The Promised Flight of Mercy


I find it interesting that even though the first time I read Song of Solomon I was sixteen, and was able to discuss the meanings, implications, and symbolism with my step-father, this second reading gave me much the same impressions, and began the same way – a severe dislike within the first few pages because it didn’t make sense.  The significance of cat’s eyes caught my attention, although, the first time around I didn’t understand it until it was explained to me, and the gritty speech repulsed me, at sixteen, but surprised me in the second reading.  I had forgotten much about the book, other than how Macon Dead got his name, how Milkman got his, and my awestruck reaction by the time I finished reading what I now understand as a masterpiece.  Song of Solomon is much more than a book about race, family, heritage, or the contrasting opposites explored.  Song of Solomon is a richly related story of a man who doesn’t know where he belongs in this world, at a time when the country in which he lives is about to enter a tumultuous fight for equality among blacks and whites, yet unknowingly takes flight as a fight for equality among all people.  The irony of the story lies within the delicately placed allusions to inter-racial relations, within the context of everyday life, as opposed to the revelation Milkman is given, by Susan Byrd, a non-African American relative, face to face and in her home.

My critical review of the book: Song of Solomon

When Milkman first meets Susan Byrd, on page 287, he “had the distinct impression that this lady did not like the color of his skin.” It wasn’t really a surprise, considering Vernell, of Shalimar, had already told him about the Byrd family, and said, “They never was too crazy ‘bout colored folks. Susan either.” (page 284) At the end of their first conversation, Milkman leaves “feeling tired and off center.” (page 292) Susan had claimed his grandmother would have been “too dark to pass”, (page 290, 292) before he noticed the forced hospitality of her words being “as mechanical as her smile.” (page 292) What Milkman didn’t understand was why he felt connected to the people of Shalimar, when he’d never felt that way before, and why he was reminded of how he felt in Pilate’s house. He didn’t understand why his father didn’t go in search of relatives, in Virginia, after his own father was shot, yet Pilate did. What Milkman was struggling with was the concept of another place and time. He had traveled down south to find the gold left behind by Pilate, when she had gathered the bones of the man she believed her brother, Macon Dead, had killed, and found instead a different way of life, a different way of looking at the people he had known all his life, and a surge in confidence that supported him in his maturation process. Milkman also found a maturity that can only come from knowing who you are, where you’ve come from, and what you are capable of.

The initial search for gold brought Milkman to Danville, Pennsylvania, where he met an entire group of people who not only knew his father, but respected and admired him, and had known, respected, and admired the original Macon Dead, whose success told them this “is what a man can do if he puts his mind to it, and his back in it.” (page 235) When Milkman learns the source of his father’s ambition and work ethic, he “grew fierce with pride.” (page 236) He began sharing his father’s successes by “rattling off assets like an accountant” (page 236) and related his triumph in marrying the “daughter of the richest Negro doctor in town” (page 236), sending his girls to college, and owning a Buick 225 - from that year. By going South, on his own, Milkman’s search for gold was quickly becoming a symbolic search for his place in this world.

Milkman returned to the home of Susan Byrd after hearing, and finally understanding, the significance of the song sung by the children of Shalimar, which, at times, included the song he’d heard sung by Pilate throughout his life. The song, he realized, was “a story about his own people” (page 304) and Milkman finally had the missing piece to understanding the who, what, when, where, why, and how’s of his life and heritage. Not only was he the descendent of a slave, named Solomon, but he was also the descendent of an Indian woman whose family was not only unaware of his existence, but would also have chosen to deny his existence had they known one of their own had deliberately inter-mingled the separate lifestyles and cultures of the Indian and the slave.

Books by Toni Morrison

This realization brings Milkman back to Susan Byrd because he thought she’d “have to know more than she had told him”. (page 304) Even though he believed this, Milkman was still surprised when Susan admitted to knowing Sing married Jake, or at least loved him and took off with him. Susan then goes even further, without her friend Grace being present, and explains to Milkman the meaning behind the song sung by Shalimar’s children, and the significance of the landmarks he’s visited while in the process of finding himself. This newfound confidence and realization bring out the significance of Susan’s response of, “It’s a wonder anybody knows who anybody is.” (page 324) to Milkman’s questions regarding Jake’s brothers registering with the Freedmen’s Bureau. If Jake, who couldn’t read, ended up with a name like Macon Dead, who knew what names his brothers ended up with. If Jake, who was a former slave, could end up in Pennsylvania, with a non-African American spouse, or lover, who knew where other former slaves would go. Who would other former slaves take as a spouse or lover, especially if they could pass for white? If Jake’s success was a measure of Solomon’s freedom, wouldn’t any kind of success be equal to flying back to Africa? What was in a name anyway? There are names of significance, such as Solomon’s Leap, or Ryna’s Gulch, and pretty names, such as Sing, and Sweet. There are names that tell a story, such as Milkman, or Empire State. Then, there are even the names given to those who stand out from the crowd, such as Fats Domino or Smoky Robinson, or to those who earn their new name by being free enough to fly, like Guitar Bains.

It was while Milkman listened to the song sung by the children of Shalimar that he found regret for the way he had treated Hagar, sympathy and compassion for his mother, and an understanding of his father’s desire to create a measure in his own father’s memory. Milkman “began to feel uncomfortable. Hating his parents, his sisters, seemed silly now.” (page 300) He was relaxed and at peace with himself, as a human being, yet coming to his own conclusions about life. He remembers the house of Pilate, “the only one he knew that achieved comfort without one article of comfort in it.” (page 301) He was no longer running and hiding from the shame of being the son of a rich black man, no longer afraid of Guitar, and no longer lost within the restrictive idealism of the north where being there was considered equal to belonging.

In the final chapter, Milkman comes to the conclusion that human relationships are a simple case of, “Would you save my life? Or would you take it?” (page 331) Remembering Guitar’s words, “Everybody wants a black man’s life.” (page 331) Milkman is sure Guitar could answer yes to both questions. He’d already threatened Milkman’s life and acted upon the threat, although Guitar had told him, regarding his being a member of the Seven Days, “We don’t off Negroes.” (page 161) Milkman knew, “From the beginning, his mother and Pilate had fought for his life” (page 331) and, having matured from his trip down south, he’d learned, “Nothing could be taken for granted”. (page 332) Not even the names given to you at birth, no matter their circumstance, or the names given by a drunken soldier, or names given to places where significant events occurred, or names given to a person for something they’ve done, wanted, seen, known, or been. Guitar, on the other hand, doesn’t “give a damn about names.” (page 160) He believes Guitar, as his name, is part of who he is. He believes Bains, “the slave master’s name” (page 160) is part of who he is. Guitar then states, “Slave names don’t bother me, but slave status does” (page 160) This statement brings into question: What, exactly is in a name? What, exactly, is slave status? However, the true irony of this scene lies in the first chapter of the book where the author reveals Guitar as being a “cat-eyed boy”. (page 7) With cat’s eyes being yellow, the author uses the subtle hints of cat’s eyes, yellow skin, and straight black hair to emphasize that many African American’s are either unaware of, or choose to deny, their inter-racial heritage. While many African American’s call each other brother, or sister, because of the similarity of their skin, hair, and eye color, there are also many African American’s who share eye color, hair color, or skin tone with white relatives who are just as unaware of, or choosing to deny, their familial status.

Then there’s Pilate, who had “acquired a deep concern for and about human relationships” (page 149) and had come to the conclusion of, “what’s the difference in the way you act…Don’t you have to act the same way to both?” (page 44) regarding whether Milkman and Hagar were cousins or siblings. Pilate understood what few others knew: That it didn’t matter whether you were a brother, sister, aunt, uncle, cousin or any kind of family at all. It didn’t matter what your skin color, eye color, or hair color was. You treat people the same no matter who they are - With love and respect.

The most amazing book I've ever read: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

It isn’t until the final scene in the book that Milkman finally understands why he loved Pilate.  As he laid Pilate’s head down upon the rock, after Guitar shot her, he knew, “Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.” (page 336) Pilate was free, always had been.  Pilate lived life on her own terms, yet said, “I wish I’d a knowed more people.  I would of loved ‘em all.  If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more.” (page 336)  Milkman, no longer afraid of Guitar, and full of the lessons learned from Pilate, Danville, and Shalimar, leaps toward Guitar in a show of faith.  As Shalimar had taught him,  “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” Or, if you accepted life around you, you could be and do anything.

The idea of acceptance brings back the questions of, What, exactly is in a name?  What, exactly, is slave status?  On the return trip to Michigan, Milkman finally understands.  “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.”  (page 329)  Concerning Mains Avenue being called Not Doctor Street, in honor of his grandfather, it wasn’t because he deserved the honor, but because of his life accomplishment when “the odds were that he’d be a yardman all of his life.” (page 329)  Why was Macon Dead, an ambitious boy who ran away from the place his father had been murdered, remembered in Danville?  Why was Pilate, a woman feared for her unusual status of not having a navel, not remembered in Shalimar, Virginia?  It didn’t have anything to do with their names, or their yearnings, gestures, flaws, events, mistakes, or weaknesses. 

Macon Dead was remembered, in Danville, for what he was, “their contemporary, who was as strong as an ox, could ride bareback and barefoot, who, they agreed, outran, outplowed, outshot, outpicked, outrode them all.” (Page 234)  Pilate, although she’d lived in Shalimar, Virginia and had a child with one of the menfolk, was not remembered because she had learned, “to give only her first name” (page 146) and fit in by making it clear, “she wasn’t afraid of work” (page 146).  Milkman understood, it wasn’t your name that made you who you are, it was what you did.  Guitar, on the other hand, believing his name is who he is, misses the opportunity to create a lasting impression of himself for the world to see.  Guitar also misses the opportunity to take charge of his life, by becoming a slave to the concept of the Seven Days.  Macon Dead, in his ambition, was a slave to greed.  Pilate was free and lived her life on her own terms.  Milkman Dead, in his search for the gold left behind by his father and Pilate, found freedom.  Guitar, confused by the conflicting opposites of life, unwittingly chose to be a slave to an impossible ideal.  In his confusion, Guitar failed to realize that people are people, and while nobody is perfect, all deserve love and respect.

© 2011 Rafini

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