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Song of Solomon | Context

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Slavery and Its Legacy

In the United States racism against people of African descent was magnified by slavery. Starting in the 1600s people in the American colonies practiced slavery, especially in the South, where this institution flourished. Slaves had no legal rights and were owned by their masters, who did not pay them for their work. People viewed nonwhites (including Africans) as inferior, and some even saw slaves as subhuman. The government of the United States supported this racial prejudice. For instance, as the delegates of the Constitutional Convention addressed issues of slavery, they agreed that Congress would not exercise the power to ban the slave trade until 1808. A fugitive slave clause that allowed for the capture and return of escaped slaves was supported by legislation passed in 1793 and again in 1850.

Before 1865, when the American Civil War ended and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves was made law, the vast majority of African Americans were enslaved. Many slaves protested their treatment in various ways, including slave rebellions. After the Nat Turner slave revolt (1831), many slave owners stopped teaching their slaves to read and write to prevent any further rebellions. In Song of Solomon many characters who are former slaves, such as Jake, cannot read or write. Because of his illiteracy, Jake unknowingly signs a document giving his land over to whites.

Although the bulk of Song of Solomon takes place in the 1960s as the Civil Rights Movement gains momentum, the novel features acts of racism, hatred, and intolerance. Nearly a century has passed since Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet the lives of these African American characters who cover four generations of U.S. history are inextricably linked in intimate ways to the oppression endured by their enslaved ancestors.

African American Life after the Civil War

After the end of the Civil War the U.S. government abolished slavery and established the Freedmen's Bureau (1865–72), which helped aid the transition of African Americans from slavery to freedom. This Bureau established more than 1,000 black schools, including Howard University, but it did little to achieve civil rights or fair land distribution. And unfortunately people who worked for the Bureau tended to be poorly trained or incompetent. Morrison showcases this situation in Song of Solomon, when a drunk Bureau worker registers Jake incorrectly, thereby giving him the name of Macon Dead. The error is significant in that rather than helping Jake establish himself as an independent individual, the Bureau mimics the practice of slaveholders in denying African Americans even the basic claim to their names, symbols of their identities, by renaming them.

Despite the efforts of the Freedmen's Bureau, racism remained widespread. In the South, states supported a policy known as Jim Crow, which institutionalized legal segregation of blacks and whites and kept blacks in a state of oppression. Song of Solomon provides readers a unique glimpse into an African American community that continues to live in the gap between the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and the reality of systematic social and economic oppression. It is in the elusiveness of Lincoln's promise of inalienable rights that violent ideology such as that of the Seven Days arises.

Great Migration

In the 1900s many African Americans migrated from the South to northern cities in the hope of better lives. This movement of an estimated six million African Americans during the period between 1916 and 1970 came to be called the Great Migration. In Song of Solomon Jake and his wife, Sing, are part of this movement as they travel in a wagon of former slaves from Virginia to Pennsylvania.

However, these migrants often became disillusioned when they realized they faced low-paying jobs and poor living conditions in crowded slums. Northern blacks did not have to navigate legally mandated segregation but still faced intense racism from many whites. In Song of Solomon Jake experiences the racism of the wealthy Butler family, who cheats him out of his land. Also Macon Dead takes advantage of black migrants, becoming wealthy by renting them shacks to live in.

Civil Rights Movement

In the 1950s and 1960s African Americans increased their protests against the discrimination they faced, thereby starting the Civil Rights movement. One of the movement's catalysts was teenager Emmett Till's murder by two white men, who alleged that he had whistled at a white woman. Because the jury was all white, the two men were acquitted. In Song of Solomon Morrison depicts the outrage of African Americans regarding this atrocity; such racist brutality fuels Guitar's hatred of whites, convincing him to join the deadly Seven Days group.

As more blacks and sympathetic whites took part in protests against discrimination, they faced increased violence from their opponents, including the bombings of black institutions. In Song of Solomon, Morrison includes one such bombing that killed four black girls, which actually occurred in 1963 at the 16th Street Baptist Church, by describing its effect on Guitar. When he hears of the deaths of the four girls, he decides that as a member of the Seven Days he must kill four white girls in a similar manner on a Sunday. Eventually the civil rights movement achieved significant legal change: from 1957 to 1968 Congress passed a series of Civil Rights Acts intended to eliminate legal racial discrimination.

African American Folk Stories and Songs

In Song of Solomon Toni Morrison taps into the rich folk stories and songs of African Americans. When Africans were enslaved and brought to America, they brought with them an oral tradition that included tales and music, which they relied on to cope with the hardships they faced. These stories often involved heroic deeds and magical events, and they conveyed moral lessons and cultural values. In addition, African American storytelling enhanced a sense of community. Because slave owners usually did not prevent their slaves from telling stories, the slaves used storytelling to bond with one another. In fact sometimes the stories included coded messages dealing with escape plans.

In Song of Solomon the story of Milkman's ancestor, Solomon, draws on this tradition by including magical events, such as Solomon's ability to fly to Africa, that provide the hope of escape. African American writer Virginia Hamilton retells one such folktale to which Morrison alludes in "The People Could Fly." When Milkman realizes this power, he too understands he has the ability to transcend his problems, and he begins to connect with his ancestral community.

Enslaved African Americans also created spirituals to give them hope of deliverance from their bondage. These songs combined African musical styles with Christian lyrics and often followed a call-and-response pattern, which involves a leader singing a line and a group or another singer responding. Morrison uses this structure in Song of Solomon when Pilate and Reba sing at Hagar's funeral.
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