like the scattered rose petals, the parts lack unity and coherent meaning. They need a narrative framework to coalesce the pieces into a discernible whole.
Comprehension and assimilation of these pieces is the quest of Milkman Dead and also the way in which Morrison demonstrates the inability of traditional narratives to provide a completely satisfying base of meaning for her characters. Morrison particularly emphasizes the inadequacy of the biblical narrative through her use of naming. Early on, the novel establishes the inadequacy of the Bible as a lone source of information when Pilate’s brother, Macon Dead, questions the accuracy of the narrative from which his family selects its names. He thinks that the names they have chosen at random from the Bible provide him with no useful knowledge of himself or of his family. Macon Dead longs for a relevant narrative from which he can derive a meaningful sense of self. Instead, he settles for the inadequate story he has inherited and relinquishes any possibility of true self-knowledge.
Unlike her brother, Pilate Dead embraces the past and her ancestors as a dynamic and useful source of information. Although Pilate does not fully understand the information she possesses, including the various nuanced meanings of her name, she appreciates that the information she has, even if incomprehensible, has value and worth. Like her biblical predecessor, Pontius Pilate, Pilate is largely unaware of the significance of her actions. Pilate, like her biblical namesake, functions as a blind catalyst for her nephew’s redemption. She is unaware that she acts as a guide, but, nonetheless she provides Milkman Dead with the means to transcend his own limitations and narrowed vision through her unintentional revelation of what she knows of the Dead family narrative.
Although these similarities exist between Pilate and Pontius Pilate, it is the differences between the biblical definition and the essence of her character that expose Pilate’s need for another narrative structure from which to derive meaning. For example, unlike Pontius Pilate, Pilate’s actions are not destructive despite her lack of knowledge. Pilate was named when her father,
confused and melancholy over his wife’s death in child-birth, had thumbed through the Bible, and since he could not read a word, chose a group of letters that seemed to him strong and handsome; saw in them a large figure that looked like a tree hanging in some princely but protective way over a row of smaller trees. (18)
Perhaps if Macon Dead had been aware of another, more pertinent narrative source than the Bible, he could have chosen a name out of that tradition, a name that embodied the tenacity, nurturance, royalty, and connection with nature that he found appealing in the physical appearance of the word Pilate. Without such a narrative to depend on, Macon Dead is forced to remove himself even further from his own heritage and to select blindly a name from the stories of others.
Interestingly, Macon is not unaware of the Western connotations associated with his daughter’s name. When the midwife examines Macon’s choice of names she objects and explains the name is:
‘Not like no riverboat pilot. Like a Christ-killing Pilate. . . .
Ya don’t want to give
this motherless child the name of the man
who killed Jesus, do you?’
‘I asked Jesus to save my wife.’
‘I asked him all night long.’
‘He give you your baby.’
‘Yes. He did. Baby name Pilate.’ (19)
Macon’s naming of Pilate becomes a conscious rejection, a defiance of the Christian narrative within which he finds himself confined. Pilate’s name, though randomly chosen, becomes a symbol of his defiant anger toward Christ who had not saved his wife, Pilate’s mother. As such, Macon’s choice of Pilate’s name is a rejection of, and perhaps an attempt to rewrite, the biblical story.
This history of the origin of Pilate’s name foreshadows her role as author of her own tale. Pilate’s life is lived in defiance of traditional definitions of womanhood. Her birth from a dead mother and her maturation without a navel reinforces her metaphysical and psychological independence. Pilate is “fluky” about her name (19). Recognizing its significance, she wears a brass box earring in her ear that contains a scrap of paper with her name written on it. In this way the name remains attached to her person only by a thin band of gold. This pervasive but superficial connection demonstrates that a person’s name is but one element in the definition of his or her identity. This quest for a personally, culturally, and historically apt identity that is rooted in a narrative that provides context and meaning is central to Song of Solomon and is the primary quest of Pilate’s nephew, Milkman.
Milkman does ultimately unravel the family narrative and this victory gives some true significance to both his and Pilate’s lives. During the climactic ending to the novel, Pilate yanks the name-bearing earring out of her ear to use it as a marker for her father’s grave. Shortly after Pilate removes her earring, she is fatally shot. As she lies dying, her nephew renames her as he sings for her the narrative of their ancestors.
This scene, like the opening scene of the novel, is both a death and a rebirth. Pilate is baptized in her own blood, reborn/renamed from within her own tradition. She dies as Sugargirl. Sugargirl becomes an African-American personification of universal love, a singing tribute to the power of the recovery of a significant narrative. Milkman’s singing of his family’s song brings the novel full circle and demonstrates the necessity of the African-American narrative it unfolds.
The title of the novel Song of Solomon also affirms the fundamental interrelatedness between narrative and identity. The title is, in part, an allusion to the biblical book of the same name. Although there are many interpretation of the biblical Song of Solomon, one of them suggests that the story tells about the power of love over the magnetic attraction of material goods. It is the biblical emphasis on the transformative power of love that Morrison retains and incorporates into the African-American narrative that is at the heart of the novel Song of Solomon.
The biblical Song of Solomon is a love story. Chapter 1, verse 6 in the biblical Song of Solomon reads:
Look not upon me because I am black,
because the sun hath looked upon me:’
My mother’s children were angry with me;
they made me the keeper of the vineyards;
but mine own vineyards I have not kept.
This verse can be applied to the African experience of enslavement and as such demonstrates the role of “keeper of the vineyard” of other people’s narratives that has been forced upon African Americans. The statement “mine own vineyards I have not kept” indicates the loss of tradition and relevant narrative that occurred as a result of slavery.
The opening scene of the novel Song of Solomon is illusive when one attempts to understand it from an uninformed, a contextual perspective. Immediately the death and the birth that occur are seen as opposing entities. As such the events are confusing and seemingly unconnected. After completing the novel, however, and discovering a different narrative through which to comprehend the opening scene, the pieces, particularly the connection between the birth and the death, become comprehensible and fall into an intelligible pattern. In this opening scene, Morrison collapses opposing distinctions and synthesizes these elements into the creation of a new story. Through rediscovery and comprehension of an appropriate, relevant, alternative meaning-giving past, the pieces of the lives of these AfricanAmerican characters take on a contiguous shape, the wholeness and unity of a newly stitched quilt constructed from pieces of an ethnically and culturally relevant narrative.
Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon demonstrates the need for connection with a personally relevant belief system in order to become self-affirming and to empower oneself to overcome oppression. Morrison establishes that the Bible is not, by itself, an appropriate meaning-giving source for Milkman Dead or any of the African-American characters in the novel. As an alternative, she offers the Song of Solomon, a narrative grounded in the actual histories of the novel’s characters.
Like so many mythological figures, by attaining flight, Milkman transcends both his humanity and his mortality and attains god-like stature. With this action he conflates the past, the present, and the future, and knits the narrative strands of the novel together. Milkman’s search for identity involves recognizing and overcoming his dependence and emotional isolation through assimilation of his familial narrative. At the end of the novel, he is finally adult: capable and loving. Through her exposition of Milkman’s transformation, Morrison firmly establishes the centrality of ancestral narrative and of the achievement of individual selfaffirmation and an authentic identity within her fictional universe.
SOME IMPORTANT THEMES AND SYMBOLS IN SONG OF SOLOMON
Dependence v. Independence
From the beginning of Song of Solomon, Milkman needs to overcome both his dependence on and emotional isolation from others. The pivotal first scene of the novel demonstrates the secondhand way in which Milkman participates in the various events of his life. His very birth occurs as a result of someone else’s action. Milkman’s mother, Ruth Dead, witnesses Robert Smith’s suicide, the man’s failed attempt to fly on manmade wings from the roof of Mercy Hospital. The witnessing of this event brings about the early arrival of Ruth’s son, Macon Jr., who soon acquires the nickname he is known by for the remainder of his life, Milkman Dead. Milkman’s birth represents one of the symptomatic difficulties in his personality—his near-pathological dependence. Until he becomes autonomous through an understanding of his past he is parasitically tied to the others in his life.
Milkman’s lack of interest in his own life is directly attributable to the absence of a relevant narrative. Until Milkman develops self-interest through a connection with his past, his ability to develop a positive identity is seriously handicapped. Throughout his childhood Milkman develops his unhealthy dependence on others. This characteristic of Milkman’s leads to acquisition of his nickname, yet another indicator of Milkman’s dependency. The traditional meaning of the name milkman is of a man who delivers to others a natural, essential, life-sustaining substance. The name as linked with Song of Solomon’s protagonist, however, emphasizes the boy’s failure to nurture others. He is indeed a dead milkman, incapable of existing on his own, much less of enriching and nurturing the lives of those around him. The negative connotations of the name indicate Milkman’s parasitical dependence on his family and his refusal to grow up and to be responsible for his own nurturance. On the other hand, the name may foreshadow Milkman’s future role as a carrier of milk—the story of his family as he progresses and transforms.
The actual incident that results in Milkman’s label also emphasizes his extensive dependence on others. The influence of his mother becomes a major deterrent to Milkman’s autonomy. In order to satisfy her unfulfilled sexual and emotional needs, Ruth Dead breast-feeds Milkman long after it is necessary. Milkman, until this time known as Macon Jr., is no longer interested in breast-feeding, but Ruth persists until she is discovered in the act by her husband’s assistant, Freddie.
Ruth Dead’s abuse of her son causes him both immediate and long-term damage. The example Ruth sets for Milkman encourages him to think of people in terms of what they can do for him and begins a pattern of selfish dependence on those around him until he discovers meaning for himself through comprehension and assimilation of his family’s history.
In order to fulfill his sexual needs, Milkman has a long relationship with his cousin Hagar. In this relationship he also exhibits his characteristic selfishness. His only interest in Hagar is sexual. This focus is established during his first encounter with the girl when he, ignoring her magical personality, falls in love with her behind. Throughout the course of their long relationship, Milkman insists upon positioning Hagar as a receptacle for his sexual desire. Milkman’s lack of emotional connection with Hagar becomes especially apparent when he ends their long relationship with a letter. Milkman’s letter illustrates his absolute disregard for Hagar when she, crazed by his rejection, attempts to kill him. The attempts on his life frighten Milkman but never cause him to reflect upon the pain he has caused Hagar or even to try to talk to her about their situation. He simply continues, albeit uneasily, in the egocentric orbit he has inhabited his entire life.
Song of Solomon borrows its central narrative, the story of Milkman’s flying great-grandfather from an African-American folktale often referred to as the myth of the “Flying Africans.” This folktale is thought to have been a survival of the slave trade, originating in West Africa and changing in focus and meaning with the experience of the slave trade. The tale of the flying Africans has many versions but generally involves a central mystical figure, sometimes an elder, who has firsthand knowledge of Africa and/or of African folkways. When the situation of enslavement becomes intolerable, the individual shares his or her knowledge and gives the group the insight necessary to fly back and return to Africa, away from oppression and exploitation.
This folktale provides an essential thematic frame for Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Throughout the novel, images of flight abound. The first pages of the text introduce the theme of flight with Robert Smith’s suicide note where he tells his community the date and time that he will fly from the roof of the hospital. Smith’s attempted flight and failed wings begins the quest of Milkman Dead for wings of his own.
From the flying figurine on the hood of his father’s Packard, to the peacock that he and Guitar observe, to the homonym of Pilate’s name, “pilot,” the novel resonates with all of the possible nuances and implications of the word and the idea of flight. Not only is the literal act of flight and the desire to achieve it a powerful, connecting theme in the narrative, but also flight, defined as the movement of people with an urgent need to escape their present circumstance, is key to the novel’s concerns.
At the heart of the narrative Milkman eventually unravels is the trauma of the Middle Passage and the involuntary severance from Africa. The desire to return to that illusory, imagined home is the motivation for Solomon’s flight. Sing and Macon Dead I meet on a wagon as they flee the South in an attempt to begin anew in the North. When that dream is destroyed by the greed and brutality of whites hungry to profit from their father’s hard work, Pilate and Macon must flee for their lives from the only home they have known. Separated for years, their rift culminates in Milkman’s flight back South at Lena’s bitter urging.
Perhaps the most dramatic flight in the novel occurs at the end when Milkman, in the wake of Pilate’s death, finally recognizes his own power and comes to value his life enough to be willing to lose it. Milkman’s leap off the cliff and toward the murderous Guitar is left unresolved in the text because, whether he lives or dies, Milkman has learned to fly. He has transcended the banality of his existence and has gained the courage to embrace his own power and is, finally, fully alive.
The exploration of the dimensions of AfricanAmerican flight in Song of Solomon is balanced and critical. The novel always takes stock of what and who is left behind, who is damaged by the departure of those seeking freedom through escape. With Solomon’s departure, Ryna, his love, is left inconsolable, forever wailing in the gulch. In a moment of ironic erasure, Macon, formerly Jake, loses his entire identity and the marking that connects him with his past when he and Sing register with the Freedman’s Bureau and the drunken soldier mistakenly, yet officially renames him. When Pilate and Macon II run away from their father’s land, Macon murders the old prospector, and misunderstandings about this incident forever separate the formerly close siblings. Like Ryna, both Milkman’s emotional and then his physical departure from Hagar leave her inconsolable. Her value and personhood is irrelevant to Milkman when he sets off on his journey. Her subsequent death is the first consequence for which Milkman acknowledges his culpability. This acceptance is central to Milkman’s soaring personal triumph at the end of the novel.
Nationalism v. Assimilation
Arguably, there have been two main philosophical points of view articulated by politicians, intellectuals, and artists about the most promising solution for the complex, often treacherous situation many African Americans face in the United States. In the early decades of the 19th century, radical writers such as David Walker advocated for racial separatism and black nation-building as a solution for what he believed were intractable racebased inequalities in American culture. Frederick Douglass and others maintained that racial equality and true integration could occur if the United States would honestly and without bias adhere to the principles articulated in its own founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence. These two philosophical strains are apparent in the more contemporary assertions of African-American leaders Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. Their ideas and the controversy over the differences in the solutions for which these two men were martyred were a major focus of AfricanAmerican concern during the years Song of Solomon encompasses.
Macon II and Guitar represent extreme adaptations of assimilation and nationalism, respectively. Milkman is torn between these two most significant men in his life and is ambivalent about who to adopt as a role model. Macon Dead is defined by his adherence to capitalism and to his belief that by acquiring wealth, property, and status, he can ensure his safety and that of his family, while keeping at bay the circumstances that befell his father. Macon is deeply concerned with appearances. He marries Ruth Foster because she is the daughter of the town’s most prominent African-American professional. Macon understands success in traditional American terms and believes in meritocracy, the idea that if you work hard, irrespective of your identity, you will ultimately succeed. This passion for assimilation leads him to heartless acts, as when he threatens Guitar’s grandmother with eviction because she is late with the rent.
This encounter with Macon imprints itself upon the young Guitar who is a witness to Macon’s mercilessness. This revelation leads him to the conclusion that materialism is akin to conformity to the same structures in the dominant culture that encourage racism. For Guitar, wealthy blacks are distanced from most African Americans and are in allegiance with the forces of oppression. Guitar’s fundamental concern for African Americans is one element that differentiates him from Milkman and is the root of his eventual murderous mistrust of his best friend.
Throughout the course of their relationship, Milkman’s conversations with his best friend Guitar always center on Milkman’s immediate concerns whereas Guitar is most frequently focused upon larger issues that impact the entire black community. Whenever Guitar discusses something of interest to himself, Milkman ignores or changes the subject. Milkman skates on the surface of this relationship and never explores its depths, yet he illustrates his physical dependence on it by his use of Guitar’s apartment for his sexual adventures.
Guitar’s membership in the vigilante organization the Seven Days seems to indict the extremes of nationalism in the same way that Macon Dead’s life exposes the limitations of complete adherence to assimilation. As the novel unfolds, readers learn that Robert Smith’s suicide at the book’s beginning is brought about, in part, from the isolation imposed by his membership in the Seven Days. The irony of the organization is that in spite of its proclamation of love for the African-American community it has pledged to protect, the Days have adopted the same brutality and inhumanity of those who perpetuate violence against them. Their rigidity and strategy of raw revenge robs the members of the organization of the very community they want to protect. This extremism ultimately leads Guitar to attempt to murder his best friend.
Through the flaws of Macon Dead and Guitar, Song of Solomon asks readers to consider the cost of blind adherence to ideological positions on both ends of the spectrum. Milkman eventually discerns that both the paths outlined by Macon and by Guitar lead to a closing down of individuality and possibility. After his evolutionary quest, Milkman’s potential emergence may represent another possibility between the extremes of nationalism and assimilation.
Anna Djvorak is a Catholic Hungarian woman who had been one of Dr. Foster’s patients while he was practicing. Because Ruth is Dr. Foster’s daughter, Anna Djvorak invites Ruth to her daughter’s wedding. Anna Djvorak is indebted to Dr. Foster because she believes that his medical advice, not to send her son Ricky to a sanitarium, saved the boy’s life. Contrary to the opinions of most medical experts in 1903, Dr. Foster advised Mrs. Djvorak to give her son cod liver oil, rest, and eat healthy foods. After the doctor’s death, Anna Djvorak extends her gratitude to his daughter, Ruth. Ruth embarrasses herself at the wedding by taking communion even though she is not Catholic.
The Butlers are the family that Circe works for as a slave and then as a servant. The Butlers are also the ones responsible for Macon Dead I’s death and the loss of his land.
Calvin Breakstone is one of the men who take Milkman on a hunting trip at night while he is in Shalimar. Calvin takes the lead in the hunt and shines the light that all of the men follow through the darkness. Calvin is the one who discovers the bobcat and explains to Milkman the sound that comes from Ryna’s Gulch. He tells Milkman that the legend of Ryna maintains that she was so heartbroken at the flight of her husband, Solomon, that she lost her mind and that she could be heard screaming even after her death. Although Milkman is 20 years younger than Breakstone, he has a hard time keeping up with the fitter man. It is Calvin who, during the hunt, demonstrates communication between man and animal in a primal form that Milkman was unaware existed.
Circe is an old, mysterious black woman who takes Pilate and Macon in after their father is shot and hides them in the Butlers’ house, the very people who had killed him and the family for whom she works. Circe is a midwife who delivered both Pilate and Macon as well as almost everybody else in their community. Circe is present at Pilate’s birth when the children’s mother, Sing, dies.
While the children hide in the Butlers’ house, Circe brings Pilate cherry jam on white toast, which makes the girl, accustomed to fresh and wholesome food, cry. When Pilate wants to make an earring out of the little brass box that belonged to Pilate and Macon’s mother, Sing, Circe goes to the blacksmith, Reverend Cooper’s father, and has him fasten a gold wire to the box. After inserting the piece of paper from the family Bible in the gold box, Pilate pierces her ear with the soldered gold wire and does not take off the earring until the very end of her life.
Circe helps Macon and Pilate for two weeks after their father is killed. Then the children run away. Inexplicably, she is still living in the Butlers’ house when Milkman returns decades later on his quest for the lost gold. Characterized as a witch, Circe helps Milkman on his quest. In her extremely old age, she also outlives the Butlers, the racist white family she works for, and is determined to stay in the late Butlers’ mansion with their Weimaraner dogs to watch it crumble. When Milkman comes to visit her, Circe gives him information about his family. For example, she tells him that his grandmother, Sing Dead, made his grandfather, Macon, keep the erroneous name the Union soldier gave him, Macon Dead, and that his original name was Jake. (For information on the mythological Circe, see Part III.)
Crowell Byrd (Crow Byrd)
Crowell Byrd is the father of Susan Byrd and the husband of Mary Byrd. His sister was Sing Byrd.
Dr. Foster is Ruth’s father and a respected doctor, so respected that the AfricanAmerican residents of the town call the street where he lives, Mains Avenue, Doctor Street. After town officials protest the impromptu renaming, the black community slyly calls the street Not Doctor Street.
Dr. Foster is well-off and elitist and is obsessed with skin-color consciousness. He treats darkskinned blacks, including his son-in-law, Macon Dead, as inferiors. Dr. Foster has an odd relationship with his daughter that has unexplained and uncomfortable sexual overtones. Dr. Foster assumes behaviors that get him accused of acting white by blacks in his community; ironically enough, he literally turns white at the end of his life when an illness causes him to be pale, bloated, and weak.
The major cause for the break between Macon and Ruth is Macon’s belief that there was some kind of attraction or behavior between Ruth and her father that had sexual dimensions. Macon objected strongly to the doctor delivering the couple’s daughters, First Corinthians and Magdalene, called Lena. Macon believes that he sees Ruth kneeling, or lying, beside the doctor’s dead body. After this event, Macon can never again look at his wife without disgust. Another source of Macon’s resentment toward his father-in-law is the fact that Dr. Foster would not lend Macon money to buy property near the railroad.
Dr. Foster dies an awful death. He loses his vitality and strength. Macon believes that his death is due to an overdose of ether.
Dr. Singleton is a professional in town who, according to Corinthians, can afford to buy a house on the lake in addition to his main home.
Elizabeth Butler is the last remaining member of the Butler family. She has no children. Some of the members of the black Danville community believe that her death is a kind of karmic retribution for the murder of Macon Dead and the theft of his land. She is the one who raised the Weimaraner dogs that Circe eventually allows to destroy the house. She kills herself because the family fortune is gone.
Emmett Till was a young AfricanAmerican boy who was tortured to death in 1953 in Sunflower County, Mississippi, because he was accused of whistling at a white woman. In the novel, a crowd of men gather in the black barbershop when the news of his murder comes over the radio. Each of the men reacts differently to the news of Till’s lynching. Freddie says it is stupid for a black man to do what Till was accused of in the South and expect to get away with it. Others argue that black men cannot be men in the South.
In the midst of debate, Empire State stands silent and thoughtful. Later, the novel reveals that Empire State is one of the Seven Days and that he has killed a white man in retaliation for Till’s murder. By reexamining the scene in the barbershop, it becomes apparent which of the speakers present are in the Days and which are not. (For more information about Emmett Till, see Part III.)
Empire State is a possibly mute man who works at the barber shop. Although many people believe that he is mentally impaired, Empire State’s issues come from his response to the discovery of his wife in bed with another black man. Empire State met his wife, who was white, in France during World War I. They lived together happily for six years until he discovered that she loved and was attracted to all black men, not just him. Guitar hides Empire State when police believe that he killed a white boy.
Father Padrew is a Catholic priest who tells Ruth that only Catholics take communion after she takes communion during the wedding of Anna Djvorak’s daughter.
Feather is the owner of the pool hall on Tenth Street. The pool hall is in the middle of a seedy, shady area of town. Feather is a short and stout man with thinning curly hair. Feather does not want Milkman in his pool hall because he is underage and, mostly, because he is Macon’s son.
First Corinthians Dead (Corinthians, Corrie)
First Corinthians Dead is Ruth’s second daughter. First Corinthians is one year younger than Lena, and is not as interested in making velvet roses as her sister. Corinthians goes away and spends three years in college, at Bryn Mawr, including a junior year in France before returning to live with her family. She is trained to become a genteel wife. Both she and her mother are shocked that she never receives a marriage proposal. The professional men in her community find her too complacent and elitist to be fully desirable.
Perhaps because she has seen more of the world, First Corinthians is more restless than her sister Lena, and, as she grows older, she begins to feel that she will rot away in her father’s house. When she is 42, Corinthians becomes depressed about her life, and decides to get out of the house by taking a job.
She finds a position as a maid to a white woman poet, Michael-Mary Graham, who encourages her to learn to type. Corinthians becomes almost a secretary to the woman. Embarrassed by her status, she and Ruth tell people that she has become an amanuensis.
On the bus home from work one day she meets a man, Henry Porter, who courts her patiently until she accepts him and begins a relationship. Her brother, Milkman, eventually intervenes in the relationship by telling their father about the relationship. Neither Milkman nor Macon feels that Porter is good enough for First Corinthians. Milkman feels this way not only because Porter comes from the Southside, but also because he knows that the man is part of a group of vigilante-style killers, the Seven Days.
Corinthians, after college and time abroad, is still naive as a teenager; however, eventually she decides for herself that she wants a relationship with Porter and has sex with him at his apartment. Ironically, Porter lives in a group of houses owned by her father. Corinthians’s mother and father tell her that she is too good for Porter and she herself wrestles with this notion. She dates Porter and, eventually, after confronting her father, moves out of her parents’ house and in with Porter.
Freddie is the town gossip and Macon’s handyman. He has gold teeth that he flashes with his frequent smile. He discovers Ruth breastfeeding Milkman when Freddie feels that the boy is too old. Following his discovery, Freddie gives the toddler his nickname, Milkman. Freddie tells Macon about Robert Smith’s suicide and Porter’s drunken outburst. Freddie also knows about the Seven Days and informs Milkman and Macon about the organization.
Freddie was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and does not reveal, or perhaps does not know, his actual age. His mother died shortly after his birth and his father died two months before Freddie was born. Freddie was raised in jail because that is where black orphans were placed at the time. Freddie is abandoned by the black community from which he comes because of the way his mother dies. According to Freddie, she was killed by ghosts. Freddie also has had his own encounters with the supernatural world.
Fred Garnet is one of the residents of Danville. He gives Milkman a ride to town after Milkman misses Nephew’s noon pickup during his visit to the Butlers’ and to his grandfather’s stolen farmland. Garnet is insulted when Milkman tries to pay him for a coke he has offered. Milkman does not yet understand the concept of just being neighborly and doing something for someone else out of kindness.
Grace Long is a friend of Susan Byrd’s. She is at Susan Byrd’s home when Milkman comes to visit the first time. Susan Byrd does not tell Milkman what she knows about his grandmother, Sing, because she does not want to talk in front of Grace Long. Grace Long is a schoolteacher at the normal school. She puts a note with her address on it in the cookies she sends home with Milkman. She also takes his watch.
Guitar is the cat-eyed child the Mercy Hospital nurse orders to get the guard as Robert Smith leaps from the hospital roof in the opening scene of the novel. Guitar grows up to be best friends with Milkman Dead, who happens to be the baby whose mother went into labor the day Mr. Smith jumped.
Guitar’s father dies in an accident in the sawmill where he works. The man is sliced in half lengthwise. He is buried with the two halves of himself facing each other. Following the accident, Guitar’s mother gratefully accepts $40 as compensation. The white wife of the factory owner offers Guitar and his brother some candy, divinity, in the wake of the accident, and his mother buys Guitar and his siblings peppermint candy on the day of his father’s funeral with the money she received from the factory owner. From that point on, Guitar cannot abide sweets.
After the accident, Guitar’s mother has a breakdown and abandons her family. Guitar’s grandmother, Mrs. Bains, moves in with Guitar and his siblings to take care of the children. When Guitar is a small boy, his grandmother, Mrs. Bains, goes to see Macon Dead to ask him for an extension on the rent the family owes. Macon refuses. This encounter has a profound impact on Guitar’s perceptions of the world.
Guitar wins Milkman’s loyalty and affection early by saying his nickname, Milkman, in such a way that it sounds cool, rather than derisive. Because he is five years older than Milkman, Guitar is the leader of the two and has great influence on Milkman. Guitar takes Milkman to see Pilate for the first time.
When both men are in their thirties, Guitar’s new seriousness and fault-finding with Milkman contributes to Milkman’s feeling that things need to change in his life. Although Guitar is right that Macon’s life was self-absorbed, his obsession with Milkman’s flaws may blind him to careful consideration of his own flaws. Guitar reacts much differently than Milkman as a result of his experience with racism. Guitar joins the group the Seven Days and devotes himself to their cause— enacting vigilante justice. Guitar is the Sunday man in the Seven Days. As an adult he works in an auto plant.
Eventually Guitar becomes so consumed with the abstract ideal of justice embodied by the Seven Days that he tries to kill Milkman thinking that his best friend has betrayed him. He succeeds in killing Pilate and he and Milkman have a final confrontation at the end of the novel.
Guitar’s Mother and Father
Guitar’s father worked at a saw mill and was cut in half lengthwise by a saw in an accident. After his death, the owner of the saw mill comes to see Guitar’s mother and gives her $40 to compensate for his death. Her smiling manner when she thanks the factory owner, sickens the young Guitar. He associates his sickness with the candy, divinity, that the foreman’s wife gives to Guitar and his siblings and to the candy canes his mother buys each of the children on the day of their father’s funeral, but the real cause of Guitar’s nausea is his mother’s willingness to love the man responsible for cutting his father in half. This early instance of witnessing a black person willing to forsake her own dignity to curry favor with a white person is formative in Guitar’s life and helps to determine his future actions. Shortly after the accident, Guitar’s mother has a breakdown and abandons her family. Guitar’s grandmother, Mrs. Bains, moves in with Guitar and his siblings.
Hagar is Reba’s daughter and Pilate’s granddaughter, although the relationship between Hagar and Pilate is more like that of mother and daughter. Milkman is attracted to Hagar and is said to fall in love with her behind. Although she is about five years his senior, Hagar also falls in love with Milkman, her cousin, and dates him for years until he harshly and unfeelingly ends the relationship. Hagar cannot handle Milkman’s rejection. She tries repeatedly to kill him, doubts her own looks, hair, and self-worth, and eventually dies from a broken heart after going on a shopping frenzy while Milkman is away.
When Pilate forces Milkman to confront his responsibility for Hagar’s demise, he eventually accepts his culpability for her death and carries around her hair in a box—symbolic of her insecurities, but also of their connection.
Heddy Byrd is Sing Byrd’s mother. She has skin color issues and does not like her children playing with dark-skinned blacks. She is an Indian woman. After Solomon flies off, dropping Jake, Heddy takes care of the abandoned infant. Heddy never married and her children have different fathers.
Hospital Tommy owns the barber shop with Railroad Tommy. He speaks in elevated and formal language. In spite of cataracts, Hospital Tommy is in good shape for a man of his age. Hospital Tommy is a member of the Seven Days.
Jake (Macon Dead I)
Jake is Macon and Pilate’s father and Sing’s husband. Jake and Sing meet on a wagon headed north. Jake receives his new name when a drunken Union soldier mixes up the information on a survey form, confusing Jake’s place of birth with his first name. Jake and Sing acquire land in Pennsylvania and try to settle there and begin their family. Their plans are disrupted when Sing dies giving birth to Pilate and corrupt whites steal the land from Jake, in spite of his determination to defend himself, his land, and his family.
Macon and Pilate remember their father sitting on a fence for five days when the Butlers try to steal his land. The thieves eventually shoot him five feet in the air. The mob buries his body and, when it resurfaces in a rainstorm, they throw the body into the cave Pilate and Macon hide in when they run away. Unknowingly, Pilate carries the bones of her father around for years thinking they belong to the white man Macon kills in the cave.
After his death, Jake visits Pilate. Repeatedly he says to her “Sing. Sing.” Pilate thinks that he is telling her to sing. In fact, the ghost is just repeating the name of his wife, Sing Byrd.
John is one of Susan Byrd’s cousins who decides to pass as white.
King Walker is the owner of an old unused service station where the hunters meet before taking Milkman off to hunt at night. King Walker does not look like his name. He is an older man who used to play baseball in the Black Leagues. He lends Milkman some clothes to wear on the hunt and helps him with his chaffing feet.
Lilah is one of Susan Byrd’s cousins who decides to pass as white.
Lilly is the owner of Lilly’s Beauty Parlor. She is known for doing a light press that lasts.
Luther Solomon is one of the men who take Milkman off on a hunting trip at night in the dark while he is in Shalimar. Luther Solomon is not related to the Mr. Solomon who owns the store where Milkman gets into a fight.
Macon Dead II
Macon Dead is the son of Macon and Sing Dead and the brother of Pilate. Macon witnesses his mother die while giving birth to Pilate. Later, he and his sister witness their father’s murder. Orphaned, the two seek shelter with Circe, the community midwife, and then set out on their own.
When they encounter a white man in a cave on their father’s land, Macon kills him. Pilate and Macon quarrel and then separate. Macon believes that Pilate takes the gold that was in the white man’s possession. The two do not see each other again for many years.
Macon settles in the North and begins to establish a business in real estate. Many in the community dislike Macon for being cold and unfeeling. Macon is forever changed by witnessing the murder of his father. After that, he resolves that the only security in the world for a black man is money and property.
Macon spends his life acquiring the possessions he feels will keep him safe and immune from racism. He marries the woman in town, Ruth Foster, who has the most status and spends the rest of his life despising her. Eventually, Ruth and Macon have three children, First Corinthians, Magdalene, called Lena, and Macon III, better known as Milkman. Although Macon feels duped into his son’s conception, he tries to connect with Milkman by teaching him how to work. He never lets Milkman be himself though and always tries to impose his vision of the world on his son.
Macon is also alienated from and embarrassed by his sister, Pilate, whose moral center is completely alien to him. Pilate cares for Macon but realizes that the only way to maintain any vestige of a family connection is through Macon’s son, Milkman. As Milkman grows and unravels the family story, Macon seems to come to terms with his past, although his relationship with Ruth does not improve nor does he reconcile with Pilate.
Macon Dead III (Milkman)
There is a profound connection between the birth of Macon Dead III, otherwise known as Milkman, and the death of Robert Smith in the opening scene of the novel. Milkman is the child of Macon and Ruth Dead. Ruth goes into labor as Robert Smith begins to fly from the roof of the hospital. Forever the child’s life is informed by the idea of flight.
While a young man, Milkman is hampered by his metaphorical inability to fly and is warped by his parent’s dysfunctions. His birth occurs only because his aunt, Pilate, decides that the Deads need a male heir. Pilate is instrumental in temporarily restoring the sex life between Macon and Ruth so that Ruth can conceive. When Macon learns of Ruth’s pregnancy, he is furious and tries to cause her to lose the baby. Pilate helps Ruth to save her pregnancy. Macon is largely uninterested in his son until he is an adolescent.
Ruth, Milkman’s mother, is pathologically needy and uses her son to fulfill her emotional hunger. The proof of her unfulfilled desires manifests itself in her extended breast-feeding of Milkman, which she prolongs, not for the good of her child, but because the act brings her a great deal of pleasure. Freddie, an employee of Macon, witnesses Ruth feeding her son and christens him Milkman, a name he holds for the remainder of his life.
While growing up, Milkman is self-absorbed and frustrated. His parents’ ill-will toward each other poisons the atmosphere of his home and Milkman is not encouraged to consider or to bond with his sisters. His primary outlet as a boy is his friendship with Guitar, an older, charismatic young man who befriends Milkman and teaches him much of what he knows of the world. Guitar takes Milkman to meet his aunt, Pilate, and the younger boy’s world is never the same again.
Pilate shows Milkman another way of being. She is not obsessed with possessions or appearance like her brother, and thus she provides for Milkman an alternative perspective, one that he will draw on as he matures. Macon becomes alarmed when he learns of his son’s involvement with Pilate and draws Milkman into his business endeavors.
At this time in his life, Milkman is particularly selfish, unsympathetic, and immature. After having a sexual relationship with Hagar, his cousin, he breaks off the relationship by leaving her a note. This treatment sends Hagar into a kind of insanity and she begins to attempt to kill Milkman one time each month. Milkman’s eventual confrontation with her is as cruel as his thoughtless breakup and ends, after some time, in Hagar’s death.
In an attempt to assert his masculinity, Milkman hits his father. Although the premise for the act is the defense of his mother, Milkman really hits his father because he is trying to assert his authority. Macon responds to his son’s assault by telling Milkman about his suspicions about an incestuous relationship between Ruth and Dr. Foster. Milkman then remembers Freddie’s discovery of Ruth’s extended breastfeeding and his own feelings of shame, which seem to confirm Macon’s story. Later he confronts his mother about the information he uncovers from his father and she tells him that there was nothing untoward about her relationship with her father.
Inadvertently, Milkman tells his father about a green sack that hangs in Pilate’s house. Macon then tells Milkman of the experiences he and Pilate had after their father was killed. He tells his son about the white man he killed and the gold that the man had. Macon believes that the bag in Pilate’s house must be the gold from the cave. Macon, Milkman, and Guitar conceive a plan to steal the gold. The plan fails when they all discover that the bag contains bones. Macon becomes obsessed with finding the gold and Milkman decides to return to his father’s birth home to try to find it. Guitar wants Milkman to find the gold so that he can pay for his activities with the Seven Days.
Milkman embarks on a quest to find the gold and this leads to his discovery of identity and self. Milkman’s entire character is revealed by his name. He begins with a parasitic relationship with everyone in his life, particularly his immediate family. After he gains some autonomy, Milkman grows into the other meaning of his name, as someone capable of delivering and providing sustenance to his community.
He unravels his family’s story and, although he is unable to unravel all of the harm he has caused, he learns to fly with the knowledge that he comes from powerful people and also that only through the willing acceptance of death does a person really and fully live.
Magdalene (called Lena) Dead
Magdalene (called Lena) Dead is Ruth and Macon’s oldest daughter. She is 13 years old when her brother Macon is born. Lena is the one who conceives the idea for her and her sister, First Corinthians, to make red velvet roses to sell to Gerhardt’s department store. This inane activity occupies a great deal of her time for much of her life.
Lena never marries and stays at home with her parents. Much of her time is spent, also, in caring for her younger brother, though she seldom talks with him. The two have no relationship. When Milkman interferes with First Corinthians’s relationship with her lover, Henry Porter, Lena finally tells her brother what she thinks of him—that he is completely self-absorbed and abusive.
Lena’s desire to make velvet flowers is symptomatic of her relative powerlessness throughout the novel, with the exception of her uncharacteristic stand against Milkman. During that exchange, Lena claims that Milkman has urinated on the women of the family his whole life. Milkman leaves on his journey south shortly after her devastating analysis.
Marcelline is a hairdresser who works in Lilly’s shop. When Hagar comes into the shop frantic and hysterical, Marcelline agrees to do Hagar’s hair partly because she is afraid of Hagar. Hagar never returns to keep the appointment.
Mercy Hospital Nurse
During the opening scene of the novel an unidentified white nurse who works at Mercy Hospital emerges from the building during the chaos caused by Robert Smith’s imminent suicide and arrogantly tries to take control of the situation. She addresses Mrs. Bains, Guitar’s grandmother, abrasively and instructs her to send one of her children to get the hospital guard. When Mrs. Bains tells the nurse the name of the child, Guitar, the nurse looks at her as if she is addle-brained. The nurse then addresses Guitar directly and, without saying please, orders him to run and get the guard.
The nurse punctuates her orders to the boy by making pushing motions with her hands, as one might shoo away birds. She provides one example in this novel of white people treating black people with less than common courtesy, as if courtesy was not thought of or called for.
After abandoning her hopes of marriage, First Corinthians gets a job working for Michael-Mary Graham. Ruth tells her friends that Corinthians is working as MichaelMary Graham’s amanuensis, although in reality Corinthians works as the woman’s maid.
Michael-Mary Graham is a pretentious poet who never realizes that Corinthians is actually better educated and more widely traveled than she is. Michael-Mary Graham fancies herself liberal and progressive, although she is quite provincial and racist. The woman imagines herself a great artist and her inherited wealth allows her to perpetuate her fantasy. Although Michael-Mary Graham’s poetry is trite and predictable, she finds success as a published poet, wins awards for her writing, and serves as the state poet laureate.
Miss Mary is a barmaid and partowner of a bar/lounge in town, one of several that operate in the area called the Blood Bank. Mary’s bar is known by her name. She is described as attractive, but garish. Prostitutes frequent and work in her bar, as well as ordinary housewives. The space is a kind of sanctuary for all who seek validation and community.
Moon is a man who helps to hold and disarm Hagar during one of her attacks against Milkman. Moon and Guitar hold Hagar as she threatens Milkman with a Carlson skinning knife in a neighborhood bar.
Mrs. Bains is initially described as the stout grandmother standing outside Mercy Hospital when Robert Smith tries to fly from the roof on his blue wings. She is Guitar’s grandmother who raises him, his brother, and his two sisters after his father’s accident in the sawmill and after his mother’s subsequent abandonment.
When Guitar’s mother leaves, his grandmother comes to live in the house that his mother has been renting from Macon Dead. Mrs. Bains does not have the money to feed her grandchildren and pay Macon the rent. When finances become difficult, Mrs. Bains goes to Macon to ask for help. In spite of the extenuating circumstances, Macon has no sympathy for the woman’s situation and gives her only a couple of days to pay, telling her that if she does not come up with the past due rent, she will have to move out. Mrs. Bains tells her grandchildren, “A nigger in business is a terrible thing to see, a terrible, terrible thing to see,” and this pronouncement seems to make a deep impression on them, particularly on the young, cat-eyed Guitar.
Mrs. Cooper (Esther Cooper)
Mrs. Cooper is Reverend Cooper’s wife. The couple live in Danville, Pennsylvania. She brings Milkman and the Reverend rye whiskey when Milkman visits. The day Milkman goes to visit Circe, Mrs. Cooper makes a huge country breakfast that he does not eat.
Mr. Solomon is the owner of the store in Shalimar where Milkman manages to alienate everybody by seeming to be better-off than they are and by being inconsiderate of their feelings. Mr. Solomon is light-skinned and has red hair that is turning white. He gives Milkman the information that lets Milkman know that Guitar is looking for him and that Guitar is upset with Milkman.
Nephew is the 13-year-old nephew of Reverend Cooper. He is called Nephew since he is the Coopers’ only nephew. Nephew drives Milkman out to Circe’s house. He does not have much to say, but is very curious about Milkman’s clothing. The Coopers send him to the bus station to pick up Milkman’s suitcase.
Milkman asks Nephew to return at noon to the spot where he drops him off. The boy leaves Milkman at Circe’s around nine in the morning.
Nero Brown is a man who is in the barbershop when the conversation about the death of Emmett Till occurs. He is cynical about the possibility of any kind of retribution. He is also a member of the Seven Days.
Omar is one of the men who take Milkman on a hunting trip at night while he is in Shalimar. While Milkman sits against a tree, worn-out and resting, he comes to see his past behavior for the self-involved immaturity it has been. He begins to gain an appreciation for what it means to be a man in nature without all the trappings that money can buy to help him out. He begins to feel a connection to the other men he is with who can count only on the same things he can right then—what he was born with and what he has learned to use. It is a time of looking at himself without rationalization and accepting himself as a man, and of accepting others along with himself. Omar becomes the male elder Milkman has needed but has not had access to at this point in his life.
In the initial scene of the novel, Pilate Dead is the singer in the crowd standing in the snow waiting for Robert Smith to jump to his death. She sings a song about a man flying away, which echoes the note Mr. Smith left on his house saying he was going to “fly away on his own wings.”
Pilate Dead is the daughter of the deceased Sing and Macon Dead. As children she and her brother, also named Macon, escape from the people who killed their father and stole their land. The two become separated, and, until they are adults and Pilate seeks out her brother, they lead totally separate lives.
Pilate chooses a different way to reason and to live after their father’s murder than Macon does. As a result, there is little chance that the brother and sister can ever understand each other. Because she is so different from her brother, Pilate and Macon remain estranged.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, those differences, she helps Ruth to conceive and to carry her baby, Milkman, to full-term. As the novel opens, Pilate is the sister-in-law of the pregnant Ruth Foster Dead and the aunt of the two girls, First Corinthians and Magdalene, called Lena, who try to collect the scattered rose petals. Later, Pilate gets to know her nephew, Milkman, the boy whose existence she engineered. Milkman is a young teenager and, at that point, Pilate begins to have an influence in his life that grows more profound as Milkman begins his own search for his identity.
Although Pilate is certainly different from almost everyone else—she is idiosyncratic and ragged and a bootlegger—she is wise and beautiful and loving in her own unique way. Pilate is born after her mother’s death, pushing out of the womb herself. As such, she has no navel and is a much more spiritual person than her brother.
After witnessing her father’s death, she sees him in visions for most of the rest of her life. She is a midwife and healer. She possesses psychic and supernatural abilities. She is a witch figure and magical. She seems to embody the spiritual strength of her family as exemplified by her grandfather Solomon’s ability to fly. Pilate is a deeply loving person as her father had been. Macon’s sister is strong, places value on family, and is always chewing on things. She is Milkman’s pilot in life, helping him to develop and grow. She also will do anything for her daughter and granddaughter.
When she and Macon run away from their home after their father is murdered, Pilate gets Circe to make an earring from her mother’s snuff box. Pilate puts her name, written by her father on a piece of brown paper, into the earring and wears it for the rest of her life until she rips it out, at the end of the novel, to place it on her father’s grave. She does this in her family’s homeland after she and Milkman bury Jake’s bones. Immediately after she rips the earring out of her ear and figuratively unnames herself, she is shot and killed by Guitar. Her final words are a wish to have had the opportunity to love more people.
Porter (Henry Porter)
Henry Porter is a member of the Seven Days who, like Robert Smith, is greatly emotionally affected by his membership in the organization and has a very public episode of distress on the roof of his apartment. When Porter has his breakdown, he drunkenly sits in his apartment window and urinates, waves a shotgun, and calls for a woman. During this episode, Macon confronts him to ensure that the nearly suicidal man pays his rent.
Porter papers the walls of the apartment he rents from Macon with old calendars, beginning with one dated 1939. He eventually courts and develops a relationship with Macon’s daughter, First Corinthians and, after several years, moves in with her, though her parents disapprove of his class status. In retaliation for his relationship with First Corinthians, Macon evicts Porter and has his wages garnished. Porter becomes dependent on the Seven Days for financial assistance during this time. Railroad Tommy
Railroad Tommy owns a barbershop with Hospital Tommy. Railroad Tommy tells Guitar and Milkman all of the things they will never have because they are black men. Railroad Tommy is a member of the Seven Days.
Reba, Pilate’s daughter, likes to flirt with men, is lucky, and wins contests, and is always and unsuccessfully trying to please her daughter, Hagar. She is light-skinned with bad skin and has a habit of getting into abusive relationships.
Pilate nearly kills Reba’s unnamed boyfriend when she discovers that he has hit her daughter Reba. She allows him to live after he agrees to leave Reba alone.
Reverend Coles, according to Corinthians, is one of the few African Americans in town who can afford to buy a house on the lake and also have a house in town.
When Milkman goes to Danville, Pennsylvania, to find the cave and the treasure, Reverend and Mrs. Cooper are the first people to welcome him. A couple of townspeople had taken a look at Milkman’s three-piece suit and fancy shoes and had been cool toward him, but the Coopers treat him as a friend as soon as they hear his name and remember Macon and Pilate. The couple live on Stone Lane and Reverend Cooper is the A.M.E. Zion minister. Through his conversations with the Coopers, Milkman learns that Pilate’s earring with her name in it was constructed by the Reverend’s father, the town blacksmith.
All of the old men in the town come to the Coopers’ house during the four days Milkman spends with them and tell stories about his father, aunt, grandfather, and grandmother and what had happened to them all. Milkman begins for the first time to appreciate the feeling of community—of having people and of belonging in a place. When the Coopers’ car is fixed, their nephew drives Milkman out to see Circe at the Butlers’ place.
Ricky Djvorak is the son of Anna Djvorak. Dr. Foster saves his life from the fatal effects of childhood tuberculosis by prescribing bed rest, cod liver oil, and healthy foods, rather than a sanitarium.
Robert Smith is an insurance agent with the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Agency. The man jumps to his death from the roof of Mercy Hospital in 1931, an event that precedes the birth of the first African-American baby in that hospital, Milkman Dead. These two events are probably connected, as the narrator recounts that it must have been Mr. Smith’s leap from the roof that made the hospital admit the woman who had gone into labor while seeing him prepare to jump. Smith’s jump may happen in part as a result of his membership in the Seven Days. Robert Smith’s “flight” at the novel’s inception foreshadows Milkman’s own jump at the novel’s end and establishes the theme of flight that pervades the novel.
The rootworker is the woman who befriends Pilate when she is living with migrant workers in upstate New York. The woman shares with Pilate many of her secrets about natural cures and ways of being. Pilate has a relationship with a male relative of the rootworker. He discovers and shares with the group the fact that Pilate has no navel. When the group learns of her difference, they send her away.
Ruth Foster Dead
Ruth Foster Dead is the black woman who at the beginning of the novel goes into labor, in the snow outside the hospital. Ruth is the daughter of the first black doctor in town, Dr. Foster. She was raised by her father after her mother’s death and was completely devoted to him. She married the man he told her to marry, Macon Dead, even though she did not love him. She maintained a lifelong belief in her own superiority because she is her father’s daughter, and never lets anyone else forget.
Her marriage with Macon becomes a battle of wills after Macon sees what he believes to be incestuous interactions between Ruth and her father as he is dying and even after he dies. Later, after her son Milkman learns of this source of his parents’ marital discourse, he confronts his mother. Ruth replies that she is not strange, only small. Even as a grown woman she is completely defined by her father’s understandings and expectations of her. Periodically she even travels miles to her father’s grave and spends the night there. Even her love for her son is self-serving. She breastfeeds Milkman long after the time that he needs because the act brings her pleasure and makes her feel as if she has a purpose. Ruth is characterized as weak and lonely and lacks a center, a self.
Ryna is Solomon’s woman and the mother of his 21 children. When he flies off, back to Africa, he leaves her crying inconsolably in a gulch.
Sam Sheppard is a man who, purportedly, murdered his wife with 27 hammer blows. Saul Saul is the young man who starts a fight with Milkman in Mr. Solomon’s store. Milkman insults Saul and the rest of the men in the store by flaunting his wealth and sophistication. Saul has a knife and Milkman has a broken bottle in a fight, but Milkman seems to come out the winner.
The Seven Days are an organization, begun in 1920, that tries to balance out the injustices and violence experienced by African Americans by replicating the same atrocities against whites. The organization consists of seven men. They serve until they die, fall ill, or are no longer able to enact the objectives of the organization. Each man is responsible for a day of the week and is assigned to enact retribution for wrongs against blacks that occur on their day. The men cannot marry or have children. Guitar, Robert Smith, and Porter are members of the Seven Days. Before they exact their revenge, the members of the Seven Days say to their victims “your day has come.”
Sing Byrd Dead (Singing Byrd)
Sing Byrd is Pilate and Macon’s mother and the sister of Crowell Byrd. Milkman finds out about her during his second visit to Susan Byrd. Pilate remembers the color of her mother’s bonnet ribbon, but does not know her name until Milkman tells her the family story.
Circe tells Milkman that Sing Byrd is overly possessive and nervous. She also tells him that Sing and Macon met on a wagon going north after the Civil War. Sing was never a slave and was proud of the fact. She was mixed-race, partially Native American. Circe also tells Milkman that his grandmother was from Virginia.
Later, Milkman learns from Susan Byrd that Sing was traveling north on a wagon to Boston, Massachusetts, to attend a Quaker school.
Small Boy is one of the men who take Milkman off on a hunting trip at night in Shalimar. The men tease Small Boy because he cannot read. While Milkman sits against a tree, worn-out and resting, he comes to see his past behavior for the self-involved immaturity it had been. He begins to gain an appreciation for what it means to be a man in nature without all the trappings that money can buy to help him out. He begins to feel a connection to the other men he is with who can count only on the same things he can right then—what he was born with and what he has learned to use. It is a time of looking at himself without rationalization, understanding himself as a man, and learning acceptance of others.
Solomon is the original flying African in Milkman’s family. He is the father of 21 children and the husband of Ryna. When he flies back to Africa, he leaves Ryna crying in the gully and drops his son Jake, Milkman’s grandfather, who he tried to take with him.
Susan Byrd is related to Sing Byrd and, after some reluctance, tells Milkman the story of Sing and Jake. Susan, like most of the other members of her family, has skin color issues.
Sweet is a good and generous woman who nurtures Milkman. She takes him in after the hunt and tends to his wounds and the two make love. Through their interactions, Milkman learns that relationships between men and women can and should be reciprocal.
Uncle Billy is Guitar’s grandmother’s (Mrs. Bains) brother. He moves from Florida after Guitar’s father’s death to help take care of Guitar and his siblings. Guitar dreams of having enough money to give his uncle material things to thank him for his support when he and his brother and sisters were orphaned.
Vernell is Omar’s wife. She cooks breakfast for the men the morning after they return from the bobcat hunt. She tells Milkman that his grandmother Sing is from Shalimar. She remembers that her grandmother used to play with Sing when they were girls and that Sing was one of Heddy’s daughters.
Walters is a man who is in the barbershop when the conversation about the death of Emmett Till occurs. He is cynical about the possibility of any kind of retribution.
White man who works at the stationhouse
Milkman helps this old man load a heavy crate, an unusually kind thing for him to do. Later, this little act of kindness becomes important because Guitar sees it and thinks that Milkman was loading the gold he found in the cave. Of course, Milkman does not find any gold, but he cannot convince Guitar of that fact. Helping other people was so foreign to Milkman’s nature that his best friend does not believe him when he tells the truth about what he has been doing.
Milkman and Guitar see the white peacock perched on the top of a used-car dealership when they are planning their robbery of Pilate’s treasure. When Milkman asks why the bird cannot fly, Guitar tells him it is because the peacock’s beautiful tail is too heavy and the tail is vanity. Guitar says that in order to fly, “you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”
Winnie Ruth Judd
Winnie Ruth Judd is a white woman who, beginning in 1932, commits a series of violently bizarre murders and then is placed in an insane asylum. In 1955, the black residents of Southside say that Winnie Ruth escaped and that she has perpetrated some murders where the victims seem to be randomly selected. These murders are actually committed by the Seven Days.
Many people in the African-American community think that it is white madness to kill total strangers. They feel that black people will murder only people they know and only with some motivation and in the heat of passion. They do not think blacks kill someone in a coldly premeditated crime or kill total strangers. These beliefs underline the contrast between what black folks in the neighborhood believe and what some of them, the Seven Days, are actually doing. Winnie Judd becomes a source of story-telling and much bemusement.
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Source: Gillespie, C. (2008). Critical companion to Toni Morrison. New York: Facts On File.