Song of Solomon | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Song of Solomon | Part 2, Chapter 12 | Summary

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Summary

Part 2, Chapter 12 starts with Milkman on his way to visit the house of Susan Byrd, who Milkman figures might be a relative. Milkman wants the visit to be completed before dark because he knows Guitar is hunting him. At the house Susan greets Milkman with some reserve, perhaps because of his dark skin and because a friend is visiting her. Milkman wonders if she could help him find out more about his relatives from this region. Susan's friend Grace tells Susan to invite the visitor in. She does so and offers Milkman coffee and cookies. Milkman asks Susan about his grandmother named Sing. Susan says her father had a sister named Sing. Susan had heard that Sing took a wagon to Massachusetts to a Quaker school. She doesn't know if Sing ever married. Susan's family tried to find out what happened to Sing because Susan's grandmother Heddy was upset about Sing leaving. But the family could find no information. They suspected that Sing intentionally wanted to separate from her family because she was passing as white. Grace asks to see Milkman's watch, which he hands to her to look over. The women give him some cookies and he leaves.

Although deflated about apparently reaching a dead end regarding his family's past, Milkman still feels an intuitive connection to the folks in Shalimar, a comfort similar to what he felt at Pilate's house. Milkman's talk with Susan provided no answers but raised a host of questions about his family. Was the Sing that Susan talked about the same person who married his grandfather? Why did she go off on a wagon? Why did his grandfather's wife want to keep the name Dead? Milkman realizes he accidentally left his watch at Susan's house.

On the road to town Milkman meets Guitar, who seems to be calmly waiting for him. Guitar explains that he's trying to kill Milkman because he's convinced that Milkman found the gold and, in an attempt to keep it for himself, shipped it to Virginia. Milkman tries to convince Guitar that he's mistaken, but to no avail. From Guitar's perspective Milkman not only stole from him but also from his group, the Seven Days. They part with a strained friendliness.

Milkman spends the night with Sweet and dreams about flying or floating above the earth. The memory of this dream seems to empower Milkman. The next day, as Milkman waits for his car to be fixed, he watches children singing the rhyme they had sung previously. He reflects about his family and feels more empathy for his mother and father. Milkman also feels ashamed of stealing the sack from Pilate, and he regrets how he has treated Hagar.

Milkman then listens closely to the children singing the rhyme. He identifies the name Jake, which was the original name of his grandfather. The song also includes a word similar to Ryna, of Ryna's Gulch, and the name Heddy, who was Susan's grandmother. In addition there is a reference to a red man's house, which connects with the Byrds' being of Native American descent. So Sing was at least part Native American. Perhaps her real name was Singing Byrd. He realizes that the rhyme must be about his ancestors. The song seems to indicate that some important event happened, but exactly what it was Milkman cannot discern. He feels confused but ecstatic. He realizes that Susan must know more than she told him. Besides, he has to get his watch back.

Analysis

In Part 2, Chapter 12 Morrison has Milkman continue his search for his true identity. This search, however, has undergone an important shift. Previously, Milkman was conducting a search for gold, which happened to include finding out more about his ancestors. Now Milkman seems to have become more interested in making connections with his ancestral past than getting the gold. He begins to ask himself questions about why his ancestors did this or that.

Milkman has also begun to identify with the folks in Shalimar. As the previous chapter shows, men from the town have accepted Milkman, and he feels more a part of Shalimar. Milkman has drawn closer to his roots. This shift can be seen clearly in his relationship to Pilate. Back in Michigan Pilate and her singing formed a bridge to Milkman's ancestors. Floundering with no deep sense of himself, Milkman felt an attraction to Pilate and her way of living, thereby showing his intuitive yearning for a connection with his past. In Chapter 12 Milkman is back in the place where his ancestors lived and has formed a connection to it. He realizes that his comfort with Pilate and her lifestyle connects directly with his sense of belonging in Shalimar. Now Pilate forms a bridge back to his life in Michigan. From his new position of being rooted in his past, Milkman views his family, Pilate, and Hagar in a new and more empathetic light. He sees how his father's grasping for wealth stems from his shocking loss of his own father. Milkman also senses shame about stealing from Pilate and about the way he rejected Hagar. Milkman's new sense of his roots seems to have provided him with a more solid moral compass.

However, as Milkman connects with his family's past, he also traces the origins of the sense of shame that is for some connected to being a black person. From his talk with Susan and Grace, Milkman realizes that some relatives of light complexion decided to try to be accepted in the white world and, as a result, rejected their black heritage. Indeed Susan and Grace suspect that Sing did this. As Morrison has shown, some light-skinned blacks back in Michigan, such as Ruth's father, also rejected their black culture. These light-skinned blacks feel superior to and disconnected from other African Americans.

Milkman's search for his deep identity, though, has not ended. Through the children's rhyme, Morrison continues to use the symbol of song to draw Milkman further into his family's history. Milkman realizes this song depicts an important event in his ancestors' past, but he is not sure what the event is. However, it is important to note that, as Milkman continues his search, he feels more alive and empowered. For instance, he had a dream about flying or floating "in the relaxed position of a man lying on a couch." Just the memory of this dream makes Milkman sense the "power that flying had given him." Later when Milkman connects some of the dots with the rhyme, he feels ecstatic and eager.

Names are also crucial in Chapter 12. Milkman is able to piece together more of his family history by recognizing names in the rhyme. Many of these names, such as Solomon and Ryna, are used to identify places in Shalimar. For Milkman the recognition of family names provides him with a sense of being rooted or belonging to a place. These names also hold the key to unlocking powerful stories about Milkman's past. In addition Morrison conveys the confusion that can arise trying to trace the family names of African Americans. This search is especially difficult because of how oral traditions can change names. For instance, when the children sing the rhyme, Milkman has to infer that the name Reiner refers to Ryna. The history of white people naming or changing the names of blacks adds to this confusion.

For Morrison, Milkman's new connection with Shalimar, his awareness of his family's shame about being black, and his understanding about how names can unlock his family history all relate to the theme of the relationship between the living and the dead. By tapping into this relationship, Milkman has begun to gain a deeper awareness of how he is just one in an ancestral line of people who have dealt with similar problems of racism, identity, and family dynamics. Because of this awareness, Milkman wants to find out more about his ancestors, such as whether old Macon had siblings and why Sing went off with ex-slaves.

Morrison also describes how the hatred caused by racism has turned Guitar into a single-minded vengeance machine. He has become so obsessed with getting the gold for his Seven Days group that he has lost the ability to doubt himself or trust others. He sees certain actions, such as Milkman helping a worker load a crate, and is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Milkman has betrayed him. Despite this incriminating evidence, if Guitar still trusted Milkman he would have serious doubts about his betrayal. After all Milkman is his best friend. Guitar's trust, however, has been eroded by his hatred and his black-and-white perspective, which makes him paranoid about Milkman's motives. Racism has alienated Guitar from people, including his best friend.

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