Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1977)
“Listen, baby, people do funny things. Specially us. The cards are stacked against us and just trying to stay in the game, stay alive and in the game, makes us do funny things. Things we can’t help. Things that make us hurt one another. We don’t even know why. But look here, don’t carry it inside and don’t give it to nobody else. Try to understand it, but if you can’t, just forget it and keep yourself strong, man.” Guitar says to Milkman.
In Song of Solomon the reader follows Milkman (the nickname of Macon Dead, III). The Deads are a well-to-do African American family in Michigan. Milkman’s father owns a few buildings and is a proud landlord—as a way of separating himself from blacks of the class below him. Dead senior strains for equality with the whites in the neighborhood. Song of Solomon hit me hard because it was published in 1977 but is still so relevant.
Early in the novel, Milkman and his best friend, Guitar, visit the aunt (Pilate) his father has almost completely disowned due to her refusal to be proper.
“Her voice made Milkman think of pebbles. Little round pebbles that bumped up against each other. Maybe she was hoarse, or maybe it was the way she said her words, with both a drawl and a clip. The piny-winy smell was narcotic, and so was the sun streaming in, strong and unfettered because there were no curtains or shades at the windows that were all around the room….The pebbly voice, the sun, and the narcotic wine smell weakened both the boys, and they sat in a pleasant semi-stupor, listening to her go on and on….”
Morrison’s descriptions are like an ice cube in your mouth when it’s 100 plus degrees outside. Her long sentences wrapped me up in the heat, sweat, tension, discomfort, and strong emotions of the characters. Milkman grows up as we read, and when he is old enough, he strikes his father for slapping his mother at dinner.
Just as the father brimmed with contradictory feelings as he crept along the wall—humiliation, anger, and a grudging feeling of pride in his son—so the son felt his own contradictions. There was the pain and the shame of seeing his father crumple before any man—even himself. Sorrow in discovering that the pyramid was not a five-thousand-year wonder of the civilized world, mysteriously and permanently constructed by generation after generation of hardy men who had died in order to perfect it, but that it had been made in the back room at Sears, by a clever window dresser, of papier-mache, guaranteed to last for a mere lifetime.
He also felt glee. A snorting, horse-galloping glee as old as desire. He had won something and lost something in the same instant. Infinite possibilities and enormous responsibilities stretched out before him, but he was not prepared to take advantage of the former, or accept the burden of the latter. So he cock-walked around the table and asked his mother, “Are you all right?”
We go through growing pains with Milkman, who learns to navigate women and an evolving relationship with both of his parents. He falls for his cousin, Hagar, who lives with Pilate and her mother, Reba. However, Milkman tires of Hagar.
“She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it’s there, because it can’t hurt, and because what difference does it make?”
Milkman entangles himself with something that is greater than his plight as an aimless, spoiled man. In an effort to save himself, he goes searching for his family history—to know his people. His relationship with everyone close to him becomes confused and new. He learns that Guitar is part of a society called the Seven Days that kills a white person for every African American that is murdered.
“It’s not about you living longer,” says Guitar. “It’s about how you live and why. It’s about whether your children can make other children. It’s about trying to make a world where one day white people will think before they lynch.”
The fire that Milkman stands in becomes more heated in a conversation with one of his sisters, Lena.
“Where do you get the right to decide our lives?” she asks. “I’ll tell you where. From that hog’s gut that hangs down between your legs. Well, let me tell you something, baby brother: you will need more than that. I don’t know where you will get it or who will give it to you, but mark my words, you will need more than that.”
In Song of Solomon, Morrison elevates a simple coming-of-age story with layers of racism, family dysfunction, sexism, abuse, and death with a smoothness that is incredible to read. She depicts a full character with an ease that makes me laugh/cry—and want to work harder.
Thao Votang is co-editor of Conflict of Interest. Votang is the Director of Communications at the Department of Art and Art History at UT Austin, which houses the Visual Arts Center, and co-founder of Tiny Park.