Milkman returns to Susan Byrd, who fills in the gaps in his newfound knowledge of his family history. Sing, it turns out, left on a wagon to go North with Jake, who belonged to the legendary tribe of flying African children, the descendants of Solomon. Solomon and his wife, Ryna, had been slaves on a cotton plantation and had had twenty-one children, all boys, the last one named Jake. When Solomon flew away from Virginia, he tried to take Jake, who was a baby at the time, with him. Unfortunately, Solomon brushed by some tree branches and dropped Jake, who fell from the sky into the yard of an Indian woman named Heddy. Heddy had a baby daughter named Singing Bird (later called Sing) and raised Jake as her own son after Ryna became insane following Solomon’s flight. Eventually, Heddy had another son, Crow Bird (later called Crowell Byrd), who was to become Susan Byrd’s father. Meanwhile, Jake and Sing secretly ran off together.
Milkman leaves Susan’s home. He is profoundly energized by the information he receives from his newfound cousin. Exhilarated, he runs to Sweet’s place and, refusing her offer of a bath, tells her he needs to swim in the “sea! The whole goddam sea!” Milkman and Sweet whirl around in the local swimming hole as Milkman sings Solomon’s song at the top of his voice: “O-o-o-o-o-o Solomon done fly, Solomon done gone / Solomon cut across the sky, Solomon gone home!”
Eventually ready to return home to Michigan, Milkman sells his car and boards the bus, thinking along the way about his family in Michigan and in Virginia, about his recent journey, and about his broken friendship with Guitar. When he reaches his hometown, he rushes to Pilate’s home to tell her about his discoveries, unaware of Hagar’s recent death. Pilate knocks him out by striking him with a wine bottle on the head.
When Milkman wakes, he finds himself in Pilate’s basement, surrounded by Hagar’s things, and understands that she is dead. Milkman knows that Pilate lives by the idea that when one takes a life, one owns it, which is why she carries the green tarp containing what she thinks are the old white man’s bones. Milkman understands that Pilate is trying to make him own Hagar’s life and that he will have to carry this burden to the end of his days. When Pilate finally enters the basement, Milkman tells her that the bones in the green tarp are actually her father’s, and that she must bury them. Pilate then releases Milkman, sending him home with a box of Hagar’s hair.
At home, Milkman finds that First Corinthians has moved to a small house with Henry Porter on the Southside, that Lena, though unforgiving, has become civil, and that the relationship between Macon Jr. and Ruth remains as broken as ever. Nevertheless, Macon Jr. decides that he will eventually head down to Danville to see Reverend Cooper and some of the others.
Milkman and Pilate drive down to Virginia to bury Jake’s bones. They reach Solomon’s Leap, the cliff near which Solomon dropped Jake, and bury the contents of the green tarp. In place of a gravestone, Pilate leaves her snuff-box earring containing her name. Just as the burial rites are completed, Pilate collapses into Milkman’s arms, shot by a bullet that Guitar intended for Milkman. Milkman comforts Pilate as much as he can, singing the last lines of Solomon’s song to her, but replacing the name Solomon with Sugargirl. Despite his efforts, Pilate dies. A flock of birds appears over Milkman’s head, two of which circle around him until one of them dives from the sky and retrieves the snuffbox from the grave.
After Pilate dies, Milkman stands up, unafraid of Guitar’s gun. He calls out Guitar’s name until he hears a response and sees Guitar’s shadowy outline in the dark. Milkman leaps in his direction, knowing that “[i]f you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
Understanding his family history allows Milkman to complete his rebirth. His earlier time in Virginia, singing Solomon’s song and playing the games of local children, allows him to experience a childhood he never had, and the swim in the quarry hole with Sweet serves as his baptism into his new life. The most important aspect of this rebirth is Milkman’s restored faith in flight, which redeems him culturally and spiritually. Though such a faith may seem irrelevant to Milkman’s maturation, it echoes a common thread from the African-American Christian tradition: salvation through belief alone. Milkman’s final utterance about riding on air illustrates his trust in the power of flight. Although Morrison ends the novel without telling us what happens after Milkman leaps, this flight carries promise in it because it fulfills the failed promise of the novel’s opening image, Robert Smith’s leap off of Mercy Hospital.
The knowledge that Solomon did not bow humbly to being enslaved but instead liberated himself allows Milkman to break the generational cycle of trauma that has haunted him throughout his life. Flying, Milkman learns, does not have to be physical. Instead, Morrison’s novel suggests, flying is the ability of a human being to overcome the obstacles in his or her path, to live a free life in a world that may be unfree. Pilate, for instance, has always been able to fly even though her feet never leave the ground and though she lives amid poverty, discrimination, and alienation. Furthermore, while most of the novel suggests that genetic traits, such as Milkman’s lameness, prove debilitating, flight is explored as a positive genetic trait, suggesting that the generational history of African-Americans contains not only enslavement but also the necessary components for liberation.
Having undergone a rebirth and second childhood in Virginia, and having gained a purpose in his life, Milkman is now a responsible adult. While he encourages Pilate to let go of the bones she has been carrying for years and to let her spirit rest, Milkman understands that he must pay his dues for causing Hagar’s death. Just as Pilate carries what she believes are the old white man’s bones because she considers herself guilty of taking his life, so will Milkman carry the box of Hagar’s hair that Pilate gives him. In his willingness to do so he not only expresses his respect for Hagar’s deep love for him but also demonstrates ownership of her life. That is, he is now willing to acknowledge and take responsibility for his role in Hagar’s death.
That Milkman cares not about the gold but about another treasure, the forgotten names of his ancestors, suggests that knowledge of one’s family history is more important than any amount of material goods. Awareness of one’s history, passed down through names, sustains the novel’s characters more fruitfully than gold does. Though Milkman has finally learned this lesson, Pilate has known it all along. She carries her name in a snuff box in her ear because she knows it provides sustenance for her and can be a source of sustenance for future generations. Once she sees that Milkman knows and appreciates their ancestors’ story, she no longer needs to carry the name physically, and places the snuffbox on Macon Dead I’s new grave. Just as Pilate has carried around her name, an integral part of her identity, so now will Milkman carry around his story, an integral part of his identity.
Even in death, flight remains the symbol of life. The birds circling over Pilate’s body after she is killed by Guitar’s bullet suggest that physical death is not the end of her existence. The swooping down of one bird to take Pilate’s snuffbox up to the sky indicates that her name will live on. And because she has so long clutched her name as a crucial part of her identity, it is clear that she too will live on. But even as Pilate’s body lies still on the ground, Milkman himself takes flight. Having learned the story of his heritage he is now fully alive. We do not know whose death will result from Milkman’s leap at Guitar, but Morrison suggests that whether Milkman kills or is killed doesn’t really matter, since Milkman, now endowed with a rich sense of his identity, will live on after death just as Pilate will and just as Solomon has in the song that bears his name.
In your character analysis of Ruth Dead, you wrote that "Ruth relies on Pilate for financial support." I'm not sure what you meant to say - maybe "Ruth relies on Pilate for emotional support" or "Pilate relies on Ruth for financial support." Either way, please correct. Thanks.