The singing woman . . . had wrapped herself up in an old quilt instead of a winter coat. Her head cocked to one side, her eyes fixed on Mr. Robert Smith, she sang in a powerful contralto.
This passage, from Chapter 1, describes Pilate’s singing about Sugarman as Robert Smith prepares to fly off the roof of Mercy Hospital. In contrast to Ruth Foster, who wears expensive clothes, Pilate wears only an old quilt. Wearing the quilt shows that Pilate belongs to the community but is alienated from it. Pilate demonstrates her pride in her culture through the quilt, a traditional, homemade item in African-American households. Unlike Ruth, Pilate is proud of being a black woman and does not need to disguise herself in the clothing of the white upper-middle class. On the other hand, Pilate’s outfit is different from the winter coats worn by the rest of the crowd, making her look like an outsider.
Although she is visibly poor, Pilate’s attitude demonstrates her strength. When Robert Smith towers over the crowd, only Pilate is brave enough to look him in the eye and respond, singing. Pilate’s song describes Robert Smith’s frustrated desire to escape. The song also foreshadows the novel’s central conflict: flying away is liberating but hurts those who are left behind.
He didn’t mean it. It happened before he was through. She’d stepped away from him to pick flowers, returned, and at the sound of her footsteps behind him, he’d turned around before he was through. It was becoming a habit—this concentration on things behind him. Almost as though there were no future to be had.
This passage from Chapter 2 references Milkman Dead’s alienation from the world and from himself. Milkman accidentally urinates on Lena during a pit stop on a trip to Honoré Island. At a young age, Milkman has inherited Macon Jr.’s mistrustful attitude and spiritual deadness. Although he is only six years old, Milkman already acts like a world-weary man. Milkman’s “concentration on things behind him” shows that he is different from other children his age, who have faith in the future. When Milkman turns “at the sound of . . . footsteps behind him,” he shows how his father, who fled Pennsylvania after killing a man, has passed to his son the mentality of a hunted man. Milkman’s childhood is disfigured by events that took place before his birth. Milkman’s alienation is one example of Morrison’s argument that a single instance of racism can harm generations of people. Ironically, Milkman’s preoccupation with the past eventually allows him to bring closure to the family’s suffering by discovering his family history.
This passage also refers to the motif of trauma inflicted by men on women. During the drive to Honoré Island, Milkman urinates on his sister unintentionally. As Lena expresses in Chapter 9, urination becomes a metaphor for Milkman’s treatment of his sisters and other women in his life. Milkman is so concerned with his own problems that he doesn’t see that he is given special treatment by his family. Milkman is always supported by women behind the scenes: his sisters, Hagar, Pilate, and his mother. He fails, however, to reciprocate their generosity.
Milkman closed his eyes and opened them. The street was even more crowded with people, all going in the direction he was coming from. All walking hurriedly and bumping against him. After a while he realized that nobody was walking on the other side of the street.
This passage, from Chapter 3, describes Milkman wandering the streets, distraught about his parents’ relationship. As Milkman begins to face dark moments from his childhood and from his family’s past, he also realizes that he is completely alone in his endeavor. Even Guitar fails to salve his friend’s wounds. On the same night Macon strikes his father and remembers that his mother breast-fed him through infancy, the rest of the Michigan town discusses the recent lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi. Unlike Guitar, who takes the community’s problems too seriously, Milkman is an egotist, concerned only with his own tribulations. Heading against the flow of traffic, Milkman is not a maverick, but an alien, alone in his town and unwelcomed by its residents.
This scene occurs at the beginning of Milkman’s journey to uncover his family’s past. But from its inception, this journey is different from all other journeys, and puts Milkman at odds with the rest of humankind. It is also the beginning of the end of Milkman’s childhood. At twenty-two years old, Milkman is beginning to act like a grown man, capable of handling responsibility. Of course, at this time Milkman is not yet ready for the full burdens and privileges of being an adult. Growing up comes at the end of his journey.
“Gold,” he whispered, and immediately, like a burglar on his first job, stood up to pee.
Life, safety, and luxury fanned out before him like the tailspread of a peacock, and as he stood there trying to distinguish each delicious color, he saw the dusty boots of his father standing just on the other side of the shallow pit.
This quotation, from Chapter 7, describes how Macon Jr. discovers gold treasure in a cave after killing the white man. The quotation describes a crucial turning point in Macon Jr.’s life. Before his father is murdered and before he attempts to kill the white man, Macon Jr. is a simple, kind-hearted farm boy. Macon Dead I’s murder, however, ends Macon Jr.’s idyllic childhood. Gold promises a resolution to all of his recent traumas. Finding the gold in the cave is a turning point in Macon’s life, after which he believes that wealth will solve his problems. Although he sees the dusty boots of his father standing on the other side of the treasure pit, Macon Jr. does not speak to him, and seems to ignore him altogether. Gold becomes more important than Macon Jr.’s love for the man he cares about most.
The comparison of gold to a “tailspread of a peacock” indicates that the promise of luxury is false. The peacock’s tail teases with a temporary display of beauty, and quickly disappears. Likewise, wealth does not heal Macon Jr.’s wounds. Instead, it makes them permanent. The moment that Macon Jr. discovers the gold is the moment when he begins his transformation from hard-working farm boy to soulless landlord.
O Solomon don’t leave me here
Cotton balls to choke me
O Solomon don’t leave me here
Buckra’s arms to yoke me
Solomon done fly, Solomon done gone
Solomon cut across the sky, Solomon gone home.
Milkman hears Shalimar children singing these lyrics, a part of Solomon’s song, in Chapter 12. The song connects Milkman to his family’s past and provides him with crucial stories about his grandfather, Jake, and his great-grandparents, Solomon and Ryna.
Solomon’s song implies that when men free themselves from oppression they often leave women behind. “O Solomon don’t leave me here” describes Ryna’s descent into desperation and madness as Solomon prepares for his flight. Although Solomon escapes slavery, his flight leaves Ryna to take care of their children while working in the cotton fields. The theme of male liberation coming at the expense of female oppression is reflected in Milkman’s relationship with Hagar, and recurs throughout Morrison’s novel.
Even though Solomon’s flight dooms Ryna to abandonment and his children to orphanhood, the song suggests that his flight is still a magnificent achievement. Solomon’s song ends with a description of Solomon’s flight rather than with a description of Ryna’s deprivation. This ending shows the ultimate triumph of liberation. As a result, when Milkman learns that the song is actually about his family, he is not saddened, but inspired. Though tainted by the pain of abandonment, Solomon’s flight is an important part of Milkman’s heritage. In learning about Solomon’s story, Milkman learns pieces of his own, allowing him, finally, to fly free—literally and figuratively.