Time in Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon"
The history of Black America is one that has been stolen, lost and largely forgotten over the past two centuries. Through slavery and more recently the Apartheid-like era of Jim Crow laws, black history has been clouded over with oppression and hatred. Toni Morison's Song of Solomon is an attempt to explore the muddled path of history through the confused life of Milkman Dead. Morrison places Milkman in a world full of characters that are looking toward the future and leaves him to ponder his past. Soon, it is apparent that Milkman is flowing against the tide; his future lies not in front of him, but instead in the history of his people. In a world of characters seeking wealth and retribution, Milkman seeks personal fulfillment. His future, his search to understand his heritage is one that will always link him to his past. In Milkman's journey, he himself is the embodiment of the past, and the past lives silently in the present, while at the same time it is in a constant stage of change and decay.
Morrison places Milkman in a world that is obsessed with looking to the future. The future is what is at hand, and future is where dreams lie. His father, Macon Dead, is passionate about the future. Macon is constantly searching for more ways to squeeze money out of real estate. He has forgotten his past, his black heritage, and is striving for riches. His goal is to earn as much money as he can, and thus reach the epitome of whiteness - wealth and well-being.
Milkman's concentration on things past first conflicts with his fathers search for future wealth during their trip to Honoré. The only place that Milkman could sit was in the front seat between his parents, and "it was only by kneeling on the dove gray seat and looking out the back window that he could see anything other than the laps, feet, and hands of his parents" (32). While Macon is thinking to the future, about "buying and the renting"(32), Milkman is looking out the back window. When everyone around him is looking forward, he is gazing towards the past. He is fixed on the path that Macon has taken.
While Milkman's focus towards the past finds its primary conflict with Macon's focus towards the future, it obstructs his other relationships as well. At this early point in his life, Milkman is unaware of his preoccupations with his past, much less with what is behind him. During the trip to Honoré, Milkman finds himself needing to pee. When Magdalene takes him out, she approaches him from behind, startled, he turns and pees on her. Through Magdalene (and all the conflicts that rise behind Milkman) Morrison evokes the past that will haunt Milkman until he takes it upon himself to pursue it. This habit, "this concentration on things behind him"(35), is making him stand out among the characters. He is the sole embodiment of the past in this first branch of the story. Perhaps Morrison is foreshadowing the search for Solomon, or perhaps she has something different in mind.
Morrison states that Milkman's preoccupation with the past is "almost as though there were no future to be had"(35). However, Milkman does have a future. His future is the past. As he ages, his life will increasingly resemble the lives of his ancestors. But since he is not yet able to see the past, he cannot advance to the future. Milkman exists at this stage without relation to time. The divisions between the past, the present, and the future are fluid. As Morrison writes: "but if the future did not arrive, the present did extend itself"(35).
It is Guitar who first introduces Milkman to Pilate. Pilate, who has "as much to do with his future as she did with his past"(36), is the gateway to Milkman's future. She brings him Solomon's song and Macon's past. Though Pilate, Milkman discovers a past that has many parallels to his current life. With Pilate's help, Morrison is able to show us that Milkman's present life is actually family's past.
At Milkman's birth, his family begins a journey that oddly resembles one his ancestors had already taken. From his early childhood, Milkman begins, perhaps tragically, to follow in his father's footsteps. His visit to Pilate's house opens the archetypal door to him, yet his father attempts to close it tightly. Unexpectedly, Macon's effort to close the door to Milkman's past actually connects him closer to his father's childhood.
Milkman's discovery at Pilate's house will place him on the path taken by his ancestors, whether he likes it or not. Macon, learning of Milkman's disobedient visit, sets about to make sure Milkman is barred from his past. Ironically, his decision to keep Milkman away from Pilate will open up more doors than Pilate herself. In his speech to his son, Macon claims, "I worked right alongside my father, right alongside him"(51). So, in an effort to detach Milkman from Pilate, Macon tells the boy: "After school come to my office, work a couple of hours there and learn what's real... Starting Monday, I'm going to teach you how"(53). Unbeknownst to him, his efforts to distract Milkman from his past are in vain. By making his son work "right alongside him," Macon is letting his son relive his own history. He lives it silently, but he lives it nonetheless.
As Milkman continues to follow this parallel, he grows increasingly frustrated with his father. Although he dislikes his father and his job, he gradually emulates his father's personality more and more. His clearest parallel is his desire for wealth. Dreaming about Pilate's gold, Milkman fantasizes about luxury and wealth. Such objects obscure Macon's and his hopes for the future, and the gold was something Macon, too, dreamt about when he was younger. But despite those dreams, Milkman feels stuck in the life he is living. It is difficult for him to "visualize a life much different from the one he [has]"(179). Nonetheless, he cannot come to terms with his limited view of the future. He cannot stand living with his family. "He just wanted to beat a path away from his parents' past, which was also their present, and which was threatening to become his present as well"(180). His family's past is his present and future and no matter how much he dislikes it, he will continue to follow his family's path through history.
Milkman's journey to recover the gold takes him down to Pennsylvania - the birthplace of his father. Macon's home is a place rich with the past and Milkman becomes further enveloped in it. His quest takes him to the home of Circe, a surreal woman who is a hundred years older than she should be. In her many decades of history, she has "birthed just about everybody in the county"(243). Through Circe, Milkman draws an even more distinct parallel to his father. When he first meets Circe she asks him, "Remember the Weimaraners?"(240). The significance of this statement is only second to what she says to him next.
I knew one day you would come back. Well, that's not entirely true. Some days I doubted it and some days I didn't think about it at all. But you see, I was right. You did come (240).
She mistakes Milkman for Macon. Even with her two hundred years of experience, she believes Milkman is his father. She sees not only the physical resemblance, but also a spiritual one. Again, Milkman is the embodiment of the past. As he travels further backwards in his family's path, he becomes more and more a symbol of their past. A woman with a history beyond anyone else's memory sees him for what he really is, a concentrated dose of heritage.
After Circe's, Milkman moves farther forward into the past. His final destination is Shalimar. Coincidentally, it is the namesake of his great-grandfather. History lives in Shalimar in the form of myths, legends, and songs. The history lives silently in the present. Children sing the songs not knowing their significance, and men tell myths not knowing from where they come. When he delves deeper into these rumored myths, there appears a striking resemblance to his own life, especially in the story of Ryna. When Solomon flew away and left her, "she screamed and screamed, lost her mind completely"(318). Her story draws a very curious parallel to that of Hagar. When Milkman, like Solomon, flew free of Hagar, she lost her mind. She went insane with grief.
Milkman's discovery of Solomon and his ancestry in Shalimar send him flying back up to Michigan. These revelations have a profound impact on his persona. His newfound knowledge and appreciation of his ancestors have worked to free him of the material ties and monetary obligations that previously held him down. While before he was arrogant and self-possessed, he returned home and all he wanted was to "go to Pilate's first" (331). By becoming one with his past and fully recognizing it, Milkman frees himself of his worldly obligations. Through his recognition that Solomon "lifted his beautiful black ass up in the sky and flew on home"(328), Milkman surrenders himself to the past, which is his present, and frees himself to fly. On his final trip south, Milkman repeats the actions of his ancestors. Through his leap he is the final embodiment of Solomon.
Milkman's journey during the novel is one of drastic transformation. During his early life, Milkman embodies the conflict between the past and the future through the experiences of a child. Milkman plays no part in the life he is living, rather following silently in the steps of others. As he grows older, the conflict becomes more of an affliction and it forces him to seek out the past on his own. The past he finds, however, is not a clear one. It exists solely in memories and myths. These stories are all slightly different, and they are all slowly fading, leaving a changing and decaying history for Milkman to discover. In his discovery and throughout his life, Milkman, in effect becomes his history, embodying the stories that are told and the lessons that are learned. It is in his final trip to the south that he realizes just how close he is connected to the past. In the face of death he finally understands, "If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it"(337).
Article name: Time in Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" essay, research paper, dissertation