Her head cocked to one side, her eyes fixed on Mr. Robert Smith, she sang in a powerful contralto.
On Wednesday, February 18, 1931, Robert Smith, a North Carolina Mutual Life insurance agent, teeters atop Mercy Hospital in an unnamed Michigan town. Wearing blue silk wings and promising to fly off the hospital roof, the formerly nondescript insurance agent draws a crowd of forty or fifty mostly African-American town residents. Mercy Hospital, known as “No Mercy Hospital” among locals because it does not admit blacks, stands at the end of a street called “Mains Avenue” by the post office but commonly labeled “Not Doctor Street.” The street received its nickname from the fact that a black physician, Dr. Foster, once lived and practiced there.
As Robert Smith prepares to fly off the roof, Dr. Foster’s pregnant daughter, Ruth Foster Dead, stands in the crowd below with her two “half-grown” daughters, Magdalene (“Lena”) Dead, and First Corinthians Dead. Ruth suddenly goes into labor. Dressed in an expensive gray coat with a black bow and four-button ladies’ galoshes, Ruth clearly belongs to a higher economic class than the other, shabbily dressed spectators, who include her sister-in-law, Pilate Dead. Wrapped in an old quilt instead of a coat, Pilate fixes her eyes on Robert Smith and sings, “O Sugarman done fly away.” Also present in the crowd is an elderly woman with several grandchildren, one of whom is a smart six-year-old named Guitar Bains. When a white nurse who orders Guitar to get the security guard from the hospital’s admissions desk incorrectly spells the word “admissions” out loud, Guitar catches her mistake.
Eventually, Mr. Smith leaps off the hospital roof and Ruth Dead becomes Mercy Hospital’s first black patient. The next day she gives birth to a son, Macon Dead III, who, at age four, discovers that only birds and airplanes can fly. He loses all interest in himself, becoming a “peculiar” child with deep, mysterious eyes. Ruth and her children live in Dr. Foster’s enormous, twelve-room house, where they are isolated from love and abused by Ruth’s husband, Macon Dead II. To escape the boredom of her sexless marriage, Ruth indulges in small, secret pleasures: polishing a watermark on her dining room table and breast-feeding her son long past infancy. When Freddie, the janitor, observes one of Ruth’s breast-feeding sessions, he dubs her son “Milkman,” a name that stays with him for the rest of his life.
The narrator tells us that Milkman’s father, Macon Dead II (or Macon Jr.), is a ruthless slumlord, obsessed with accumulating wealth. He inherited his name from his illiterate father, Macon Dead I, whose own name came about when a drunk Union soldier incorrectly filled out an identity card. Every day, Macon Jr. sits in his real estate office, called Sonny’s Shop by the tenants, squeezing the last dollars from his customers. When Guitar Bains’s grandmother asks Macon Jr. to defer her rent payment in order for her to be able to feed her young grandchildren, he refuses without hesitation. In another instance, Macon Jr. finds out that one of his tenants, Henry Porter, has gotten drunk and is threatening to shoot himself. Instead of attempting to save Porter’s life, he visits him to collect rent.
In his spare time, Macon Jr. reads his account books and reflects upon his family’s history. He recalls the death of his mother, Sing, while she was in labor, and the subsequent appearance of his younger sister, Pilate, who climbed out of her mother’s womb without a navel. Pilate’s name, like those of other children in the Dead family except for the firstborn sons, was picked blindly from the Bible. Macon Jr. parted with Pilate when he was seventeen and she was twelve and did not see her again until a year before Milkman’s birth. Macon Jr. bans Pilate from his household, because he is ashamed of her unkempt appearance. He is also ashamed of her former career as a smuggler, her residence in a slum without electricity or running water, and her general disdain for material goods. But walking home on the night of Porter’s attempted suicide, he is driven to stop by her house. Hiding in the shadows of her yard, Macon Jr. listens to Pilate, her daughter Rebecca (called “Reba”), and her young granddaughter, Hagar, sing a beautiful melody.
The first chapter of Song of Solomon sets the stage for the rest of the novel and points out its central elements: the theme of flight; the complex interplay of class, race, and gender; and the significance of names. The opening story of Robert Smith’s disastrous death sets up the experiences of the novel’s other characters. Much like Smith’s flight, these other characters’ quests to escape confining circumstances are generally doomed to fail. For example, Ruth Foster Dead’s sole diversion from Macon’s oppression is cut short when Freddie discovers her breast-feeding Milkman. Similarly, poor African-Americans, such as Henry Porter and Guitar Bains’s family, are stuck in poverty, just as Macon Jr. is trapped by his wealth. Though Macon Jr. spends his days accumulating profit and wielding his power, his only moment of spiritual relief occurs in hiding, when he cowers under Pilate’s windows. Finally, Mercy Hospital’s unmerciful rejection of black patients and the white nurse’s haughty attitude toward Guitar show that in addition to their individual problems, all the characters face racism everday.