Ruth visits Macon Jr. at his office and he reluctantly gives her money for Hagar’s funeral, a grand but sparsely attended affair. Near the conclusion of the ceremony, Pilate and Reba burst in, singing an old gospel tune, “Mercy.” Pilate reaches the coffin and speaks to Hagar, repeatedly calling her “[m]y baby girl.” Pilate concludes her lament by exclaiming, “And she was loved!”
The narrative’s emphasis on the African-American oral tradition reflects Milkman’s maturation. Historically, African slaves were prevented from becoming literate by their white masters, so they preserved their history and passed it on to future generations through songs and stories. Ultimately in Song of Solomon, Milkman’s family history is conveyed by the spoken rather than the written word. Only by letting go of the traditional methods of historical research prevalent in the white world—searching through archives or registry records—and putting his faith in folk legends can Milkman uncover the truth about his family’s origins. Milkman’s ability to use this ancestral, oral tradition as a resource—being given clues by everyone from Macon Jr. to Circe to the singing children—attests to his transformation from a black man alienated from black culture into a black man who embraces black culture.
The act of learning the popular folk song about Solomon that the children teach one another reaffirms Milkman’s status as a child in a new world. Spiritually reborn after surviving Guitar’s assassination, Milkman must now, like a child, learn his way around. He is innocent, eager to learn, not spoiled and bored as he was during his actual childhood in Michigan. Most important, perhaps, he is aware of and curious about his heritage. The traditional folk song about Solomon introduces the children to their heritage, and by taking part in this formative experience, Milkman becomes one of them. That he feels so at home in this community illustrates the depth of his transformation.
Solomon’s song expands upon two major ideas in the novel, flight and abandonment, and suggests that the destructive cycle that includes both of these is almost inescapable. Just as Solomon escaped slavery and left his wife, Ryna, to suffer alone in hot cotton fields, so does Milkman flee the confines of his dull existence in Michigan and leave Hagar to die of unrequited love. We can interpret this pattern of males abandoning females as a comment from Morrison on black social conditions. Slavery and continued subjugation by whites had a devastating effect on African-American families: the men were often absent, whether they were taken by force or left of their own accord, leaving women the burden of raising children alone. Many, like Guitar’s mother, are unable to deal with their difficult task, scarring a new generation of children and perpetuating the same problems that have affected their generation. Morrison, however, does not blame the men or the women for their deeds. Rather, she shows that the social conditions that forced Solomon to fly away from the cotton fields and that force Milkman to run away from home are responsible for the continuing deprivation of the African-American community.
While Hagar’s death can be traced to this cycle of flight and abandonment, Pilate and Reba are in continuous rebellion against this cycle. Although their best efforts to save Hagar’s life prove inadequate, Pilate and Reba never cease to fight, even when Hagar is lying in a coffin. When Pilate lifts her head to the sky and shouts, “And she was loved!” she is not only grieving over her granddaughter but also expressing her dissatisfaction with a society, a world, and a God that would allow such a catastrophe. But Hagar loses her own struggle precisely because she does not believe that she is deserving of love. This belief is evident in her frantic attempts to improve herself physically. Though Reba and Pilate try to raise Hagar’s confidence in her own natural appearance, Hagar thinks that she can break this cycle of flight and abandonment only by transforming herself into a physically attractive woman and luring Milkman back. However, the thunderstorm that opens on her after her shopping spree and her horrible appearance after putting on her damaged garments demonstrate the futility of her attempt to break the patterns of her heritage. Whereas Pilate and Reba are anchored to their identities and remain strong in the face of struggle, Hagar has become so self-hating that reminders of who she actually is—a thirty-seven-year-old, single, poor African-American woman—speed her death.