If you were to ask us what Song of Solomon is about, we would tell you without even blinking that it is a book about names. Milkman’s journey to Solomon’s Leap is one of names. To try to document all the ways in which names steal the show in Song of Solomon would be like trying to put the ocean into a thimble: impossible.
But let’s begin with the naming ritual that baby girls undergo: a pin is stuck into a Bible, and whichever name falls closest to the pin is granted to the namee. Pilate is a perfect example of this. Her father stuck the pin into the Bible and landed on Pilate, as in Pontius Pilate, as in the man who oversaw the execution of Jesus. When people tell him he should choose another name, given the negative connotation and all, Macon, Sr. simply refuses. In his mind, the name chooses Pilate, so it stays. Pilate keeps her name locked in a snuffbox dangling from her ear, so we know that she likes her name or thinks it’s kind a of a big deal.
The men inherit their father’s names, unless they are assigned the wrong name by a drunken Yankee soldier as is the case of Macon Dead, Sr. Upon registering as a free man after the Civil War, a drunk Yankee soldier incorrectly enters his biographical details, granting him a new name in the eyes of the law and of American society. Through carelessness, the Yankee soldier erases the thread to the past and chops down the family tree. Macon’s wife convinces him to keep the name, because it does just that: erases the horrors of the past. As a result, however, Macon, Jr. and Pilate no longer have a connection or a means of tracking down their ancestors. They are kicked out of their family tree.
When Macon’s wife dies, he refuses to mention her name ever again, and so Macon Jr. and Pilate grow up not knowing her name, thus barring them from connecting to their mother’s family tree. As a result, Macon, Jr. and Pilate are loners, and it takes Milkman’s efforts and odyssey to find the real names of his grandparents and, thus, to find his people. But we already knew that names would be the string that leads to the ancestral knowledge, because the epigraph tells us so! The epigraph tells us that even though fathers may abandon their kiddiewinks, the kiddiewinks remember them, keep them alive by knowing and speaking their names.
But then what about America’s ugly history of slavery? Slaves, taken from Africa and brought to America on ships, were given new names upon arriving in America. Slaves were given the last names of the person who owned them. Malcolm X, the famous black Civil Rights leader, was not always known as Malcolm X. He was born Malcolm Little, but rejected his last name as it had ties to slavery. The X he felt also represented the absence of an African name which he would have inherited had his ancestors not been taken from Africa. But at the same time, the X also recalled the symbol that was tattooed on the forearm of slaves, and, thus, Malcolm X’s name still told a story of the past.
Places also get named in significant ways. For example, Not Doctor Street is originally named Mains Street by city officials. But then Dr. Foster, Ruth’s dad, becomes the first black doctor in the city and he lives on Mains Street, and so Mains Street becomes known by the community who dwells there as Doctor Street, to celebrate a huge and historical moment in the black community. But when city officials catch wind that mail is being sent to Doctor Street instead of Mains Street, and that said mail is successfully delivered to inhabitants of Doctor Street/Mains Street, they are appalled at the flagrant disrespect of law and societal organization. They post signs telling the world that Mains Street should forever be known as "Mains Street and Not Doctor Street," and so the community chooses the latter option, referring to the street by it’s new name: Not Doctor Street – a name that tells a story of the city’s attempted suppression of a historical moment, and the ultimate perpetuation of this moment, even when couched in a negative sentiment. Names are alive in Song of Solomon, and their meanings change depending on the storyteller.
Clothing heightens our awareness of class and affluence in Song, and clothing also helps us to understand what each character cares about. In a world where materialism threatens to isolate characters further, we take note of who wears what.
In a world terrorized by racism and in a society broken by injustice, the characters’ occupations tell a distinct story about the American landscape and economy in the 20th century. Here are some examples: