Song of Solomon

by: Toni Morrison

Racism

1

Mama liked it. Liked the name. Said it was new and would wipe out the past. Wipe it all out.

Macon recounts the story of his name, and his father’s name, to his son. He explains that when he registered as a free man in 1869, the man behind the desk was so drunk that he wrote Macon’s answers to the questions in the wrong places. He told the man that his father was dead and that he was born in Macon, so the man wrote Dead, Macon in the space where his name should have been. The name stuck, just as Milkman’s nickname did. Mama didn’t object to the new name as she hoped the change would mark a new beginning for him.

2

And you not going to have your own special toilet and your own special-made eight-foot bed either. And a valet and a cook and a secretary to travel with you and do everything you say.

Railroad Tommy recites a litany of things Milkman and Guitar are never going to have solely because of the color of their skin and their economic class. In a way, he merely presents them with the reality of the society of the time. His long lecture lists many privileges of wealth and whiteness, culminating in a dessert called baked Alaska, something Milkman didn’t even know existed.

3

“You stupid, man. Real stupid. Ain’t no law for no colored man except the one that sends him to the chair,” said Guitar. “They say Till had a knife,” Freddie said. “They always say that. He could have had a wad of bubble gum, they’d swear it was a hand grenade.”

At Tommy’s Barbershop, Milkman and Guitar join others as they listen to a radio report about Emmet Till, a black man accused of whistling at a white woman. This leads to a conversation about the lack of justice for black men in the South and how things don’t ever change. All present agree that Emmet Till is as good as dead already.

4

“I mean did they have a trial; were they arrested?” “Arrested for what? Killing a nigger? Where did you say you was from?”

Milkman talks to Reverend Cooper in his home soon after he arrives in Danville. The reverend tells him about the death of his grandfather, Macon Dead—also known as Jake—who was shot because a white family wanted his farm. Everyone knew who killed Macon Dead, but no one cared to do anything about the murder. At that time and place, the death of a black man at the hands of white people was common and nearly always went unpunished.

5

They looked at his skin and saw it was as black as theirs, but they knew he had the heart of the white men who came to pick them up in the trucks when they needed anonymous, faceless laborers.

The narrator reveals that at Solomon’s General Store in Virginia, Milkman discovers that there exists a hierarchy within the black race based on class and geography. The black men in the store seemed, at first, welcoming to him until they considered him in more detail. He dressed fancy, and he could buy a second car. In addition, he hadn’t introduced himself or asked for their names. Milkman treated the other black men as if they were beneath him.

6

His grandmother would have been “too dark to pass.” She had actually blushed. As though she’d discovered something shameful about him.

Milkman visits two women, Susan Byrd and Grace Long, in the hopes of finding information about his grandmother, whose name was Sing. He learns that there was a Sing in Susan’s family, but the Sing she describes had light skin and could pass for a white person. Here, Susan determines that Milkman’s grandmother would have been dark skinned like him. Her reaction to such a thought reveals an inner although perhaps unconscious bias.