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SOMETIME EARLY IN THE 1900s, the white politicians of the midwestern town that is the setting for Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon got worried. The city's blacks had named the street on which the only black doctor in town lived "Doctor Street," and the name seemed likely to stick. In an effort to fight the renegades, the town fathers put up notices in the black neighborhood: the street was "Mains Avenue," not Doctor Street. The Soutside residents responded in kind, calling the street "Not Doctor Street," just as they called Mercy Hospital "No Mercy" because it refused to admit blacks.
If the street names in Morrison's novel are invented in response to white officialdom, the characters, who are all black, spend their lives reacting in one way or another to persistent discrimination. Macon Dead, a successful black slumlord, will always be warped, both because he must live with a name given his father by a drunken Union soldier who filled out the form wrong, and because he will not be any more accepted by the white banks than he will be by his black tenants. His wife, the doctor's daughter, will never be part of the city's black community because she alone is from the middle class; but she won't be part of the white middle class either, and so will always be alone in her grand, dark house. Morrison has written a story of a ghetto, where three generations of characters must learn, somehow, to deal with racism, while they live their own lives.
Morrison is far too good an artist to give us the story chronologically, mapping out each detail in simple narrative style. Instead, she weaves back and forth across generations, bringing in characters, letting them go, bringing them back again to give us a new insight. The story revolves around the growth of the doctor's grandson, Macon III --or Milkman, as he is generally known--as he moves beyond the dark rooms of his family's house, haunted by death and isolation, into the streets of Southside. There, he meets people who have come to terms with their situation far better than his family has been able to, people who are living in the real world: his friend Guitar, who fights against oppression, and his aunt Pilate, who ignores it.
But the story is not so simple as the story of one man's growth to adulthood would be. Rather, Morrison takes us through the development of several characters, so that the picture that finally emerges is a many-sided, rich vision of life in a midwestern black community.
EACH OF THE CHARACTERS in Song of Solomon has his own burden, some trauma from which he must free himself if finally, he is to move beyond the mental confines of the ghetto. Only Milkman's aunt Pilate is free. She was odd from birth--she never had the choice of conforming, because she has no navel, no connection to even family. She is eccentric, living outside respectability with her daughter and her daughter's daughter, off the proceeds of her homemade wine. Pilate, in her unkempt and mystical way, is not bound by the conventions that trap ordinary people, so that she has less distance to travel to freedom than the rest of her family. She alone is fertile, loving; she alone will fight to protect her children or repeatedly, to save her nephew. Crazy, gypsy-like Pilate becomes the symbol of life itself.
During the course of the novel, Milkman must come to recognize Pilate's essential healthiness. But the process is slow, and the realization that Pilate's kind of freedom is won at the cost of a normal life comes painfully. First, Milkman must rediscover his family's roots, and try alternate paths to liberation. For a while he works in his father's office, collecting rents; then he tries a love affair with Pilate's not-quite-crazy granddaughter. These routes are not satisfying, but neither is his friendship with Guitar, a violently angry man who retaliates against murders of blacks with murders of random whites.
THROUGH MILKMAN'S EXPLORATION, we meet most of the other characters in Song of Solomon. Partly through his eyes, but partly also through Morrison's own omniscient voice, we see images of the past, a series of individual portraits rather than dry history. Milkman's parents, sisters, and gradparents each take on a life of their own; we are introduced to each gradually, as Morrison peels back the layers of Milkman's present. There is his paternal grandfather, the first Macon Dead--a freeholding farmer who taught his children to love being alive before he was killed by a white man's bullet. There are Milkman's siters, who emerge from the sterile silence that surrounds them at the book's opening to become strong characters in their own right. The world has forced them into sterility, and Milkman's recognition of that fact alters his view of the world. The apparent perversity of Milkman's mother is the natural outgrowth of her solitude; his father watched his own father die, and he cannot free himself of the bitterness. None of the characters in this novel are completely normal, but Morrison's presentation of how they have been warped by their world is compelling and beautiful.
Milkman's discovery of his own path to freedom is slightly less compelling, but only because in his case Morrison leaves the city community she has drawn so clearly for a hazier south. Milkman has gone off to find the source of his grandfather's strength, and somehow in the process reality turns to metaphor. The change is somehow not quite satisfying; where other characters have been in-comprehensible at first, gradually gaining clarity, Milkman moves from the understandable to the obstruse. When he finally stands up, facing death at the hands of his former friend, he has found his freedom, but it is a freedom that will--literally, it seems--let him ride the wind. Like his aunt Pilate, Milkman has left the normal world, and his new-found vitality is mystical and frightening.
Morrison leaves us without resolution of the problems her characters face. Freedom from the urban ghetto, where life is dominated by discrimination and where one can only fight back with wit or violence, means leaving the comprehensible world. Both Pilate and finally Milkman have left the earth: they are off in a world that is inaccessible. Song of Solomon opened with the attempted flight of a lonely insurance salesman, off the roof of No Mercy Hospital; his failure is not a good omen for Milkman's flight. But the attempt, Morrison suggests, is the important thing. Milkman must decide between a deathly isolated respectability, or death through a loving freedom. The choice is not an easy one to make, but, Morrison suggests, there is only one answer.
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