Toni Morrison’s third novel, The Song of Solomon, is a beautifully lyrical coming-of-age tale set mostly between the 1930s and 1963. It follows an African American man, Milkman Dead, from childhood to adulthood, while also telling the story of his complicated family. Morrison explores the themes of family history and origins from an explicitly African-American perspective, following Milkman as he struggles to understand and connect with his family’s roots.
The theme of family history is integral to Morrison’s story, with the plot continually flitting back and forth between the childhoods of Milkman’s Father and Aunt in the South, his Mother’s infancy as the daughter of a successful Black doctor, Milkman’s own childhood and the present. Morrison creates a complex picture of interconnected histories which possess a quality of immediacy and importance in their connections with the present lives of the characters. The past fully informs the relationships of the characters, particularly Milkman’s Father, Macon and his Aunt, Pilate. They are estranged in adulthood despite being each other’s sole companions in childhood. A single event which happened when they were both children breaks them apart and dictates Macon’s cold distance years later.
Similarly, we see the importance of the past in the character of Milkman. A large part of the novel focuses on his journey to the South from his unnamed town in Michigan, in search of treasure and subsequently his family’s history. His journey is a reversal of the African-American migration to the North and Morrison charges it with such significance that it seems at times biblical, with the title of the novel and many biblical references highlighting this. Milkman’s understanding and acceptance of his roots are presented as integral to his knowledge of himself and his identity as well as the identities of his ancestors. As a novel by a Black author about Black characters, the treatment of the past takes on a special significance: it is something elusive, emphasised through the fact that the family name ‘Dead’ was the outcome of an incorrect identity card, written by a drunk Union soldier. Like so many Black Americans descended from slaves, the family’s past has been symbolically erased. This elusiveness makes the discovery of a family history so much more important.
Furthermore, the uniquely Black perspective is present in the cast of characters. All the characters are Black, except a few rare appearances of white characters, meaning we are fully immersed in the African-American experience. Morrison specifically focuses on the experience of young Black men in America, a departure from her first two novels, which focused on Black women. She explores the expectations and pressures of masculinity, particularly among Black men and their struggles to understand their identities.
Another major theme of the novel is flight. The novel begins with Robert Smith attempting to fly off the top of the Mercy hospital in Michigan and ends with Milkman trying to fly. The eponymous Solomon, Milman’s Great-Grandfather, is said to have flown back to Africa to escape the terrible experiences of slavery. Thus, flight represents not only escape and freedom, but also an abandonment of those left behind. Although Solomon is free, he leaves behind his descendants to face the alienation of Jim Crow and segregation while bearing the scars of their ancestors’ slavery. The major themes of flight and family history help Morrison to explore the issue of intergenerational trauma within the African American community, with Milkman’s journey to the South representing a reconnection with the tragic experiences of his ancestors. As the title suggests, Morrison’s novel has many references to the Bible, but these are interwoven with references to Native American history and African legends.
The multi-layered intermingling of so many heritages, histories and legends make for rich and lyrical prose which imbue the plot with layers of symbolic significance. The Song of Solomon is a beautifully written, epic tale with deeply meaningful and symbolic prose, capturing the essence of African American history, family and identity.
Image: Ella Blaxill