Beggining Essay, Research Paper
Song of Soloman: A Search for a Beginning
O Sugarman done fly away
Sugarman done gone
Sugarman cut across the sky
Sugarman gone home (6)1
Milkman was born to fly. Perhaps not! Maybe, he was just doomed to a life of flight. Toni Morrison seemingly presents her readers a choice. Milkman is born under a paradoxical cloud. His life seems to be destined for controversy. Toni Morrison eventually leaves the reader with a “choose your own ending” configuration. As in Beloved, Morrison’s unique style of ending a novel with no finalization, only enhances the content and tickles the imagination. Evidence of the influence of Zora Neale Hurston is sprinkled liberally throughout the story. In addition to folklore and mythology, Song of Solomon is also rife with the cold, hard facts of reality. Did Milkman actually become airborne or was he merely a man, consistently trying to escape reality?
Toni Morrison’s, Song of Solomon, was inspired in part, by All God’s Chillun Had Wings (Andrews et al 103). According to this folk tale, at one time all Africans could fly. Through transgressions, they lost the ability of flight. On occasion, someone would shake off the weight of their burdens and be able to fly. Only a select few held onto remnants of the memory of flight. According to a legend in Hurston, the transgression, was eating salt. The Africans brought to Jamaica could all fly. They had never eaten salt. Those who ate salt after they arrived, stayed and became slaves because salt made them too heavy to fly. Those who did not partake, flew back to Africa. (Hurston 315). Whether Africans really fly or just escape a monumental burden, perhaps only through death, is a decision Toni Morrison has apparently left to her readers. Never the less, no matter what you believe, within Song of Solomon, the suggestion is, that in order to “fly” you must go back to the beginning, back to your roots. You must learn the “art” from the old messages.
Denise Heinz explains, what she calls the “Double Consciousness” of Toni Morrison, as an “endeavor to understand how self and identity are affected by society” (Heinze 14). Everyone appears to be searching for an identity in Song of Solomon. Identities seem to be very transient and change with the whims of society. No one is who they appear to be and nothing is as it seems. Some of the characters never grasp their elusive identity. But then, they are afraid to reach too far back. If they should, they might not like what they find. So, they are content to continue in their less interesting, less challenging, much less introspective world.
Song of Solomon is a scavenger hunt, with Milkman unearthing clues as he snatches up bits and pieces of wisdom that direct him to the treasure. Set deep within the black culture, the story begins in 1931 and moves quickly to the highly volatile sixties. In his quest for gold, Milkman uncovers the true treasure, his past. This knowledge unlocks the secret of his own identity. The ghosts of the past, explain the people of the present. In that instant, the secret of life becomes clear to him.
The circumstances encompassing Milkman’s birth gave every evidence of the inner turmoil that was to follow him throughout his life and seems to cast a foreboding cloud on his future. Macon Dead III seems doomed as he is born into a family as scattered and artificial as the very rose petals his mother dropped with her first labor pain. As the velvet petals float to the ground, the insurance man spreads his wings and flies from Mercy. The flight is unsuccessful even though Pilate tries to “sing” him into the air. The death of Mr. Smith, and the confusion at Mercy (called No Mercy) Hospital allows Macon III to be the first black baby ever allowed to draw its first breath within those consecrated white halls.
Baby Macon is brought home to Not Doctor Street, which is really Mains Ave. He begins his life in the house of Dead. For all intents and purposes, this dysfunctional family may as well be dead, for none of them have a life. A total lack of communication has effectively closed all the doors in the home, as each member seems to live within their own, small room. The real world is securely locked outside. No future, no past. To communicate would be to acknowledge the present. To acknowledge the present would mean accepting the past. Their names mirror their pathetic lives, even as they tell the story.
Ruth is, in all respects a widow. Her husband will not touch her, holds her only in contempt, and rarely acknowledges she exists. Magdalene called Lena has her own demons and makes flowers to keep the demons quiet. First Corinthians receives letters that offer her an existence of her own. Milkman receives his nickname because he was suckled long after an appropriate age and subsequently, never seems to grow up and flies from responsibility. Macon Dead may as well be holding a sickle in his hand, as he has cut off the life of everyone under his roof. The keys, of which he is so proud, and his greed, have very efficiently locked the doors on his own life.
No one knows their past, beyond the time the drunk Yankee, mistakenly bestowed the name of Dead onto future generations. It was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they had no past, there was no place to become grounded and no real identity. Perhaps the Yankee had “salted” the field with the name.
Pilate is born from a dead woman and has no navel. This appears to be symbolic of her lack of anything to tie her to worldly values or false idols. She is the “voice of reason” and an unlikely source of wisdom. Her mere appearance contradicts this conclusion as Milkman’s first meeting with Pilate illustrates:
“And while she looked as poor as everyone said she
was, something was missing from her eyes that should
have confirmed it. Nor was she dirty; unkempt, yes,
but not dirty she was anything but pretty, tall
Her dress came just below her calf and now he could
see her unlaced men’s shoes and the silvery-brown
skin of her ankles.” (38)
Although Macon has forbidden everyone in his family to associate with Pilate as he considered his sister “a snake, and can charm you like a snake, but still a snake” (54). Pilate exudes an irresistible pull, as everyone gravitates to her for some sense of normalcy. Even Macon succumbs to her charms as, “Near the window, hidden by the dark, he felt the irritability of the day drain from him and relished the effortless beauty of the women singing in the candlelight” (28).
Pilate’s character bears a striking resemblance to Zora Neale Hurston. According to Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, many of the same characteristics and experiences that made Hurston a multi-faceted person, are found in Pilate, as the reader peels away her layers. Hurston, also orphaned at an early age, found herself on her own and alone, long before she was prepared to face the “adult” world. She traversed many roads, gaining wisdom and tolerance as she wandered. Hurston, like Pilate, loved geography and like Pilate, she had a secret she tried to keep from an intolerant world, fearful of what they do not understand. She had visions, and as she explains, “I never told anyone around me about these strange things. It was just too different” (Hurston 597). Both carried with them, skeletons from the past and in Hurston’s own words, ” I was old before my time with grief of loss, of failure, of remorse of failure” (Hurston 618).
Pilate, like Hurston, loves to sing and seems to have acquired some of Hurston’s mystical powers, as she talks to her father’s ghost and with a sixth sense, “feels” situations. Pilate uses her unsophisticated, uncomplicated knowledge of uncharted waters to guide her family through “unknown places, intricate affairs, etc.” (Barnhart et al 919). Pilate has no identity crisis. She knows who she is and accepts herself. After all, her identity hangs in a snuffbox, on her ear.
Reba has no identity other than Hagar and she wants no other. Her only accomplishments are thoroughly spoiling her daughter to the point, Hagar’s identity as well as her person, is superficial. When Hagar dies, Reba no longer exists. She did not even claim the identity of Hagar’s mother. Pilate had the position of the “mother figure.” With the funereal of Hagar, Reba quietly exited the story.
Hagar feels she has no identity without Milkman. When Milkman casts her aside, she makes a desperate attempt to create an identity to induce him to love her again. Hagar tries to sculpt, what she feels, will be the perfect woman. She comes to the harsh realization that the image she sees in the mirror and the image reflected in Pilate’s and Reba’s eyes, is vastly different. Hagar suddenly realizes, “What if there is no me like my statue?” (Hurston 581). Hagar’s link with the past is her “graveyard love.” This automatically condemns her.
Guitar resents that Pilate has connected him with a past he despises, as she tries to get them out of jail and with that one look, “the jeweled hatred in his eyes,” (210) has exposed his inner self. Milkman, witnessing this, assigns a new and terrible identity to Guitar, as he realized that “Guitar could kill, would kill, and probably had killed.” (210). Guitar Baines [bane] is the destructive force and will have to be dealt with sooner or later. Guitar is so filled with greed, hate and death, he can not see the truth. When forced to confront his identity, he goes mad. His mind has become so twisted , he does not even realize he has crossed the line to insanity.
Milkman begins his odyssey with Circe. He finds her living on a self-imposed island with her beasts, her “pack of golden-eyed dogs, each of which had the intelligent child’s eyes he had seen from the window” (240). Circe then shows Milkman the path to the spirit of the cave, or underworld. This experience will lead him in the right direction for his homeward journey. He begins to trip over his roots and his quest changes direction. He has a long journey ahead, fraught with danger, before he can go home.
In Shalimar, Virginia, the present begins to meld with the past:
Solomon done fly, Solomon done gone
Solomon cut across the sky, Solomon gone home. (302)
Sugarman Shalimar Shaleemone Solomon. They were all interchangeable, all one. Solomon had his own identity search, inadvertently carried on by his great grandson. His name was the key to the beginning. The gold no longer exists and the treasure is in Sing, and in Jake, a baby who fell from the sky, and in old bones and children’s games. The snuffbox could be returned to its proper place. Relieved of his vanities and reunited with his roots, Milkman’s burdens could be cast off. Carrying with him, the message of the past, Milkman leaps into the air. When reading Song of Solomon, the reader acquires the feeling of being a very teeny person, walking into the middle of a very large rope that has been frayed at the end. Each strand is going off in its own direction, but at the same time, retains an imprint, a memory of where it belonged at one time. As you turn each page, the strands of the rope seem to converge in the distance. Soon they begin to twine and twist together. At the core, is a solid rope, with each strand braided neatly with the others to form a tightly woven story. With its many parts, but only one beginning, Song of Solomon is absolutely, the “perfect soft-boiled egg” (40).
Andrews, William L., et al. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature.
New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997. 103
Barnhart, C.L., et al. The American College Dictionary. New York: Random House, 1970. 919
Heinze, Denise. The Dilemma of “Double-Consciousness”: Toni Morrison’s Novels. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1993. 14
Hurston, Zora Neale. Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, & other Writings. Ed. Cheryl A. Wall. New York: Penguin Books,1995. 315, 581, 597, 618
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.