Milkman stood before his mirror and glanced, in the low light of the wall lamp, at his reflection. He was, as usual, unimpressed with what he saw. He had a fine enough face. Eyes women complimented him on, a firm jaw line, splendid teeth. Taken apart it looked all right. Even better than all right. But it lacked coherence, a coming together of the features into a total self. It was all very tentative, the way he looked, like a man peeping around a corner of someplace he is not supposed to be, trying to make up his mind whether to go forward or to turn back. The decision he made would be extremely important, but the way in which he made the decision would be careless, haphazard, and uninformed. (1.3.69-70)
Can we say Milkman is afraid of commitment? He’s forever staring at behinds. When he’s riding in the family hearse as a four year-old, he’s looking at the view behind him. When he meets Hagar, he falls in love with her behind. When he walks down a street, he’s going in the opposite direction of everyone else there. Here we see him sizing himself up, and the pieces don’t jive; they don’t fit. He doesn’t know what he cares for, believes in, or values. He doesn’t seem to know how to want things.
As the stars made themselves visible, Milkman tried to figure what was true and what part of what was true had anything to do with him. (1.3.75)
Again, we see Milky lost at sea on his little boat, trying to gage latitude and longitude by triangulating with the stars. But to no avail. No one can help him out. His family dotes on him, spoils him, and swims in a sea of isolating, truculent affluence. His best friend knows him well, but is growing more and more distant, cultivating his own identity and making a place in the world. Milkman has to figure things out on his own.
"This definitely is not Montgomery, Alabama. Tell me. What would you do if it was? If this turned out to be another Montgomery?" "Buy a plane ticket." "Exactly. Now you know something about yourself you didn’t know before: who you are and what you are." (1.4.104)
Milkman and Guitar talk about Till, the young man who was murdered for whistling at a white woman. As a result, Guitar begins to hold a mirror up to Milkman, showing him that he could never make it in the South. By showing Milkman what he cannot tolerate, Guitar begins to teach his best friend how to know himself, how to find himself. At this moment, we also begin to see a rip in their friendship, because Milkman seems so far away from the black community, whereas Guitar is completely wired in.
She had been husbanding her own misery, shaping it, making of it an art and a Way. Now she saw a larger, more malevolent world outside her own. (1.5.133)
Money, affluence, and deprivation make one fine cocktail of self-centeredness. The cruelty of having money and lacking love has kept Ruth so far away from her mansion on Not Doctor Street that she doesn’t know what else is possible in the world. At this moment, we see that she too lacks community, people, or a chorus of girlfriends, sisters, cousins, mothers, and aunts. Like everyone else in the Dead family, she is completely alienated from the outside world and, thus, completely selfish.
Then she tackled the problem of trying to decide how she wanted to live and what was valuable to her. When am I happy and when am I sad and what is the difference? What do I need to know to stay alive? What is true in the world? Her mind traveled crooked streets and aimless goat paths, arriving sometimes at profundity, other times at the revelations of a three-year-old. (1.5.149)
It’s hard to believe that there was ever a moment in Pilate’s life when she didn’t know who she was or what she believed in. In fact, this moment takes us by surprise. The woman is close to godliness and, without a belly button and all, it’s easy to imagine her as a divine creature. But here, we get to see Pilate crafting, choosing her identity deliberately and with a scholarly eye. She becomes more human in this sense, and we see how even the most grounded creature in the universe of Song builds her identity, chooses to believe in certain things over others.
"It’s not about living longer. It’s about how you live and why." (1.6.160)
Here we broach one of those simple, answerable questions: what is the meaning of life? Guitar believes that to give meaning to one’s life, one has to be deliberate in the living of it. One has to have purpose, goals, and beliefs to get behind. But still, we can’t help ask the same question on Milkman’s mind: can the murdering of random white people give a life meaning?
But Guitar believed it, gave it a crisp concreteness, and what’s more, made it into an act, an important, real, and daring thing to do. He felt a self inside himself emerge, a clean-lined definite self. A self that could join the chorus at Railroad Tommy’s with more than laughter. (1.8.184)
Milky has gone through life as though he were in a padded room, with nice padded walls and soft padded corners, much like the clouded kingdom where Carebears dwell. The privilege of his life has kept him from having to work too hard, to feel too much, to think too much. But here, it’s as though Milky is let loose upon a room with no padding, with real edges and angles and sharpness for the first time. He has a tangible goal, feels the danger of it, feels the possibility of it, and feels a real desire to want to reach, to want to work for it. Guitar is yet again an incredible professor of life, guiding Milkman towards self-awareness and self-actualization.
He was only his breath, coming slower now, and his thoughts. The rest of him had disappeared. So the thoughts came, unobstructed by other people, by things, even by the sight of himself. (2.11.277)
Rocked by the epic trek through the Blue Ridge Mountains, Milkman’s body is exhausted. Yet, through the exhaustion, steeped in nature, without the weight of things, objects that he owns, Milkman’s physical body floats away and all that is left is life-giving, blood-pumping self-reflection. This is a sublime moment, meaning Milkman’s physical self sublimes, vaporizes, leaving only his spiritual self behind. His body returns, however, when he is being killed.
"You’re turning over your whole life to him. Your whole life, girl. And if it means so little to you that you can just give it away, hand it to him, then why should it mean any more to him? He can’t value you more than you value yourself." (2.13.306)
Guitar is very much a feminist at this moment, again proving wise beyond his years. Here he’s addressing a woman who embodies the predicament of almost every woman in the Dead lineage for at least four generations, a predicament that originally forced the creation of the song that children still sing in Shalimar. Here Guitar tells Hagar (and the women before her and around her) that she must love herself, must cultivate her own self before being able to love anyone else.
She needed what most colored girls needed: a chorus of mamas, grandmamas, aunts, cousins, sisters, neighbors, Sunday school teachers, best girl friends, and what all to give her the strength life demanded of her—and the humor with which to live it. (2.13.307)
In order to grow into oneself, Guitar believes a person (namely a young woman) needs many people to help her, needs a community to scold her, teach her, praise her, and discipline her along the way. Here the concepts of individuality versus community knock heads once more. You can’t have one without the other it seems.
Her steady beam of love was unsettling, and she had never dropped those expressions of affection that had been so loveable in her childhood. (1.1.23)
Ruth’s love of her father is a little bizarre. We would not believe Macon’s suspicions of her incestuous relationship with her father were we not allowed into Dr. Foster’s thoughts. Here Dr. Foster seems aware of an unnaturalness in the nature of Ruth’s affection, an unnaturalness that seems to have been in place before she married Macon. Why would Toni Morrison include Dr. Foster’s trepidations about his daughter’s love? Her love, like the many other loves we see in Song is almost obsessive.
When the two had managed to get the basket into the room, the girl stretched her back and turned around, facing them. But Milkman had no need to see her face; he had already fallen in love with her behind. (1.2.43)
A love doomed from the start, it seems only right that Milkman falls in love with Hagar’s behind. It’s hard to say whether he cares anything about her face or about any other part of her. But what follows is a berry harvesting scene during which Milkman finds he’s happier than he’s ever been before. It seems like Milkman not only falls in love with Hagar’s behind, but with the world of Pilate’s house as well.
The lengths to which lost love drove men and women never surprised them. They had seen women pull their dresses over their heads and howl like dogs for lost love. And men who sat in doorways with pennies in their mouths for lost love. "Thank God," they whispered to themselves, "thank God I ain’t never had one of them graveyard loves." (1.5.128)
The Southside/Not Doctor Street community has seen again and again the effects of obsessive love. It’s at this moment that we realize that this kind of nervous love is not solely characteristic of the four generations of Dead women, but it is characteristic of many women. Love is maybe a means of survival, of forging an identity in the world. This whole identity thing seems easier said than done.
Her passions were narrow but deep. Long deprived of sex, long dependent on self-manipulation, she saw her son’s imminent death as the annihilation of the last occasion she had been made love to. (1.5.134)
Is anyone else just a little weirded out that the crux of Ruth’s concern for Milkman’s life is the fact that he represents to her the last time she got busy? This woman is deprived. And even though the word "love" appears in this passage, we just can’t detect love in anything that it refers to: was love really present when she and Macon conceived Milkman? And is real, true love the impetus for trying to prevent her son’s death? "Love" is used over and over, but do we ever catch a glimpse of real true love?
"There’s no love in it."
"No love? No love? Didn’t you hear me? What I’m doing ain’t about hating white people. It’s about loving us. About loving you. My whole life is love." (1.6.159)
Guitar can’t have friends. He can’t get married. He can’t drink. He can’t go out. He can’t talk to strangers. He has to live a cloistered life. He kills in the name of love, but doesn’t tell anyone about the lengths he is going to in the name of this love. Is this real, true, unselfish love?
"And black women, they want your whole self. Love, they call it, and understanding. ‘Why don’t you understand me?’ What they mean is, Don’t love anything on earth except me. They say, ‘Be responsible,’ but what they mean is, Don’t go anywhere where I ain’t. You try to climb Mount Everest, they’ll tie up your ropes. Tell them you want to go to the bottom of the sea—just for a look—they’ll hide your oxygen tank. […] You blow your lungs out on the horn and they want what breath you got left to hear about how you love them. They want your full attention. Take a risk and they say you not for real. That you don’t love them." (2.10.223)
Guitar slices open the overcrazy, graveyard love that we see so many women afflicted with in Song. Again the theme of possession, control, and ownership comes up. But do we ever see a woman in the universe of this novel pull these kind of ultimatums and power plays on her man? Do we ever see a woman try to control a man in this way?
"Some women love too hard. She watched over him like a pheasant hen. Nervous. Nervous love." (2.10.243)
So, despite the fact that this is a world in which men like to fly off and leave their women folk, Jake (Milkman’s grandfather) keeps returning and appearing before Pilate. And not only that, he keeps calling out for his wife, as though she were the one who left him. It’s surprising then when we hear Circe tell us that Sing was afflicted with the same kind of nervous love that runs rampant throughout the novel. Jake is the one bemoaning the loss of his wife.
Exactly the way he’d heard it would be, his life flashed before him, but it consisted of only one image: Hagar bending over him in perfect love, in the most intimate sexual gesture imaginable. (2.11.279)
We’ve looked through the Kama Sutra several times to see if we can find the sexual position that best fits this description. Despite the fact that we truly, truly want to believe that this is real true love that Milkman is finally feeling and recognizing, we can’t help but notice that Hagar’s going crazy at home for him and that there is still something subservient and imbalanced about this image of "perfect love." Is this the most perfect vision of love we have in Song?
"Love shouldn’t be like that. Did you ever see the way the clouds love a mountain? They circle all around it; sometimes you can’t even see the mountain for the clouds. But you know what? You go up top and what do you see? His head. The clouds never cover the head. His head pokes through, because the clouds let him; they don’t wrap him up. They let him keep his head up high, free, with nothing to hide him or bind him." (2.13.306)
Guitar could be Cupid. Seriously, the man can philosophize. He has a weepy, loony Hagar on his hands, and he tells her the most practical, sage thing he possibly could. He tells her that love is not about consuming, suffocating, owning the other person. The man is a voice of reason. And yet he’s also a murderer. Killing out of love. So much ambiguity in this novel!! We can’t pin anyone down.
"I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would a loved ‘em all. If I’d knowed more, I would a loved more." (2.15.336)
Why couldn’t Pilate love more people? Where did her love come from? She ends her life thinking about love, and we never see her going crazy over any kind of love. If Guitar kills her out of love, then we have some pretty conflicting kinds of love on our hands.
They wondered if one of those things that racial-uplift groups were always organizing was taking place. (1.1.7)
We’ve just entered the world of the book, and the tone, the point of view is very journalistic and neutral. The point of view shows no allegiance to any one particular character or group. But it’s only after we finish the novel that we realize that this moment is one of the few moments that we are allowed into the thoughts of white people. The nurses and doctors automatically assume that the only reason a group of black people would come together would be for reasons of "racial uplift" or of promoting civil rights. This early passage is a barometer, showing us the nature, the temperature of the social climate. It also helps to give a broad perspective of the Not Doctor Street society before we zoom in on the Deads.
The stout woman turned her head slowly, her eyebrows lifted at the carelessness of the address. Then, seeing where the voice came from, she lowered her brows and veiled her eyes. (1.1.11)
Here we watch racism play out. When disrespectfully addressed by a white woman, Guitar’s grandmother, who is a revered elder, must drop her eyes, not make eye contact in deference to the white nurse. Despite the fact that Guitar’s grandmother knows more of life (even setting aside the fact that she is so cool and has prevailed against so much hardship, there’s the simple fact that Guitar’s grandmother has lived longer), she must diminish herself. This scene stands in strong contrast to the way Macon Dead, her landlord, treats her not too long after. He shows no respect for her, only concerned about his money. We see right away the inequality running rampant in all aspects of society, making it nearly impossible to survive, to live peacefully as a black woman.
Mrs. Bains let her hand fall to her side. "A nigger in business is a terrible thing to see. A terrible, terrible thing to see." (1.1.22)
Mrs. Bains, Guitar’s grandmother, comments on Macon Dead and we have the beginnings of a discussion of the way materialism and capitalism affect (or infect) the concept of community. Macon’s businessman-ways have diminished his humanity, his ability to sympathize with an elderly woman trying to raise two grandsons on her own.
That his intentions were honorable and that he himself was certainly worthy of the doctor’s consideration as a gentleman friend for Miss Foster since, at twenty-five, he was already a colored man of property. (1.1.23)
Dr. Foster’s renown in the black community isolates both him and his daughter from the community itself. The fact that he becomes the first black doctor in the city is a huge point of pride and celebration for the community, but Dr. Foster is not interested in maintaining a connection to this community. As such, Dr. Foster and Ruth Foster become a kind of malnourished, isolated aristocracy, completely disconnected from the world of Not Doctor Street. It is interesting, then, that Macon Dead, a man who began his life on Lincoln’s Heaven in a world so very different from Not Doctor Street, wants to join this afflicted aristocracy. It is also interesting that the novel never lets us see how Macon Dead is able to amass his wealth by the age of 25. In any case, "success" (as defined by the materialistic white society that dominates) seems to entail isolation for a black person in America at this time.
"Who’s going to live in them? There’s no colored people who can afford to have two houses," Lena said. (1.2.33)
Here again we see how racism systematically affects American society, such that poverty runs rampant among the black community.
But they put the picture of the man who won second prize in. He won a war bond. He was white. (1.2.46)
Sears is a name we still recognize today. Because of the color of her skin, Reba is denied the celebration honestly earned by being the 500,000th person to walk through the Sears doors. Here we see how racism can result in the bending of rules, how there is no such thing as fair or just.
"He delivered both your sisters himself and each time all he was interested in was the color of their skin." (1.3.71)
According to Macon, the patriarch of the Dead family, Dr. Foster, establishes an obsession with color of skin, and a reverence for lighter skin color. This obsession trickles down the family tree, haunting and infecting his grandchildren, isolating them even further.
Aside from Empire State’s giggle, which was wholehearted, it had seemed to Milkman then that the laughter was wan and nervous. Each man in that room knew he was subject to being picked up as he walked the street and whatever his proof of who he was and where he was at the time of the murder, he’d have a very uncomfortable time being questioned. (1.4.101)
In the barbershop, we see the reality of the politics and racist society play out. Guitar tells Milkman much later on that there are no courts; there is no justice for a black person in America. The barbershop is as close to a court as the black community has in the world of Song. Despite the fact that the barbershop congregants have nothing to do with this recent murder (with the exception of Empire State), each of them are suspects simply because of the color of his skin. Skin color is enough to incriminate a person in America.
He was bored. Everybody bored him. The city was boring. The racial problems that consumed Guitar were the most boring of all. He wondered what they would do if they didn’t have the black and white problems to talk about. Who would they be if they couldn’t describe the insults, violence, and oppression that their lives (and the television news) were made up of? (1.4.107-108)
Milkman can’t relate to Guitar or to the barbershop congregants. He doesn’t deny that "insults, violence, and oppression" are part of their lives, but he doesn’t understand why they aren’t interested in talking about other things. To the congregants, these issues are integral to how and why they live their lives. To Milkman, these issues are peripheral, as though the congregants have a selection of issues to choose from and always end up choosing a discussion of "racial problems." We see how far away Milkman is from these issues.
"No, you can’t be no egg, nigger. Now, you can be a crow if you wanna. Or a big baboon. But not an egg. Eggs is difficult, complicated. Fragile too. And white."
"They got brown eggs."
"Miscegenation. Besides, don’t nobody want ‘em."
"French people do."
"In France, yeah. But not in the Congo. Frenchman in the Congo won’t touch a brown egg. "
"Scared of ‘em. Might do something to his skin. Like the sun." (1.5.116)
A discussion that starts out about a soft-boiled egg turns into a discussion of how race and skin color play out in France and in colonial France. Here we are given an analysis of another country, as though to provide a frame of reference for the broken, racist American society. France features again in Song, because we know that Empire State meets and marries a white French woman who eventually cheats on him, and we know that Corinthians spends a year in France and is sought after by many a French man. We see here Guitar’s belief that skin color determines what you can or cannot be in life; that skin color can either limit or broaden your freedoms. By mentioning the Congo, Guitar points to the fact that (despite the seeming acceptance of black people in France), this acceptance disappears in colonized Africa.
"No. White people are unnatural. As a race they are unnatural." (1.6.156)
Guitar has found no other explanation for white people’s ability to commit such hate crimes, such abominable acts of intolerance. It’s interesting that he doesn’t talk anymore about money and how money plays into white supremacy. While Milkman tries to argue that good, natural white people exist, Guitar is skeptical and prefers to generalize that the white race is unnatural, with every white person capable of committing hateful crimes.
"What I’m saying is, under certain conditions they would all do it. And under the same circumstances we would not. So it doesn’t matter that some of them haven’t done it. I listen. I read. And now I know that they know it too. They know they are unnatural. Their writers and artists have been saying it for years. Telling them they are unnatural, telling them they are depraved. They call it tragedy. In the movies they call it adventure. It’s just depravity that they try to make glorious, natural. But it ain’t. The disease they have is in their blood, in the structure of their chromosomes." (1.6.157)
Guitar points to culture (books, movies, art, poems, performance) as the way of measuring the nature of a society. He feels that white America knows that it is unnatural, and this can be proven by looking at the cultural pieces produced by a society. Our antennae immediately perk up here, because, as readers, we know we are reading a product of American culture and American society. Where and how does Song fit into Guitar’s theory?
His grandmother would have been "too dark to pass." She had actually blushed. As though she’d discovered something shameful about him. (2.12.292)
When Milkman meets Susan Byrd and Grace Long, we have the first discussion of "passing," calling to attention the fact that, to escape the injustice, violence, and intolerance rampant in America, people would deny their heritage to live a more free life. Here we see the connection between skin color and shame in America.
In 1936 there were very few among them who lived as well as Macon Dead. (1.2.32)
Again, we realize how few affluent black Americans there were in America at this time. American society’s structure and systems prevent black Americans from escaping poverty.
"Ain’t but two toilets downtown they let colored in: Mayflower Restaurant and Sears." (1.2.46)
While we readers predominantly dwell in the black community of Not Doctor Street, we hear stories of segregation, the separating of Americans of color and white Americans based solely on skin color.
"Don’t nobody want no cheap home brew. The Depression’s over," Hagar said. "Everybody got to work now. They can afford to buy Four Roses." (1.2.48)
We get a glimpse of American society here, seeing that while the country has risen out of great economic depression, there are still large pockets of American society that live in abject poverty.
"Your father was a slave?"
"What kind of foolish question is that? Course he was. Who hadn’t been in 1869? They all had to register. Free and not free. Free and used-to-be-slaves. Papa was in his teens and went to sign up, but the man behind the desk was drunk. He asked Papa where he was born. Papa said Macon. Then he asked him who owned him. Papa said, ‘I’m free.’ Well, the Yankee wrote it all down, but in the wrong spaces." (1.2.53)
While in American folklore and mythology, the Yankees are often portrayed as "good" (and the Confederates as "enemy"), this story complicates the mythology. In a process that is hugely meaningful and significant and connected with the rendering of inalienable rights to those who used to be slaves, we see a Yankee soldier is dismissive of the process (through his drunkenness). We also wonder why black Americans who were not "used-to-be-slaves" had to register. What was the purpose of this registration? Such dismissive, disrespectful behavior, results in the misnaming of a human. The flippancy of the Yankee soldier shows us a side of American history that is not told.
"And you not going to have no ship under your command to sail on, no train to run, and you can join the 332nd if you want to and shoot down a thousand German planes all by yourself and land in Hitler’s backyard and whip him with your own hands, but you never going to have four stars on your shirt front, or even three." (1.3.60)
America’s hypocrisy is vividly parsed out by Railroad Tommy. Black Americans serve in battle to protect their country. When they return, no acts of bravery are recognized or honored by this country for which they risked their lives. Guitar tells us later on of war veterans who were not only ignored by American society upon returning from war, but were blinded and lynched by fellow citizens.
A young Negro boy had been found stomped to death in Sunflower County, Mississippi. There were no questions about who stomped him – his murderers has boasted freely – and there were no questions about the motive. The boy had whistled at some white woman, refused to deny he had slept with others, and was a Northerner visiting the South. His name was Till. (1.3.80)
Though nearly a century after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, black Americans do not have the same rights as white Americans. White people can murder a young black man in the South without being punished.
"South’s bad," Porter said. "Bad. Don’t nothing change in the good old U.S. of A. Bet his daddy got his balls busted off in the Pacific somewhere."
"If they ain’t busted already, them crackers will see to it. Remember them soldiers in 1918?" […] The men began to trade tales of atrocities, first stories they had heard, then those they’d witnessed, and finally the things that had happened to themselves. A litany of personal humiliation, outrage, and anger turned sicklelike back to themselves as humor. They laughed then, uproariously, about the speed with which they had run, the pose they had assumed, the ruse they had invented to escape or decrease some threat to their manliness, their humanness. (1.3.83)
Here we see the barbershop congregants tell personal stories of injustice and intolerance. These hateful acts are no longer framed by the radio, the news, or the television, but are brought home and made immediate to us, the reader. Does anything change in the good old U.S. of A.?
"Where’s the money, the state, the country to finance our justice? You say Jews try their catches in a court. Do we have a court? Is there one courthouse in one city in the country where a jury would convict them? There are places right now where a Negro still can’t testify against a whole man. Where the judge, the jury, the court, are legally bound to ignore anything a Negro has to say. What that means is that a black man is a victim of a crime only when a white man says he is. Only then. If there was anything like or near justice or courts when a cracker kills a Negro, there wouldn’t have to be no Seven Days. But there ain’t; so we are. And we do it without money, without support, without lobbyists, and without illusions!" (1.6.160)
Without courts to render justice, are the Seven Days justified?
The reverend turned around and showed Milkman the knot the size of a walnut that grew behind his ear. "Some of us went to Philly to try and march in an Armistice Day parade. This was after the First World War. We were invited and had a permit, but the people, the white people, didn’t like us being there. They started a fracas. You know, throwing rocks and calling us names. They didn’t care nothing ‘bout the uniform. Anyway, some police on horseback came – to quiet them down, we thought. They ran us down. Right under their horses. This here’s what a hoof can do. Ain’t that something?" (2.10.233)
Milkman, the city boy, seems shocked that no one prosecuted the men who shot his grandfather. As a way of demonstrating how things work in Pennsylvania, Reverend Cooper tells this story of getting trampled by horses when attempting to march in an Armistice Day parade. Philadelphia is where the Constitution of America was penned, and the word "armistice" means "truce." Reverend Cooper’s wound is evidence of both the irony of this experience and of the hypocrisy of American society.
"Oh, that’s just some old folks’ lie they tell around here. Some of those Africans they brought over here as slaves could fly. A lot of them flew back to Africa." (2.14.322)
Besides resonating with all of the flying that goes on in Song, we hear for the first time the widely perpetuated mythology of slaves who flew back to Africa. This mythology was not just specific to Shalimar, Virginia, but was cultivated among all of the regions that facilitated the Atlantic slave trade.
That propertied Negro who handled his business so well and who lived in the big house on Not Doctor Street had a sister who had a daughter but no husband, and that daughter had a daughter but no husband. (1.1.20)
We are exposed to the gossip mill, the way narratives are drawn around a family. The Dead’s house, though disconnected from the rest of Not Doctor Street due to the affluence it represents, is linked to Pilate’s house nonetheless. Oooh, Macon Dead must love that.
To lift the lion’s paw knocker, to entertain thoughts of marrying the doctor’s daughter was possible because each key represented a house which he owned at the time. Without those keys he would have floated away at the doctor’s first word: "Yes?" (1.1.22)
To the Dead family, a home is not a place where you live and dwell. A home to them is a symbol of what you own, a status indicator.
She opened the door and they followed her into a large sunny room that looked both barren and cluttered. A moss-green sack hung from the ceiling. Candles were stuck in bottles everywhere; newspaper articles and magazine pictures were nailed to the walls. But other than a rocking chair, two straight-backed chairs, a large table, a sink and a stove, there was no furniture. Pervading everything was the odor of pine and fermenting fruit. (1.2.39)
Pilate’s house is so cool. She doesn’t have much, but it’s a lot more welcoming than the Dead’s house, that’s for sure. We wonder what kind of newspaper articles and magazine pictures are on the walls, since we never get to see them. This place really does feel like a house out of a fairy tale. Pilate doesn’t clutter her home with anything she doesn’t need.
She had dumped the peelings in a large crock, which like most everything in the house had been made for some other purpose. Now she stood before the dry sink, pumping water into a blue-and-white wash basin which she used for a saucepan. (1.2.39)
Pilate knows how to use things, and not just to use them as they were intended to be used, but she can make an object multitask. Instead of buying more things to clutter her house, she is very Zen and minimalist.
"…because the fact is that I am a small woman. I don’t mean little; I mean small, and I’m small because I was pressed small. I lived in a great big house that pressed me into a small package." (1.5.124)
Ruth’s spirit was crushed by the walls that held her in, by the affluence that surrounded her. She was never exposed to the outside world. Is this her fault? Can we blame her for her smallness? We sure wish we could have known what Ruth was like as a little girl, if she was ever presented with the opportunity to leave the sheltered-ness of her dad’s house.
Maybe it’s you I should be killing. Maybe then he will come to me and let me come to him. He is my home in this world. And then, aloud, "He is my home in this world."
"And I am his," said Ruth. (1.5.137)
Hagar and Pilate seem to think it’s possible for a human being to be your home. A home is a place where you sleep and eat and hang up pictures on the wall. A home is also sometimes a place where you watch Grey’s Anatomy on Thursday night in your slippers while eating Doritos. How can Milkman be that place? Ruth and Hagar seem to interpret a home as a place of refuge. Milkman, a place of refuge? Really?
Sixteen years later he had one of the best farms in Montour County. A farm that colored their lives like a paintbrush and spoke to them like a sermon. "You see?" the farm said to them. "See? See what you can do? Never mind you can’t tell one letter from another, never mind you born a slave, never mind you lose your name, never mind your daddy dead, never mind nothing. Here, this here, is what a man can do if he puts his mind to it and his back into it. Stop sniveling," it said. "Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this country right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in this rock, don’t you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home you got one too! Grab it! Grab this land! (2.10.235)
Lincoln’s Heaven is like the coolest version of a home that we see in Song, and it is cool because it grows things, it is the product of sixteen years of hard work, it is creative, it is constantly producing deliciousness, and it has a fish pond. There is no place else like it in the world of this novel. It is a paradise. It is named after the American president who ended slavery, and seems to embody the ideals that that president believed in. Racism kills this version of a home, and, therefore, kills that president’s ideals. As depressing as that sounds, Lincoln’s Heaven is a source of inspiration for many people in Danville and beyond.
Without knowing who killed their father, they instinctively hated the murderer’s house. And it did look like a murderer’s house. Dark, ruined, evil. Never, not since he knelt by his window still wishing he could fly, had he felt so lonely. (2.10.238)
Man, big mansions in this novel are always so evil and diseased, and their inhabitants are kind of unhappy. We’d take a Lincoln’s Heaven dwelling over this cold bastion of wealth any day of the week.
"They loved this place. Loved it. Brought pink veined marble from across the sea for it and hired men in Italy to do the chandelier that I had to climb a ladder and clean with white muslin every two months. They loved it. Stole for it, lied for it, killed for it. But I’m the one left. Me and the dogs. And I will never clean it again. […] Everything in this world they lived for will crumble and rot." (2.10.247)
The Butlers represent the greed, materialism, and racism that afflicted many white Americans. But this greed, materialism, and racism do not get them very far. Their goal and desire is to amass wealth and to live well, but by focusing so heavily on "things," they forget that these "things" are impermanent and subject to decay, just like them. These "things" don’t last like the mythology of Solomon and Ryna do, for example.
The Byrd house sat on a neat lawn separated by a white picket fence from the field grass on either side of the property. A child’s swing dangled from a cedar tree; four little steps painted blue led up to the porch, and from the window, between fluttering curtains, came the smell of gingerbread baking. (2.12.287)
In the heart of the Blue Ridge wilderness is this strange piece of organized, ordered, and manicured land. It’s like that old lady’s house in "The Snow Queen" (a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson) where summer lives perpetually. The creepy old lady tries to keep the little girl with her forever. Or like in Hansel and Gretel when they come across the witch’s candy house of deliciousness, only to find that the witch wants to eat them. Creepiness seems to follow order and sweetness in this novel. Remember how Guitar can’t eat candy without throwing up? When Milkman returns to Susan Byrd’s house, it’s not as peaceful-looking. In fact, it looks plain "seedy." Homes are deceptive creatures in the world of Song.
Scattered here and there, his houses stretched up beyond him like squat ghosts with hooded eyes. He didn’t like to look at them in this light. During the day they were reassuring to see; now they did not seem to belong to him at all – in fact he felt as though the houses were in league with one another to make him feel like the outsider, the propertyless, landless wanderer. (1.1.27)
Though Macon lives in a world of order and defies his little sister who, to him, represents unnaturalness and evil, this is one of the only moments when we see a grown-up Macon aware of, or freaked out by, a supernatural presence, by a power greater than he.
As a result, for all the years he knew her, her stomach was as smooth and sturdy as her back, at no place interrupted by a navel. It was the absence of a navel that convinced people that she had not come into this world through normal channels, but had never lain, floated, or grown in some warm and liquid place connected by a tissue-thin tube to a reliable source of human nourishment. (1.1.27-28)
Indeed, who knew that not having a naval would make life so tough and lonely for a girl? Pilate’s lack of a naval precludes her from belonging to any group or community, even the black community. She is constantly on the periphery, and, therefore, understands outcasts and human suffering better than anyone else in the book. Though we get to hear her whole story, how she came to be who she is, Pilate remains a kind of mythical, magical healer. Plus, she puts that little Voodoo doll on Macon’s chair that scares the living daylights out of him. Hehe.
"Well, before we could get the sand rubbed out of our eyes and take a good look around, we saw him sitting there on a stump. Right in the sunlight. We started to call him but he looked on off, like he was lookin at us and not lookin at us at the same time. Something in his face scared us. It was like looking at a face under water." (1.2.43)
Song doesn’t even pretend to make its ghosts seem ambiguous. The ghosts are for real in the world of this novel, and both Macon and Pilate tell stories of seeing their father’s ghost.
[…] and more important, he would have learned not to fool with anything that belonged to Pilate, who never bothered anybody, was helpful to everybody, but who also was believed to have the power to step out of her skin, set a bush afire from fifty yards, and turn a man into a ripe rutabaga, all on account of that fact that she had no navel. (1.4.94)
"Remember, with great power comes great responsibility." Thank you, Uncle Ben, for this excellent Spider Man advice. Pilate seems to embody these sage words. She inspires fear in everyone around her, but she never let’s this fear supersize her ego. She is generous to everyone.
"How’d she die?"
"You don’t believe in ghosts?"
"Well"—Milkman smiled—"I’m willing to, I guess." "You better believe, boy. They’re here." (1.4.109)
Milkman, Milkman, Milkman. You need to start believing in something, and why not start with ghosts? If the crazy town crier who gave you your nickname believes in ghosts, then, probably you should listen to him. Here we see the way that ghosts haunt not only the Dead family, but the greater community as well. They exist.
She moved around the house, onto the porch, down the streets, to the fruit stalls and the butchershop, like a restless ghost, finding peace nowhere and in nothing. (1.5.127)
Hagar is driven crazy without Milkman’s love. She is almost inhuman without it, skirting life and death. She has ceased to be her own person and has ceased to be human in many ways. And yet she is driven crazy by one of the most human emotions out there: grief.
But most important, she paid close attention to her mentor – the father who appeared before her sometimes and told her things. (1.5.150)
Pilate’s the most grounded and sensible person in the world of Song and the lady converses on a daily basis with her dad’s ghost. Hmm.
As soon as they both regained balance, there was a huge airy sigh that each one believed was made by the other. […] There was a deep sigh again and an even more piercing chill. […] The moonlight was playing tricks on him, for he thought he saw the figure of a man standing right behind his friend. (1.8.187)
Now we know for sure that ghosts exist in Song. Even though Milkman and Guitar are completely oblivious to the sighs and the ghostly figure of a man standing next to them, we the readers know that these sounds and visions are indeed Pilate’s dad. And now, it’s not only Pilate and Macon who have experienced ghost encounters, but Milkman and Guitar have too (even if they don’t realize it), making the witnesses of ghosts a grand total of five (Pilate, Macon, Guitar, Milkman, Freddie, and maybe even Ruth. The lady talks to her dad’s grave almost every night). The reason we’re so obsessed with who’s seen a ghost is that, if ghosts exist, then anything is possible. Including flying.
Perhaps this woman is Circe. But Circe is dead. This woman is alive. That was as far as he got, because although the woman was talking to him, she might in any case still be dead – as a matter of fact, she had to be dead. Not because of the wrinkles, and the face so old it could not be alive, but because out of the toothless mouth came the strong, mellifluent voice of a twenty-year old girl. (2.10.240)
For some reason, we’re not totally obsessed with finding out whether Circe is a dream, a mirage, a figment of the imagination, or a ghost. Circe is Circe, and it seems to make perfect sense that she is still around and kicking, living with a pack of inbred, nicely groomed dogs. It’s just another day in the life of Milkman Dead. We’re becoming accustomed to the Dead world, where we have to suspend our sense of reality or throw it out the window because, what is reality anyway and who decides?
Jesus! Here he was walking around in the middle of the twentieth century trying to explain what a ghost had done. But why not? he thought. One fact was certain: Pilate did not have a navel. Since that was true, anything could be, and why not ghosts as well? (2.12.294)
You took the words right out of our mouth, Milkman! You’re not the only one trying to explain what a ghost has done. In this moment we realize that Pilate’s belly button is the one fact we are absolutely certain of in this novel that proves that supernatural things are definitely possible. Her lack of a belly button functions kind of like 3D glasses function when watching a 3D movie. Pilate’s navellessness makes us throw all rules and laws out the window, and allows us to see beyond the boring 2D world that we know so well. And boy, is it exciting.
And the one person who dared to but didn’t care to was the one person in the world he hated more than his wife in spite of the fact that she was his sister. (1.1.17)
Macon sure hates the women folk in his life. Pilate is the only person in Song who is not afraid of Macon Dead.
Then Pilate spoke. "Reba. She don’t mean food." (1.2.49)
Though living a more liberated, more relaxed lifestyle than Ruth Dead, Hagar is equally starved for physical affection when we meet her at the age of seventeen.
Beauty shops always had curtains or shades up. Barbershops didn’t. The women didn’t want anybody on the street to be able to see them getting their hair done. They were ashamed. (1.3.62)
Beauty Shops are places where women go to maintain their beauty. The fact that the shades are always drawn in beauty shops suggests a level of shame, as though women are ashamed of being anything but pretty and perfectly put together. If there were no men on the earth, would beauty shops still draw the shades? Are the women hiding their beauty rituals from each other or from men? We only hear men talk about the overcrazy, graveyard loves that women are often afflicted with. We never really hear women talk about this kind of love. Beauty is closely linked to love in the world of Song.
Milkman looked at his sisters. He had never been able to really distinguish them (or their roles) from his mother. They were in their early teens when he was born; they were thirty-five and thirty-six now. But since Ruther was only sixteen years older than Lena, all three had always looked the same age to him. Now when he met his sisters’ eyes over the table, they returned him a look of hatred so fresh, so new, it startled him. Their pale eyes no longer appeared to blur into their even paler skin. It seemed to him as though charcoal lines had been drawn around their eyes; that two drag lines had been smudged down their cheeks, and their rosy lips were swollen in hatred so full it was about to burst through. Milkman had to blink twice before their faces returned to the vaguely alarmed blandness he was accustomed to. (1.3.68)
The women folk in Milkman’s life appear to him indistinguishable. It’s interesting that he doesn’t discuss their personalities, that he’s not interested in what lies beneath their anger-swollen beauty that magically morphs back to blandness with the blink of an eye.
The women in the wine house were indifferent to nothing and understood nothing. Every sentence, every word, was new to them and they listened to what he said like bright-eyed ravens, trembling in their eagerness to catch and interpret every sound in the universe. (1.3.79)
Curiosity defines Pilate’s house, and it seems to not exist in the Dead’s house.
Hagar lowered her eyelids and gazed hungrily down the figure of the woman who had been only a silhouette to her. The woman who slept in the same house with him, and who could call him home and he would come, who knew the mystery of his flesh, had memory of him as long as his life. […] Jealously loomed so large in her it made her tremble. (1.5.137)
We never see the "chorus" of grandmothers, mothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and girlfriends that Guitar reflects upon in the world of Song. The relationship between women is not as fleshed out or explored. And, here, we get a glimpse of two women relating to each other, and the moment is tinged with jealousy.
They were so different, these two women. One black, the other lemony. One corseted, the other buck naked under her dress. One well read but ill traveled. The other had read only a geography book. But had been from one end of the country to another. One wholly dependent on money for life, the other indifferent to it. But those were the meaningless things. Their similarities were profound. Both were vitally interested in Macon Dead’s son, and both had close and supportive post-humous communication with their fathers. (1.5.139)
Ruth and Pilate could not be more different, but both exist on the periphery of the worlds to which they belong.
"You don’t know a single thing about either one of us – we made roses; that’s all you knew – but now you know what’s best for the very woman who wiped the dribble from your chin because you were too young to know how to spit. Our girlhood was spent like a found nickel on you. […] And to this day, you have never asked one of us if we were tired, or sad, or wanted a cup of coffee. […] Where do you get the right to decide our lives?" (1.9.215)
Milkman really has never been curious about what kind of people his sisters are. He understands them only through their actions and their appearance.
He hadn’t thought much of it when she’d told him, but now it seemed to him that such sexual deprivation would affect her, hurt her in precisely the way it would affect and hurt him, hurt her in precisely the way it would affect and hurt him. If it were possible for somebody to force him to live that way, to tell him, ‘You may walk and live among women, you may even lust after them, but you will not make love for the next twenty years," how would he feel? […] His mother had been able to live through that by a long nursing of her son, some occasional visits to a graveyard. What might she have been like had her husband loved her? (2.12.300)
Having sex or being able to express oneself sexually seems to be integral to being and feeling alive in the world of Song. The women who are deprived of sex or physical affection in Song walk the line between life and death. Interestingly, the only people deprived of sex in this novel are women. Macon may have stopped sleeping with his wife, but he has other options around Southside.
"You don’t hear about women like that anymore, but there used to be more – the kind of woman who couldn’t live without a particular man. And Love, I guess. But I always thought it was trying to take care of children by themselves, you know what I mean?" (2.14.323)
Susan Byrd needs to read a little book called Song of Solomon, because that kind of woman and that kind of love certainly does still exist. This is an interesting moment, because Susan Byrd brings a new spin on the whole nervous love thing. She indicates a survival mentality is part of this kind of love. Ryna may have love Solomon deeply, but the fact of the matter is, he left her with 21 mouths to feed.
"So when we left Circe’s big house we didn’t have no place to go, so we just walked around and lived in them woods. Farm country. […] We were lost then. And talking about dark! You think dark is just one color, and but it ain’t. There’re five or six kinds of black. Some silky, some woolly. Some just empty. Some like fingers. And it don’t stay still. It moves and changes from one kind of black to another." (1.2.40)
Nature is ever-shifting in this novel, and where it can seem harmless and even comforting at first to Pilate and Macon, it can, in an instant, become menacing. Pilate’s really good at detecting different kinds and different shades of colors in the world around her, each shade recalling a memory or an emotion.
"But it looked big to me then. I know now it must a been a little bit place, maybe a hundred and fifty acres. We tilled fifty. About eighty of it was woods. Must have been a fortune in oak and pine; maybe that’s what they wanted – the lumber, the oak and the pine. We had a pond that was four acres. And a stream, full of fish. Right down in the heart of a valley." (1.2.51)
Lincoln’s Heaven is the paradise that sits in Song’s heart. Like a sculpture, the farm is a work of creative genius and years of toil. Through it, Jake, Macon, and Pilate are completely in harmony with nature. The farm serves as inspiration for the Danville locals. The shooting of Jake for this land reveals the unnaturalness of his killers and an upheaval of the balance and harmony.
"But when I got up to it – and I was going real slow because I thought I might have to shoot it again – I saw it was a doe. Not a young one; she was old, but she was still a doe. I felt…bad. You know what I mean? I killed a doe. A doe, man." (1.3.85)
Guitar makes himself very vulnerable at this moment, telling Milkman about an emotional moment in his young life in order to help his friend cope with the abuse he saw his father inflict on his mother. Guitar, who was born in the South, has always had a connection to the earth through his hunting escapades. It is on these escapades that he learns how to track prey and kill, but it is also through these experiences that he develops a reverence and understanding for nature. Milkman does not have this understanding, which is why he thinks he can go hiking in a three-piece suit.
She toyed, sometimes, with her unsucked breasts, but at some point her lethargy dissipated of its own accord and in its place was wilderness, the focused meanness of a flood or an avalanche of snow which only observers, flying in a rescue helicopter, believed to be an indifferent natural phenomenon, but which the victims, in their last gulp of breath, knew was both directed and personal. (1.5.128)
Here, we’re not talking about the real wilderness, but the wilderness that exists within us. A connection is drawn between the internal self and the natural world, suggest that the run parallel to each other or that they mirror each other. Just as nature is capable of being cruel and disastrous, so is the self.
Now the land itself, the only one they knew and knew intimately, began to terrify them. The sun was blazing down, the air was sweet, but every lead that the wind lifted, every rustle of a pheasant hen in a clump of ryegrass, sent needles of fear through their veins. The cardinals, the gray squirrels, the garden snakes the butterflies, the ground hogs and rabbits – all the affectionate things that had peopled their lives ever since they were born became ominous signs of a presence that was searching for them, following them, following them. (1.7.168)
Again, we see an example of how quickly nature, and the land which Macon and Pilate know so well, can turn on them, can become something entirely different. If the natural world is also reflected in the internal self, then we learn from these descriptions and stories that humans are also capable of transforming at the drop of a hat. Like when Milkman and Guitar are having one of their usual debates about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Guitar is able to change the tone of the conversation from playful to deadly without blinking. If you can’t trust nature, pure and good and untainted nature, then who and what can you trust?
Breathless, he reached for his cigarettes and found them soaked. He lay back on the grass and let the high sunshine warm him. He opened his mouth so the clear air could bathe his tongue. (2.10.249)
Baptism time! Nature is telling Milkman to quit smoking, and, as a way of convincing him, it bathes his tongue. How nice. He’s muddy, he’s soaked, he’s tired, he’s hungry, but Milkman feels clean and pure. Nature’s better than Safeguard soap.
After a while he sat up and put on the wet socks and shoes. He looked at his watch to check the time. It ticked, but the face was splintered and the minute hand was bent. Better move, he thought and struck out for the hills, which, deceptive as the sound of the creak, were much farther away than they seemed. He had no idea that simply walking through trees, bushes, on untrammeled group could be so hard. (2.10.250)
Nature is stronger than technology. Even our iPod would be no match for the Pennsylvanian woods. And nature is also deceptive to the city boy, who has no idea how to measure distance. He has to learn a whole new way of coping and living. We also just think it’s interesting that time stops. That seems kind of important, as though the measurement of time is pretty much irrelevant in these parts.
None of them tore their clothes as he had, climbing twenty feet of steep rock. (2.10.251)
That’s because they’re savvier than you, Milkman. We hate to break it to you Milkman, but you’re a little high maintenance and little slow when it comes to the whole nature thing. But it’s OK; you’ll learn. Macon and Pilate grew up in this world, so it’s like they speak Nature fluently and communicate with the world much more easily than you can.
The low hills in the distance were no longer scenery to him. They were real places that could split your thirty-dollar shoes. (2.10.257)
Milkman is learning! And if nature is both the world around us and the world within us, it could very well be that Milkman is not only learning how to be a mountain man, but he’s also learning about his own self.
"There’s a big double-headed rock over the valley named for him. […] And there’s a ravine near here they call Ryna’s Gulch, and sometimes you can hear this funny sound by it that the wind makes." (2.14.323)
Here we see the internal wilderness meet the external wilderness to combine in the formation of a wilderness milkshake of emotion, memory, and folklore. Ryna’s sorrow was so great that it transmuted into a ravine. Solomon’s leap was such a historical and monumental occasion that the locals named the rock after this event.
They alone had a sense of adventure and were flagrant in their enjoyment of the automobile’s plushness. Each had a window to herself and commanded an unobstructed view of the summer day flying past them. […] In the back seat, away from the notice of Macon and Ruth, they slipped off their patent leather pumps, rolled their stockings down over their knees, and watched the men walking down the streets. (1.2.31)
Lena and Corrie’s big excitement is sitting in the car and looking out the window. This is as close as they get to forging their own paths in the world (until Corrie breaks free). Here we see them push the envelope of Macon’s rules by stripping off the clothes that confine them, but shedding their propriety. Though they don’t actually explore, they command the scenery that passes by, like an explorer commanding an expedition.
When Reba was two years old, Pilate was seized with restlessness. It was as if her geography book had marked her to roam the country, planting her feet in each pink, yellow, blue or green state. She left the island and began the wandering life that she kept up for the next twenty-some-odd years, and stopped only after Reba had a baby. (1.5.148)
Pilate loves geography, and we have to imagine that throughout all of these travels, she meets a lot of people. And even if she is ostracized for her lack of bellybutton, she surely encounters the outcasts of society wherever she goes. In this light, it’s amazing that Pilate says in her final moments that she wishes she could have known more people. At this moment, we see her explorer self has never left, and that her reasons for exploring have to do with wanting to spread the love.
Throughout the fresh, if common, pursuit of knowledge, one conviction crowned her efforts: since death held no terrors for her (she spoke often to the dead), she knew there was nothing to fear. (1.5.149)
Pilate’s a good explorer because she laughs in the face of danger. She explores life in the same way that she explores herself.
Four graceful columns supported the portico, and the huge double door featured a heavy, brass knocker. He lifted it and let it fall; the sound was soaked up like a single raindrop in cotton. Nothing stirred. He looked back down the path and saw the green maw out of which he had come, a greenish-black tunnel, the end of which was nowhere in sight. (2.10.238)
Everything around Milkman at this moment is unfamiliar – what lies behind him and what lies ahead of him. He has never been in this situation before. At home, he knows every corner of Not Doctor Street and Southside, but here he is on his own.
He should have pulled a stick to check depth before he put his foot down, but his excitement had been too great. He went on, feeling with his toes for firm footing before he put his weight down. It was slow moving – the water was about two or three feet deep and some twelve yards wide. (2.10.249)
Milkman lets his excitement get in the way of his good sense. In his haste to get to the gold, he underestimates nature’s power and difficulty. He isn’t trying to learn the terrain or learn from the terrain, but is anxious just to use it in the service of getting him to the cave.
Milkman became agile, pulling himself up the rock face, digging his knees into crevices, searching with his fingers for solid earth patches or ledges of stone. He left off thinking and let his body do the work. (2.10.251)
FINALLY, Milkman gets the picture and learns to work with the landscape and not against it. Instead of focusing his mind on the gold, he is concerned with the process of getting there. He’s learning to be diligent.
It was the longest trek Milkman had ever made in his life. Miles, he thought; we must be covering miles. And hours; it must be two hours now since he whistled. On they walked, and Calvin never broke his stride for anything except and occasional shot and an occasional pause to listen to the sound that came back. (2.11.274)
Milkman is getting his butt kicked. He is in a situation so unlike anything he has ever experienced before and, as a result, we see him collapse under a tree, thinking about and finally understanding the people in his life: his father, his mother, his sisters, Hagar, Pilate, Guitar. The hunt teaches Milkman to see more clearly.
His watch and his two hundred dollars would be of no help out here, where all a man had was what he was born with, or had learned to use. And endurance. Eyes, ears, nose, taste, touch – and some other sense that he knew he did not have: an ability to separate out, of all the things there were to sense, the one that life itself might depend on. (2.11.277)
Material things like watches and money, vestiges of a capitalistic northern society, are unimportant and unnecessary here. Milkman learns instead how to rely upon his noggin and his own body, sharpening his senses along the way. He sees in those around him an awareness of the world, the likes of which he’s never seen.
What did Calvin see on that bark? On the ground? What was he saying? What did he hear that made him know something unexpected had happened some two miles – perhaps more – away, and that something was a different kind of prey, a bobcat? […] Little by little it fell into place. The dogs, the men – none was just hollering, just signaling location or pace. The men and the dogs were talking to each other. (2.11.277)
The Shalimar men are so in tune with their natural surroundings that they have developed their own language. It is that connectedness that really blows us away. Milkman has lived the life of a city boy individualist, pursuing his own gain, wants, and needs; the only sense of community he’s been exposed to has been that of the barbershop congregants. Yet, here he is presented with a whole other kind of community. And it’s a community that doesn’t rely on the structure of a society.
No, it was not language; it was what there was before language. Before things were written down. […] And if they could talk to animals, and the animals could talk to them, what didn’t they know about human beings? Or the earth itself, for that matter. It was more than tracks Calvin was looking for – he whispered to the trees, whispered to the ground, touched them, as a blind man caresses a page of Braille, pulling meaning through his fingers. (2.11.279)
Here we see a real explorer. Someone who is in complete harmony with the natural world, who is able to connect with all things: trees, humans, animals, earth, etc. All of Calvin’s senses are engaged, thus bringing to light his ability to comprehend, perceive, and understand both the location of a bobcat and also the fear in Milkman. This ability to communicate in a primal language makes the Shalimar men almost magical in their wisdom, and utterly connected to their own ancestors.
"I don’t know who and I don’t know why. I just know what I’m telling you: what, when, and where." (1.2.42)
Pilate is uninterested with knowing the who and the why of her father’s death. In fact, the who and the why are never explored in great detail. The who and the why lead to the Butlers, the greedy, racist, white land owners, the likes of whom we never meet in present or in flashback form. Pilate remembers details as specific as the color of her mother’s ribbon, but there are other details she cannot recall (because she has no interest in them).
Guitar felt like a frustrated detective. "What year?"
"The year they shot them Irish people down in the streets. Was a good year for guns and gravediggers, I know that." […] "One morning we woke up when the sun was nearly a quarter way cross the sky. Bright as anything. And blue. Blue like the ribbons on my mother’s bonnet. (1.2.42)
Specificity of time as we know is not of interest to Pilate. She tells time, records time by the great events that take place along the way. Though she does not adhere to conventional methods of measuring time when telling this story, she remembers the exact position of the sun and the color of the sky. Guitar’s frustration serves to highlight his northern, citified ways of relying on watches, calendars, and the news, in contrast to Pilate’s southern roots whereby a person understands a situation by perceiving the natural world around her.
Macon paused and let the smile come on. He had not said any of this for years. Had not even reminisced much about it recently. When he was first married he used to talk about Lincoln’s Heaven to Ruth. Sitting on the porch swim in the dark, he would re-create the land that was to have been his. Or when he was just starting out in the business of buying houses, he would lounge around the barbershop and swap stories with the men there. But for years, he hadn’t had that kind of time, or interest. But now he was doing it again, with his son, and every detail of that land was clear in his mind. (1.2.52)
We really don’t know who the hey Macon is. There are huge chunks of time in his life that are unaccounted for. It is only when he remembers Lincoln’s Heaven and his childhood that we see a happier, peaceful Macon. We wonder why he doesn’t talk about Lincoln’s Heaven more these days. Macon seems to have been hardened by city life. The city is teaching him things that make him forget where he comes from.
His voice sounded different to Milkman. Less hard, and his speech was different. More southern and comfortable and soft. (1.2.52)
In recalling the memories of his childhood, Macon melts a little and assumes the dialect of his hometown. Memory is capable of softening Macon. Money has made him hard.
"He never read nothing. I tried to teach him, but he said he couldn’t remember those little marks from one day to the next." (1.2.53)
Macon’s father Jake never learned to read. Here we see how even reading (along with time) is unimportant when one works with nature, when one has developed a language like the language in which the Shalimar hunting party is fluent. It seems as though it isn’t that Jake couldn’t remember the alphabet; it’s that he didn’t find it necessary to remember the alphabet. This brings to light the idea that people remember what is useful, what is important, and what is essential.
The house smelled fruity and she remembered how the peach has nauseated her the last time she was there. […] She tasted again the Argo cornstarch and felt the marvelous biting and crunching it allowed her. (1.5.135)
Smell instantly triggers Ruth’s memory. Memory lives in the olfactory, reminding us of how important taste buds are when burning a moment on the brain. Memory is not only visually or emotionally triggered. In this way, the senses again become extremely important agents in the telling of Song.
These children were singing a story about his own people! He hummed and chuckled and did his best to put it all together. (2.12.304)
Usually, it’s you or your family that remember something important or significant to you. Imagine Milkman’s glee to find that children, strangers, remember his great grandfather. In this way we also see another vehicle through which memory travels (besides image, smell, taste, and emotion): song.
She talked on and on while Milkman sat back and listened to the gossip, stories, legends, speculations. His mind was ahead of hers, behind hers, with hers, and bit by bit, with what she said, what he knew, and what he guessed, he put it all together. (2.14.323)
A memory doesn’t all come together at once like a nicely wrapped birthday present. It comes in pieces. Song of Solomon in and of itself is the perfect example of the fragmented quality of memory. How many times do we hear the story about Macon and Pilate in the cave? A million. Each time we hear this story, a new morsel of sub-memory is thrown to us like a bone. This novel does not move linearly, but dips and dives and moves back and forth across time. We understand it by considering all of the narratives and fragments of narratives together, but we are not forced necessarily to connect these mini stories.
"He flew, baby. Lifted his beautiful black ass up in the sky and flew home. Can you dig it? Jesus God, that must have been something to see. And you know what else? He tried to take his baby boy with him. My grandfather. Wow! Woooee! Guitar! You hear that? Guitar, my great-granddaddy could flyyyyyy and the whole damn town is named after him." (2.15.328)
Milkman perpetuates the memory of his great grandfather, even though he never witnessed the moment of his flying. He tells this story to Sweet and Guitar, and so we suppose that the story will continue, even when the Dead lineage is ended when Milkman surrenders to the air. Here, Milkman contributes toward the memory of his great-grandfather.
Names that had meaning. No wonder Pilate put hers in her ear. When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you do. Like the street he lived on, recorded as Mains Avenue, but called Not Doctor Street by the Negroes in memory of his grandfather, who was the first colored man of consequence in that city. (2.15.329)
A memory is only a memory when it is remembered. This may seem obvious, but there is no such thing as a dead memory. A memory is inherently alive. If it dies, because no one is around to invoke it, a memory just ceases to exist. In a book that doesn’t present possibilities of heaven or of an afterlife, memory is where permanence and perpetuation dwells.