It was becoming a habit—this concentration on things behind him. Almost as though there were no future to be had.See Important Quotations Explained
The Dead family goes for a ride in their shiny, new, green Packard to the Honoré beach community, where Macon Jr. plans to build upscale summer homes for wealthy African-Americans. Macon Jr. drives the car through Not Doctor Street and through the rough part of town, known as the Blood Bank, where many of his tenants live. Unlike the junk cars kept by poor Blood Bank residents, Macon Jr.’s Packard has never run out of gas, broken down in the middle of the street, or carried teenagers on its running boards. In fact, Macon Jr. keeps his car in such good condition that other blacks call it a “hearse” and stare at the automobile with a mixture of envy and mockery. In the middle of their trip, the young Milkman throws a temper tantrum and demands to use the bathroom. At first Macon Jr. ignores Milkman’s requests and makes nasty comments about Ruth, but eventually he pulls over and Lena accompanies Milkman into the trees. While urinating, Milkman hears the sound of Lena’s footsteps behind him and turns around before he is through, wetting his sister’s pale-blue dress. The narrator tells us that concentrating on things behind him becomes a habit for Milkman, as though he does not have a future to look forward to.
At age twelve, in sixth grade, Milkman meets and becomes friends with Guitar Bains, an older, more mature high schooler. One day, Milkman follows Guitar to Pilate’s house, despite Macon Jr.’s explicit prohibition against doing so. When Milkman sees Pilate for the first time, he is struck by her tall, powerful appearance. Although she is unkempt, she does not seem dirty, and her fingernails are as white as ivory. When Milkman asks Pilate if she is his father’s sister, Pilate mysteriously responds that there “ain’t but three Deads alive.”
Pilate invites Milkman and Guitar into her home, which is decorated with a moss-green sack hanging from the ceiling, and makes them a soft-boiled egg. She then tells Milkman about how she and Macon Jr. were raised on a farm in Montour County, Pennsylvania, and that their father was shot while sitting on the fence, waiting for someone. After Macon Dead I’s death, Pilate claims, she and Macon Jr. wandered the countryside and once saw their father’s ghost sitting on a stump in the sunlight, an experience that left them shaking like leaves.
Pilate’s narrative is interrupted by the arrival of her sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Hagar, with whom Milkman instantly falls in love, before even seeing her face. Pilate introduces Milkman as Hagar’s brother, even though he is her cousin, saying that one has to act the same to both. Pilate’s daughter, Reba, then shows the boys a diamond ring she won for being Sears Roebuck’s half-millionth customer and tells them that she has a knack for winning things, like the ring and a hundred pounds of free groceries. Pilate and Reba ask Hagar if she has ever had a hungry day in her life, and when Hagar answers affirmatively, Pilate and Reba are brought to the verge of tears. They tell Hagar that they will get her anything she ever wants. Finally, Pilate, Reba, and Hagar sing in a chorus about Sugarman, who flies home across the sky—the same song that Pilate sang on the day of Robert Smith’s flight.
Milkman leaves Pilate’s home enchanted with Hagar and returns to Not Doctor Street to face his angry father. Macon Jr. questions Milkman about his forbidden visit to Pilate’s place, but when Milkman asks about the death of Macon Dead I, Macon Jr. recalls that something “wild ran through him” when Macon Dead I died. He calms down and begins to reminisce about his childhood. With the same smile that Pilate wears while remembering Montour County, Macon Jr. recalls life on their farm, Lincoln’s Heaven, for the first time in years. The narrator tells us that the previous time Macon Jr. told stories about his childhood was when he was still poor, just starting out in business, and first married to Ruth. Macon Jr. also tells Milkman how his father received his eccentric name. But when Milkman asks Macon Jr. to tell him Macon Dead I’s real name, Macon Jr. ignores the question, remarking that his own mother was a light-skinned woman. Macon Jr. concludes his conversation with Milkman by reiterating his prohibition against visiting Pilate, who he claims is a treacherous “snake” who might be able to teach Milkman a few things in the next world, but not in this one. Macon Jr. also promises to introduce Milkman to the real estate business.
During the car ride to Honoré it becomes evident that even as a boy Milkman has inherited his father’s ugly personality. It is fitting that Macon Jr., the haughty, emotionally dead landowner, drives around in a car labeled a “hearse.” Having surely earned numerous enemies during his ruthless climb to the top, it would be logical for Macon Jr. to be wary of his surroundings. Instead, we find out that the paranoid Dead in the family is Milkman. His accidental urination on Lena shows that he is uncannily aware of everything behind him, both physically and metaphorically. Milkman’s fear of the past even though he is not old enough to have much of a past suggests that the trauma of his father’s and grandfather’s pasts haunts him from birth. His belief that he has no future to look forward to implies that he is headed down Macon Jr.’s path toward spiritual death.
Just as Milkman has inherited a spiritual burden from Macon Jr., so has Macon Jr. inherited a spiritual burden from Macon Dead I. The source of Macon Jr.’s bitterness seems to be the murder of his father, after which something “wild ran” inside him. His fanatical attachment to all material possessions, which developed after he saw his father die while defending his property, has alienated Macon Jr. from his own family and from humanity as a whole. But Morrison hints that Macon Dead I’s murder is only a piece of the puzzle concerning Macon Jr. After all, even after his father’s demise, while he was just starting out as a businessmen, Macon Jr. was still able to have heart-to-heart talks about his childhood with other men and with Ruth. Macon Jr.’s deadness, then, results also from the constant, numbing pursuit of material wealth and from a certain, unknown burden inherited from his own father, similar to the spiritual burden that Milkman has inherited from Macon Jr.
Whatever the cause of Macon Jr.’s spiritual ugliness, it is clear that Pilate is full of vitality and is somehow able to coax life even out of Macon Jr.’s stony heart. Just as in the first chapter, when we observe Macon Jr. cower under Pilate’s windows, we catch a rare glimpse of Macon Jr.’s nearly destroyed humanity when he reminisces about Pilate. In contrast to his usually dour appearance, Macon Jr. smiles and laughs when he recalls growing up with Pilate in beautiful Lincoln’s Heaven. Pilate has a similar effect on Milkman. Only after Milkman meets Pilate does he become curious about his family history and begin to ask Macon Jr. questions. Pilate’s influence thus results in the first open conversation Macon Jr. has with Milkman, and helps crack Macon Jr.’s alienating shell.
Perhaps the best clues regarding the trauma haunting the Dead family can be found by comparing Pilate’s and Macon Jr.’s memories of their childhood. While their recollections of Lincoln’s Heaven are nearly identical, Macon Jr. notably omits the meeting with Macon Dead I’s ghost. Both Pilate and Macon Jr. continue to be haunted by their father’s death, but in telling Milkman about the ghostly encounter, Pilate shows a willingness to admit that the trauma is ongoing. Macon Jr., on the other hand, is unable or unwilling to admit this fact. His deliberate refusal to reveal Macon Dead I’s original name to Milkman further suggests that he too is wrestling with the damage inflicted upon his father’s identity. What Macon Jr. does not tell Milkman, then, is as important a key to understanding his emotional turmoil as what he willingly reveals.
The relationship that develops between Milkman and Hagar proves important as a measure of Milkman’s maturity. Pilate’s assertion that Milkman is Hagar’s brother invites us to compare their relationship with that between the two lovers in the biblical Song of Solomon, from which Morrison takes the title for her novel. In the biblical story, the female is called both the male’s “sister” and “bride.” But the “sister” designation does not imply that the woman is the man’s actual sibling; rather, she is his equal in their love. Consequently, within the context of Morrison’s novel, Pilate’s statement that Milkman is Hagar’s brother may be a reminder to Milkman that he should treat Hagar with respect, as his equal. His mistreatment of her in subsequent chapters demonstrates that he is not yet mature enough to appreciate her love. He takes her love without giving, selfishly caring only for his own needs.