Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
I have to start with a caveat because I am an insecure white person. I share the typical educated white reader’s hesitation when it comes to approaching texts by minority authors (and it’s taken me five minutes to come up with this sentence; every word is a potential bomb. “Educated” in what context? “Minority” where? Who do you think you are?). As a passive beneficiary of white privilege, and acknowledging the truth of Avenue Q’s “Everybody’s A Little Bit Racist,” I just have to say right here at the beginning that not only am I not trying to be offensive, I am actively trying not to be offensive. Sigh. And probably trying too hard, thereby causing offense. But look, here’s the thing. Even if I am white, and even if my whiteness makes me unfit to comment, I really love Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. So can we just acknowledge the torrid backdrop of complicated American racial politics while allowing me to talk a bit about this book– this book in which that very complicated history is the impetus for so much action?
Song of Solomon is about the quest for identity. The main character, Macon “Milkman” Dead III is searching for his roots and trying to heal his soul and his family. So, this novel is about him finding out who he is. However, this novel also addresses the quest for racial identity– what does it mean to be a good or successful as a Black person? We see Morrison considering this issue through the characters of Macon Dead Jr. and Freddie, the Uncle Toms more or less, in juxtaposition to Guitar and, arguably, Pilate. Guitar is a member who seeks to avenge white-on-black violence, and Pilate, born without a navel, is entirely countercultural without intending to be political. There are many other characters as well, all significant, all masterfully presented with depth and empathy.
Morrison educates her readers about how racial status impacts individuals, families, and communities. Her novels, rather than trying to escape social disadvantages, place them front and center and say, “Look. Look how all of us are still recovering from slavery. Look what it’s done. Look how we triumph. Look how we fall.” So I look.
But her novels aren’t, this novel isn’t, only about race. They’re also about the odd folks, the outcasts, the broken and abused who can’t quite make it society. This is one way in which, though she has said she’s writing to a Black audience, her novels are so resonant with people of all races. Because even members of the hegemony can feel grotesque. Song of Solomon shows imperfect people coping as best they can in an imperfect world.
Morrison’s writing infuses the world– the dark, secret, sad, world– with magic. Beloved, The Bluest Eye, and Song of Solomon all feel to me like they belong with One Hundred Years of Solitude and other marvelous works of magical realism. In Song of Solomon, Morrison draws on the Gullah folktale (introduced to me first by Reading Rainbow) that some slaves could fly, thereby escaping slavery. She sets this folktale as the contextual backdrop and tells the story backwards, working her way towards that. Pilate, Reba, and Hagar also possess uncanny abilities or powers, adding to the supernatural feeling that permeates the novel. They reminded me strongly of the Fates, or the archetypical female triptych of the Crone, the Mother, and the Maid, but I don’t feel comfortable asserting that there is a definite match between these archetypes and these characters (who are so much more than either archetype or stereotype). I haven’t thought long enough about that yet. The ending of this novel in particular is perfectly magical and perfectly, tragically, real. It’s not the icing on the cake; it is the cake.
This book is a real masterpiece. It is more beautiful and powerful than I have voice to say. I know I’m expressing myself awkwardly, but it’s only because I was deeply moved by this book and want to pay it the respect it deserves. If books were food, some would be cotton candy and some would be broccoli. Song of Solomon is fiber. It’s good for you and you probably aren’t getting enough of it. Read this book. It will make you a better, maybe less comfortable, person.