He didn’t mean it. It happened before he was through. She’d stepped away from him to pick flowers, returned, and at the sound of her footsteps behind him, he’d turned around before he was through. It was becoming a habit—this concentration on things behind him. Almost as though there were no future to be had.
This passage from Chapter 2 references Milkman Dead’s alienation from the world and from himself. Milkman accidentally urinates on Lena during a pit stop on a trip to Honoré Island. At a young age, Milkman has inherited Macon Jr.’s mistrustful attitude and spiritual deadness. Although he is only six years old, Milkman already acts like a world-weary man. Milkman’s “concentration on things behind him” shows that he is different from other children his age, who have faith in the future. When Milkman turns “at the sound of . . . footsteps behind him,” he shows how his father, who fled Pennsylvania after killing a man, has passed to his son the mentality of a hunted man. Milkman’s childhood is disfigured by events that took place before his birth. Milkman’s alienation is one example of Morrison’s argument that a single instance of racism can harm generations of people. Ironically, Milkman’s preoccupation with the past eventually allows him to bring closure to the family’s suffering by discovering his family history.
This passage also refers to the motif of trauma inflicted by men on women. During the drive to Honoré Island, Milkman urinates on his sister unintentionally. As Lena expresses in Chapter 9, urination becomes a metaphor for Milkman’s treatment of his sisters and other women in his life. Milkman is so concerned with his own problems that he doesn’t see that he is given special treatment by his family. Milkman is always supported by women behind the scenes: his sisters, Hagar, Pilate, and his mother. He fails, however, to reciprocate their generosity.