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Milkman Dead


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Toni Morrison (b. 1931) American novelist

Song of Solomon

 

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Is the protagonist in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (1977). Named by the town gossip because his mother, Ruth, nursed him at her breast far longer than considered socially acceptable, Milkman's real name is Macon Dead III. The novel tells the story of his passage into manhood and the identity crisis that comes from being the son of Macon Dead II, the most “propertied” African American man in their Michigan town. Macon not only intimidates his tenants, who regard him as a slum landlord, but also his wife and children. He forbids Milkman to associate with his aunt, Pilate Dead, regarding her as the town pariah whose eccentric ways are a source of embarrassment to him and the middle-class identity he has struggled to secure for himself and his family. Milkman decides to give up his middle-class comforts to go south to look for the gold inheritance he has learned about from his father.

The second half of the novel traces Milkman's journey to the South, where he meets his father's people and learns the family history of Solomon, his paternal great-grandfather, who, according to the song he first heard Pilate sing when he was a child, flew back to Africa rather than remain in slavery. The novel also traces Milkman's journey into a new understanding of himself, the African American community, and his relationship to others. At the end of the novel he learns there is no gold, only a sack containing his grandfather's bones. He escorts Pilate to the South and helps her give her father a proper burial. As Pilate dies in his arms, he sings the song he learned from her, having learned that it was not only the song of his people, but also the song that had helped him reclaim a sense of self and his heritage.

Marilyn Sanders Mobley, Folk Roots and Mythic Wings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison, 1992.

— Marilyn Sanders Mobley

Subjects: Literature.


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