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Song of Solomon | Symbols

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Flight

Morrison uses the symbol of flight to represent black people's desire to transcend problems. This desire has its roots in the ancestral past of black people, as can be seen through the character of Solomon. For Morrison, black men often manifest this desire in ways that have negative results, as demonstrated in the opening of the novel when Robert Smith jumps off the roof of a hospital and dies in an attempt to fly.

However, the desire for flight is significant not only to black men. The narrator states that Milkman loves Pilate because "without ever leaving the ground, she could fly." Pilate has the ability to transcend difficult life circumstances without harming or abandoning those around her. Morrison interjects symbols that represent flight throughout the novel, including the winged costume of Robert Smith, the silver-winged woman on the hood of Macon's Packard, the airplane that Milkman rides in, and the bird that takes away Pilate's earring.

Names

For Morrison the symbol of names represents the effect of white oppression and the strength of black oral history, and names also serve as allusions. Milkman's family was given the name Dead because of white racism, when a drunk soldier mistakenly registers Jake in the Freedmen's Bureau under the name of Macon Dead. The soldier obviously could not care less what name he gave Jake. Also because of racism, Jake is not taught how to read and write. He thus picks names for his children based on how they look in the Bible, resulting in strange choices. Because of his family's unusual names, Macon grows up being ashamed of his own name. However, Pilate shows how a negative situation can be turned into a positive. Pilate loves the unusual names in her family. In fact she places her name written by her father on a piece of paper in a snuff box and makes an earring out of it. It is the only word he ever wrote. Pilate takes her father's illiteracy caused by racism and turns into something she is proud of. Despite all the hardships her father endured, including a poor education, he chose his daughter's name with love and wrote it down, even though he was illiterate.

Morrison also uses names to show the strong tradition of black oral history. When Milkman attempts to trace his roots he comes in contact with a confusing array of names, many of which have been changed over generations when passed down as oral history. For example, Milkman has trouble finding his ancestor's hometown of Shalimar because he originally thought it was called Charlemagne. Circe remembers the town's name but thinks the town's name is Charlemagne because that's what it sounds like. Later when Milkman listens to the rhyme, he hears a name that sounds like Reiner. He has to infer that the song is really referring to Ryna. Despite these modifications, however, oral history has succeeded in keeping the heritage of Milkman's family alive. Over decades nothing was written down about his family. Indeed Milkman finds out many details by listening to Susan talk about family legends. So these legends have successfully been passed down through the family to Susan, who relates them to Milkman.

In addition Morrison uses names to convey allusions. For example, the family name Dead implies that Milkman's family suffers from an inner or spiritual death by being separated from its ancestral past. Pilate's name sound like the word pilot, which alludes to Pilate being a person who guides Milkman toward his family history. The name of Milkman has a double meaning. First it refers to Milkman being dependent on his family, like a baby. Also it alludes to Milkman being used by his family for comfort. Macon has come to rely on Milkman to run his business, and both Macon and Ruth dump their problems on Milkman. As a result Milkman feels burdened by his family. Finally Milkman provides true nourishment for his family by discovering his ancestral past.

Singing

Song in African American communities, perhaps even more so than folk tales and legends, has been a major form of communication, used to record family history; to complain, or "talk back" to white folks; and to share coded messages. Morrison uses singing in the novel to bring black characters into closer alignment with their communities, their families, and their own personal identities.

Pilate is the most powerful purveyor of this symbol, singing from the first moment readers are introduced to her, first about Sugarman's flight and then to Macon creeping outside her cabin. Her singing connects Ruth to the crowd, Macon to his land, and Milkman to his ancestors. Later children's rhymes will complete Milkman's voyage of self-discovery.

Gold

The symbol of gold represents the false lure of wealth that is in some ways the antithesis of the land, community, and personal identity. Morrison uses the desire for capitalistic wealth as a catalyst for the novel's plot. In an effort to get gold, Milkman and Guitar steal Pilate's sack. Frustrated by this effort, Milkman continues his search for gold by traveling to his ancestral home, which ultimately leads to his discovery of his ancestry and his identity. However, the search is not always beneficial. Pilate has become separated from her brother because of an argument over gold, an instance of how wealth can separate family. Guitar tries to kill Milkman because of his supposed betrayal concerning gold. When Milkman replaces his desire for gold with a desire to find his ancestral past, he begins to head down a positive, healing path that empowers him.

Questions for Symbols

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