The street was even more crowded with people, all going in the direction he was coming from.
At age twelve, Milkman begins to work for Macon Jr., which gives him an opportunity to spend more time on the Southside with Guitar, Pilate, and Hagar. Sometimes Milkman and Guitar visit a barbershop run by Railroad Tommy and Hospital Tommy, and listen to the older men discuss the racial inequality prevalent in 1940s America. After one of the discussions, Guitar confides to Milkman that his father was killed in a sawmill accident, an incident that left him angry at his father’s white boss and white people in general.
At age fourteen, one of Milkman’s legs grows shorter than the other and he masks the defect with a strut. As he grows older, Milkman does everything he can to dispel the town-dwellers’ commonly shared belief that he is identical to his father. He acts like Macon Jr.’s opposite, growing facial hair, smoking cigarettes, and carelessly spending money when he can. When Milkman is twenty-two, his father hits his mother after a dinner table argument. Milkman retaliates by striking his father back. He promises to kill him if he is ever violent toward Ruth again, and struts upstairs to his bedroom. Macon Jr. follows him there and explains that there are reasons for his anger at Ruth. According to Macon Jr., Ruth’s father, Dr. Foster, was a greedy, self-hating, bitter man who despised his son-in-law and called fellow African-Americans “cannibals.” Furthermore, Macon Jr. claims that even though Dr. Foster was impotent, he may have had a sexual relationship with Ruth. Macon Jr. also tells Milkman that on the day of Dr. Foster’s death, he saw Ruth lying naked next to her father’s corpse, his fingers in her mouth.
Distraught by his father’s revelations, Milkman goes to see Guitar. Along the way, he remembers being breast-fed by his mother beyond infancy and feels disturbed. He also realizes that his motivation for striking his father was not love for his mother, and comes to the sudden conclusion that his mother has a personal life outside of being his mother. As he is walking, Milkman notices that he is heading against the flow of other foot traffic.
Milkman finds Guitar at Tommy’s Barbershop discussing two recently murdered boys: Emmet Till, a black Northerner killed in Mississippi, and a white boy killed in their town. Guitar speaks passionately about the injustices brought upon African-Americans and the need to correct them. He eventually leaves with Milkman. While they sit in a bar, Milkman tells Guitar about striking his father, and Guitar explains that the “cards are stacked against” black men, and that sometimes blacks are even coerced into hurting each other. Guitar then tries to compare Milkman’s experience with Till’s recent death, but Milkman is not interested in hearing about the murdered black boy, dismissing him as crazy. As he later ponders his life, Milkman realizes that everything bores him: money, the city, politics, and the racial problems that consume other African-Americans.
In this chapter, Morrison exposes the continual tension between Milkman’s blistering arrogance and his awareness of his own failings. Though he is simultaneously alienated from his family, his best friend, and other African-Americans, Milkman continues to believe that the entire world revolves around him. Though he is privately insecure about his own shortcomings, such as his oddly short leg, Milkman also thinks that others, especially women, consider him a gift from God. On the surface, these beliefs seem contradictory. By turning Milkman into a complex character who is at odds with himself, however, Morrison makes his quest for self-understanding all the more difficult and rewarding.
Milkman’s selfish worldview is nurtured by others’ confirmations of his superiority, giving him no pressing reason to explore his own identity. Female affection and affirmation are readily available to him: he can decide on a whim whether he will sleep with Hagar. Similarly, Ruth also gives her love to him freely. Furthermore, while most African-Americans live in a world of daily discrimination and fear, Milkman knows only a life of luxury. Milkman is an optimist and his attitudes sometimes whitewash tragic events. He claims that the murdered black boy, Emmett Till, was crazy and feels the boy’s plight is irrelevant to his own welfare. And though Milkman strikes his father, supposedly to defend his mother, he privately realizes that his action was entirely self-serving. He did it to prove his manhood, not because he loves Ruth. Milkman even takes advantage of Guitar, his best friend. He spills out his emotional turmoil to Guitar but refuses to devote an equal amount of time to hear about Guitar’s internal struggle. Unaware that his behavior is hurtful to others, Milkman is content to live in a careless, egotistical manner.
Milkman’s friends and family validate his arrogant behavior, which makes his quest to understand himself more difficult. Milkman is used to viewing himself as the center of the universe, and he is thus devastated when he understands that Ruth had and continues to have a life outside of being his mother. But the image of Milkman walking in a crowded street against the flow of traffic confirms his individuality. While this action represents Milkman’s detachment from problems that concern his community and the world at large, it also indicates that he is beginning to fight against his irrelevance by starting down the path to maturity. As he proceeds against the flow, Milkman understands for the first time just how alienated he is—an important milestone in his quest for self-discovery.
The difference between Guitar and Milkman, which becomes apparent during their conversation at the bar, foreshadows the growing tension and hostility between the two friends. Although the open hatred that develops between them is a decade away, Morrison shows that Milkman and Guitar are divided by their different upbringings and worldviews. Milkman, who has led a life of privilege and belongs to the 1950s-era black upper class, is blind to pervasive white racism, protected from it by his luxurious life. Guitar, who lives in poverty brought about by his father’s death at the hands of negligent white factory owners, sees everything through the lens of racial conflict. He sees oppression in every direction he looks, and is thus unable to draw a distinction between Emmett Till’s murder and Milkman’s argument with Macon Jr. Guitar’s hostile attitude toward the world cannot coexist with Milkman’s boredom, and we sense here that a conflict between the two friends is inevitable.