Song of Solomon

by: Toni Morrison

Guitar Baines

Since I was little. Since my father got sliced up in a sawmill and his boss came by and gave us kids some candy. Divinity. A big sack of divinity. His wife made it special for us. It’s sweet, divinity is. Sweeter than syrup. Real sweet.

Guitar explains to Milkman the reason why he hates sugar and sweet food. Even describing this childhood memory makes him wretch and vomit near the sidewalk. The detail supports the idea that childhood memories have an enormous impact on a person’s eventual character and behaviors. The memory foreshadows Milkman’s memory of breastfeeding as a boy.

Listen, baby, people do funny things. Specially us. The cards are stacked against us and just trying to stay in the game, stay alive and in the game, makes us do funny things. Things we can’t help. Things that make us hurt one another. We don’t even know why.

After hearing the story of his mother’s behavior with her own father, Milkman goes for a long walk and finds Guitar. Although he doesn’t explicitly share the details of what his father has told him, Milkman shares his feelings about what he’s learned with his friend. Here, Guitar does his best to explain to Milkman why some people do the things they do. Guitar, older and wiser than Milkman, understands the complexities of life, especially the inexplicable challenges of being black in the United States in the Jim Crow era.

Every nigger I know wants to be cool. There’s nothing wrong with controlling yourself, but can’t nobody control other people.

Guitar shares this advice with Milkman, who visits Guitar in an attempt to avoid the murderous Hagar. In this scene, Milkman asks Guitar if he can sleep in his room, and Guitar finally leaves after some discussion. Guitar doesn’t trust Hagar’s behavior and tries to help Milkman take her threats more seriously.

What’s the matter with you? You’ve been watching her try to kill me for months and I never laid a hand on her. Now you sit there worried about her. All of a sudden you’re police. You’ve been wearing a halo a lot lately. You got a white robe too?

Milkman confronts Guitar for defending Hagar despite her monthly threats to kill Milkman. Milkman feels criticized and unsupported by Guitar and makes his feelings clear. In this scene Milkman also points out that something seems wrong with Guitar, and he wonders if Guitar is hiding something from him. Milkman’s confrontation prompts Guitar to tell him about the Seven Days.

White people are unnatural. As a race they are unnatural. And it takes a strong effort of the will to overcome an unnatural enemy.

Using reverse racism, Guitar defends his participation in the Seven Days to Milkman. He accuses all white people of being unnatural and expendable. Milkman brings up Albert Schweitzer, Eleanor Roosevelt, and John Kennedy as possible exceptions, but Guitar argues that any one of them would kill blacks under the right circumstances.

Four little colored girls had been blown out of a church, and his mission was to approximate as best he could a similar death of four little white girls some Sunday, since he was the Sunday man.

The narrator reveals that soon after Milkman learns about Guitar’s participation in the Seven Days, Guitar’s responsibility in the group becomes more complicated and demanding following the Birmingham bombing of 1963. To ensure the punishment fits the crime, Guitar needs explosives, not a knife or a gun. Such an expensive need prompts his willingness to help Milkman steal what he thinks is gold from Pilate.

I just quit listening. You listen! You got a life? Live it! Live the motherfuckin life! Live it!

While Milkman and Guitar argue about how to go about stealing what they think is gold from Pilate’s house, Guitar makes clear that they should just go for it. He’s tired of listening to Milkman’s plan to take things slowly and reasonably. In this moment, Milkman feels confused about what to do, while Guitar seems clear. He argues that no one gets anywhere in life being reasonable.

Your Day has come, but on my schedule. And believe it: I will run you as long as there is ground. Your name is Macon, but you ain’t dead yet.

After following Milkman to Virginia because he believes Milkman shipped the stolen gold there, Guitar threatens Milkman and makes clear he no longer trusts him. Earlier Guitar witnessed Milkman helping a man load a crate onto a weighing platform back in Danville, and he believes the crate contains the stolen gold. Guitar feels betrayed and tells Milkman that he will kill him in his own time and fashion.

And if it means so little to you that you can just give it away, hand it to him, then why should it mean any more to him? He can’t value you more than you value yourself.

After Guitar returns home from Virginia, he finds Hagar, despondent and naked, standing in his room. He feels sorry for her and tries to encourage her to take more pride in herself. He advises her to care about her own life rather than caring so much whether Milkman loves her. He tries to explain that a person has to love himself or herself before he or she can love someone else. Sadly, Hagar isn’t able to heed his words. She soon spirals out of control and dies.

Angling out from these thoughts of names was one more—the one that whispered in the spinning wheels of the bus: “Guitar is biding his time. Guitar is biding his time. Your day has come. Your day has come. Guitar is biding his time.”

As Milkman travels by bus back to Michigan, all the names from his past, names of the black men in Shalimar and Danville and names from his own hometown, crowd his thoughts. Then he remembers that Guitar is still out to get him and that Guitar promised revenge for what he believed was a betrayal. Although Milkman appears safe on the bus, perhaps even safe in Michigan, he will no longer be safe when he returns to Virginia with Pilate.