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.