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Milkman Dead

The protagonist of the novel, also known as Macon Dead III. Born into a sheltered, privileged life, Milkman grows up to be an egotistical young man. He lacks compassion, wallows in self-pity, and alienates himself from the African-American community. As his nickname suggests, Milkman literally feeds off of what others produce. But his eventual discovery of his family history gives his life purpose. Although he remains flawed, this newfound purpose makes him compassionate and caring.

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Pilate Dead

Macon Jr.’s younger sister. Born without a navel, Pilate is physically and psychologically unlike the novel’s other characters. She is a fearless mother who is selflessly devoted to others. Pilate is responsible for Milkman’s safe birth and continues to protect him for years afterward. She also takes care of her daughter, Reba, and granddaughter, Hagar.

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Macon Jr.

Milkman’s father and Ruth’s husband, also known as Macon Dead II. Traumatized by seeing his father murdered during a skirmish over the family farm, Macon Jr. has developed an obsession with becoming wealthy. In the process, he has become an emotionally dead slumlord. His stony heart softens only when he reminisces about his childhood. Macon Jr.’s stories about his childhood help fuel Milkman’s investigation into the history of the Dead family.

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Guitar Bains

Milkman’s best friend. Having grown up in poverty after his father was killed in a factory accident, Guitar harbors a lifelong hatred for white people, whom he sees as responsible for all evil in the world. Morrison points out that while Guitar’s rage is justifiable, his murders of white people neither combat racism nor help the African-American community.

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Hagar

Pilate’s granddaughter and Milkman’s lover. Hagar devotes herself to Milkman, even though he loses interest and frequently rejects her. Like her biblical namesake—a servant who, after bearing Abraham’s son is thrown out of the house by his barren wife, Sarah—Hagar is used and abandoned. Her plight demonstrates a central theme in Song of Solomon: the inevitable abandonment of women who love men too much.

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Macon Dead I

Macon Jr.’s father and Milkman’s grandfather, Macon Dead I is also known as Jake. Macon Dead I was abandoned in infancy when his father, Solomon, flew back to Africa and his mother, Ryna, went insane. Macon Dead I was raised by an Indian woman, Heddy. The mysterious legend of his identity motivates Milkman’s search for self-understanding.

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Ruth Foster Dead

Macon Jr.’s wife and the mother of Milkman, First Corinthians, and Lena. After growing up in a wealthy home, Ruth feels unloved by everyone except her deceased father, Dr. Foster. Although her existence is joyless, she refuses to leave Macon Jr. for a new life, proving that wealth’s hold is difficult to overcome.

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Dr. Foster

The first black doctor in the novel’s Michigan town. Dr. Foster is an arrogant, self-hating racist who calls fellow African-Americans “cannibals” and checks to see how light-skinned his granddaughters are when they are born. His status as an educated black man at a time when many blacks were illiterate makes him an important symbol of personal triumph while contrasting with his racist attitude.

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Reba

Pilate’s daughter and Hagar’s mother, also known as Rebecca. Reba has a strong sexual drive but is attracted to abusive men. Nevertheless, because Pilate is her mother, the few men who dare mistreat her are punished. Reba’s uncanny ability to win contests such as the Sears half-millionth customer diamond ring giveaway demonstrates that wealth is transient and unimportant.

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First Corinthians Dead

Milkman’s worldly sister, educated at Bryn Mawr and in France. First Corinthians shares her name with a New Testament book in which the apostle Paul seeks to mend the disagreements within the early Christian church. Like the biblical book, the character First Corinthians tries to unify people. Her passionate love affair with a yardman, Henry Porter, crosses class boundaries. Her actions prove that human beings of different backgrounds and ages can share a bond.

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Magdalene Dead

Another of Milkman’s sisters, also known as Lena. Lena’s submissive attitude in Macon Jr.’s home makes her one of the many submissive women who populate Song of Solomon. But her rebuke of Milkman’s selfishness demonstrates her inner strength.

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Michael-Mary Graham

The Michigan poet laureate. Graham is a liberal who writes sentimental poetry and hires First Corinthians as a maid. Graham represents the double standard of white liberals. Although they claimed to support universal human rights, liberal whites often refused to treat African-Americans as equals.

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Circe

A maid and midwife who worked for the wealthy Butler family. Circe delivered Macon Jr. and Pilate. In her encounter with Milkman, Circe plays the same role as her namesake in Homer’s Odyssey, the ancient Greek account of a lost mariner’s ten-year voyage home. Just as Homer’s Circe helps Odysseus find his way back to Ithaca, Morrison’s Circe provides crucial information that reconnects Milkman with his family history. In this way, Morrison’s Circe connects Milkman’s past and future.

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Sing

Milkman’s grandmother and Macon Dead I’s wife. Sing is an Indian woman also known as Singing Bird. Sing’s name commands Macon Dead I, Pilate, and Milkman to connect the missing links of their family history through Solomon’s song.

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Henry Porter

First Corinthians’s lover and a member of the Seven Days vigilante group, which murders white people. Porter’s tender love affair with First Corinthians proves that a personal connection between two human beings is stronger than differences of background and class.

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Robert Smith

An insurance agent and member of the Seven Days vigilante group. Smith’s attempt to fly off of the roof of Mercy Hospital begins the novel’s exploration of flight as a means of escape. Smith’s failure to fly contrasts with Milkman’s eventual success in escaping the confining circumstances of his life.

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Freddie

A janitor employed by Macon Jr. Freddie is the town gossip. Freddie spreads rumors through the town, illustrating how information was often disseminated within African-American communities. Freddie coins the nickname “Milkman” for Ruth’s son, showing that original names are often forgotten and replaced.

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Solomon

Milkman’s great-grandfather, who supposedly flew back to Africa but dropped his son Jake shortly after taking off. Solomon’s flight is a physical demonstration of the liberation that is felt when a person escapes confining circumstances. However, Solomon’s crying wife, Ryna, and traumatized children show that escape has negative consequences as well.

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Ryna

Milkman’s great-grandmother and Solomon’s wife. When Solomon abandons her, Ryna goes mad. According to legend, her cries can still be heard.

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Sweet

A prostitute with whom Milkman has a brief affair. Unlike Milkman’s affairs with other women, especially Hagar, his relationship with Sweet is mutually respectful and entirely reciprocal. His interactions with her demonstrate that the most gratifying relationships in the novel are those in which both partners treat each other as equals.

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