The Dead family is settled in a fictional city in Michigan on Lake Erie that loosely resembles Detroit. The main protagonist of the novel is a character referred to as Milkman Dead, though his formal name is Macon Dead, Jr. The novel follows him and traces vexed relationships with his family members, including his father and mother, his three sisters, and his aunt and her daughter and granddaughter. The time period is roughly between the 1930s and 1963, though the novel also looks back to the late 19th century experiences of Milkman's grandparents and great-grandparents.
As the plot progresses, we see Milkman leave Michigan to trace the path of his grandfather's journey, including the farm he had settled, in Danville, Pennsylvania, and before that, the predominantly-Black town of Solomon in rural western Virginia. Milkman is ostensibly looking for gold that may have been deposted in a cave shortly after after his grandfather was murdered, but over time he becomes much more interested in learning all of the contours of his family's legacy, including his grandfather's true name (Jay Solomon) and heritage and his grandmother's identity.
As he learns the details of this family history, Milkman is shadowed by his friend Guitar Bains, who believes Milkman may have found the missing treasure and absconded with it.
Themes and Historical Reference Points
Song of Solomon is an incredibly rich novel, with many themes that could be discussed, including:
- the troubled status of Black masculinity and relationships between men and women in mid-20th century America;
- the importance of naming and misnaming in Black life;
- the value and social role of non-conforming women, including those who have been socially ostracized;
- our obligations to the dead, especially the ancestral dead;
- the emergence of Black militant movements in northern cities in mid-20th century U.S.;
- the importance of oral and folk traditions in the African American community;
- the links between African American and Native American communities in early American history;
- and many others
One key historical reference point in the novel is the killing of Emmett Till (August, 1955) and the subsequent acquittal of his killers (September, 1955), which is directly discussed by Milkman and Guitar at an early point in the novel. Emmett Till was a fourteen year old African American boy born and raised in Chicago. He was visiting family members in Mississippi when he encountered a white woman named Carolyn Bryant in a grocery store. Later, he was abducted by Bryant's husband and his half-brother and murdered.
Till's lynching and subsequent acquittal were national news stories, and helped galvanize the Civil Rights movement. Till's story also inspired a play by Toni Morrison in 1986, called Dreaming Emmett. That play was performed at a theater in Albany, but subsequently destroyed by Morrison and it has never been republished.
In Song of Solomon, the news of Till's murder infuriates Guitar Bains, who eventually joins a shadowy militant group called the Seven Days. Bains and other members of the Seven Days are particularly angry about the way racialized violence constitutes a threat to Black masculinity.
Naming and Misnaming
Naming and misnaming are ubiquitous themes in Song of Solomon. To begin with, Milkman's grandfather's legal name, Macon Dead, was actually not his name (Jake); it was given to him accidentally by a northern soldier who incorrectly recorded his place of birth (Macon) as his first name, and the status of his parents (Dead) as his last name. This pattern continues in various forms as others in the novel are given nicknames (Milkman) or names that seem inappropriate (Milkman's aunt is named Pilate Dead by her illiterate father, after he comes across the letters in the Bible).
Some names are not entirely fixable; the name of the town where the Dead family's ancestors are from in Virginia is alternately described as "Solomon," "Shalimar," and "Shaleemonee"; it's unclear which is the "correct" name.
For readers, the slipperiness around the naming of individual characters -- such as Milkman himself -- may be understood as a shorthand for the character's own journey to self-discovery. Milkman, for instance, initially finds his nickname upsetting, as it suggests a taint of unwanted femininity. Later, however, he comes to reorient himself in his relationship to women and the name becomes one he can begin to embrace and own. As a broader social issue, the slipperiness of names and naming is a way of describing the uncertain and marginalized status of Black folks in both the northern and southern U.S. in the mid-20th century. One example of this is of course the way the Dead family are misidentified initially; but a version of that can also be seen at the beginning of Song of Solomon, in the description of "Not Doctor Street."
Theme of Masculinity
The status of masculinity is a ubiquitous and central theme in Song of Solomon. This was, as Morrison herself noted, her first book with men as the central protagonists.
The initial framing of the question over masculinity suggests a fairly conventional generational struggle over patriarchal authority -- between Milkman and his conventionally masculine father. The women in the Dead household are marginalized and largely subjugated, with Milkman's sisters essentially living in a kind of petrified limbo and Milkman's mother Ruth frequently humiliated (and sometimes beaten) by her husband. But as the novel progresses, and Milkman develops a relationship with his aunt Pilate and his cousin Hagar (a relationship that turns sexual and later emotionally toxic), his orientation to masculinity shifts somewhat. He undergoes a fairly dramatic transformation on his journey in Virginia, and at the end of the novel finds a new appreciation for his grandmother, Sing, and Native American great-grandmother, as well as the power possessed by his non-conforming aunt Pilate.