by Joshua Loveday
SONG OF SOLOMON by Toni Morrison centers around a young black man name Macon Dead III, nicknamed Milkman because his mother nursed him past infancy. His father’s past as the son of a freed slave is obscure, and his father likes to maintain the ignorance and willful forgetfulness of that past. It is his father’s sister—Macon’s aunt Pilate—who relates the tale of the gold they lost after the death of their father. When Milkman sets out to find this long-lost gold, he discovers his family’s forgotten black history, represented by a remembrance of people’s names. “Names that had meaning . . . When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you do.” Milkman understands that much of black history has been forgotten, just like the original names of black men and women were lost when they were renamed by white men.
Milkman’s father’s obsession with wealth accumulation is represented by the long-lost gold and becomes a metaphor for what he can never have—the white man’s privilege. Morrison acutely portrays his resulting internalization of both the racism against black people and sexism against women in the man’s deeply-flawed persona.
The title refers to a song the children sing that becomes an unconscious cultural connection to their past. Milkman discovers the song, his ancestral connection to it, and the myth that hides behind it. “Some of those Africans they brought over here as slaves could fly. A lot of them flew back to Africa.” The book ends with a typical postmodern stop, having Milkman finally recover his past but without the reader finding out if he lives or dies as his best friend Guitar takes another aim at him with a rifle. Despite this, Morrison’s masterful use of prose, her poetic juxtaposition of vocabulary and her vivid interplay of cultural imagery makes this an absolute joy to read.