Tools of Characterization
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.
- Pilate, wears a knit cap, a quilt, and no underwear whatsoever.
- When we first meet her, Ruth Dead wears a finely wrought coat with a bow at the naval, women’s galoshes, and a black cloches hat. She once wore ornate lingerie that Macon Dead liked to unsnap and unhook.
- When they were little girls, Lena and Corinthians would roll down their stockings and take off their shoes during the family drives on Sunday afternoons.
- Milkman wears a three piece-suit, a gold watch, and fancy shoes, all of which get completely destroyed by the wilderness that he goes traipsing through.
- Corinthians Dead wears high heels to work, even though she promptly changes out of them, in order to differentiate herself from the other women who work as maids. It is only after taking off her clothing that we see her truly happy and unafraid of returning to the Dead house.
- Hagar buys a new wardrobe replete with a white-with-a-band-of-color skirt, a bolero, a Maiden-form brassiere, Fruit of the Loom panties, no color hose, a Playtex garter belt, and Joyce con brio shoes … only to have her new identity ruined by a rainstorm she does not know she is in.
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:
- Macon Dead is a wealthy businessman and landlord in Detroit’s Southside neighborhood. Feared and hated by those around him, he doesn’t have too many friends, and wants only to own things and to let those things own other things.
- Milkman Dead works for his father and is, at one point, positioned to inherit the family business. But he flips out when he realizes that he is on this path with no other future in sight.
- Dr. Foster, the first black doctor in the city, was never allowed to practice in the local, white hospital, but had many clients, both black and white. He, too, isolated himself from the world of Not Doctor Street, using his wealth to create a big, cold house that functions like a tomb.
- Freddie is the town crier, the man that delivers the news, the gossip mill, if you will. He works for Macon Dead as a messenger.
- Guitar Bains works, along with many of the barbershop congregants, at the local automobile plant, barely scraping by and living a bachelor’s existence in his one-room apartment. His father worked in a saw mill in the South.
- Railroad Tommy and Hospital Tommy own and run a barbershop, employing Empire State as their janitor.
- Henry Porter does yard work in the affluent part of town, which is where he meets Corinthians Dead, who secretly works as a maid for the state’s poet laureate.
- The state’s poet laureate, Michael-Mary Graham, writes poems for a living and gives speeches at local elementary schools.
- And let’s not forget Pilate Dead, who owns and operates her own bootlegging business, never allowing her customers to consume alcohol or loiter on her property, and thus keeping the authorities at bay.
- Sweet is a prostitute who lives in a one-room cottage in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Solomon owns a grocery store in Shalimar.
- Reverend Cooper works in the freight yard to supplement his meager reverend’s salary.
- And Grace Long is a schoolteacher at the "normal school."