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Macon "Milkman" Dead
Milkman is one of the new generation of African Americans, his being the first generation to enter some realms of previously all European-American privilege. He is born in Mercy hospital, an all-white hospital which the people of the neighborhood have dubbed no Mercy hospital for its policy of admitting no African-American patients. Milkmanís relation to his material sustenance is so far removed that he never even thinks of money as something for which he needs to strive. He is two generations removed from slavery and has no concept of the continuation of discrimination against his people because heís been protected from racism by his class position.
Paired with his class privilege is Milkmanís male privilege. He is the only son of the family, therefore he gets his fatherís name and his fatherís expectation that he will take over the business some day. He gets his motherís hope that heíll be a doctor like her father was. His sisters are his reluctant, but generally silent caretakers. When he becomes bored with Hagar, his lover of twelve years, he drops her a thank you note and some money, never bothering to speak to her. He becomes bored with her when she begins to need him.
Morrison chooses such a character for her protagonist in order to examine the group of people who are at the forefront of the new generation of African Americans. She doesnít draw Milkman as an entirely negative character, but one who needs some correction. She traces his flaws back to his parentsí damaged psyches and she pushes him through change and transcendence by taking him back to his ancestors who teach him the lessons of love, strength, and community. Milkman undergoes a wonderful transition as he learns of his ancestors. He learns a love of the land, a desire to communicate with it and its creatures as country people can, he learns compassion for his parents and forgiveness of their flaws, and most importantly, he learns how to return someoneís love when he receives it instead of accepting it as a negligible privilege. His final lesson is that he has to let go of the encumbrances of class in order to connect with his fellows.
At twelve he loses his mother and becomes the only mother his baby sister knows and at sixteen he sees his father shot in the back by people who want to take his fatherís land. As an old man, he tells his son that he "worked right alongside [his] father" thus communicating the pride he felt in being a partner to the man he admired above all men. When his father dies, he is left homeless, rootless, with only a sister for family. He decides to take his sister to Virginia, where heís heard his parents say their first home was. At that point, then, Macon Dead wants connection with family. However, when he finds gold and then believes wrongly that his sister steals it from him, he closes his heart up and begins a quest for land and the money that comes with it.
Macon Dead is a collector of property. He is a practical man who sees that as an African American, he is barred from the opportunity to acquire prime real estate and so he acquires land no one else wants and he manages that land with the ruthlessness of the wealthiest capitalist. The reader gets two images of Macon Dead as landlord at the opening of the novel. First, he threatens Mrs. Baines, Guitar Bainesí grandmother, with eviction if she doesnít pay her two dollars rent, despite the fact that she is an old woman who is taking care of four grandchildren. Second, he waits outside the window of Porter, a man driven crazy by the lack of love, and threatens to kill him if he doesnít pay his rent, caring nothing for the man at all.
Macon Dead is also a man who thrives on a hatred for his wife. He marries her not out of love but out of desire to connect himself with the most well-respected African-American man in the city. He finds himself ridiculed for his accomplishments by his wife and her father. He nevertheless has exquisite sex with his wife for the first years of her marriage, before he begins to be jealous of her adoration of her father, before he sees her kneel at the bedside of her dead father and kiss his hands. From that moment on, he rejects her body and beats her regularly, fueling his drive with a hatred of her, but staying with her out of a desire for what she owns.
Ruth Foster Dead
She is a woman who lives in such a carefully circumscribed existence that she anchors herself in existence by the sight of a water stain made on a mahogany dining table when she was a young woman. The only daughter of the first African- American doctor in the city, she is brought up to believe in her superiority to other African Americans. She adores her father not because she thinks heís perfect but because heís the only person in the world who cares about her existence, how she dresses, how sheís educated, and whom she marries. No mention is ever made of her mother.
Ruth Dead spends her life inside a house. She begins her adulthood as a devoted housewife who reads housekeeping magazines for ideas on how to make her home more beautiful. In one incident, she gets the idea of making a centerpiece for the dining table out of driftwood and dried seaweed. She goes to great trouble to get it and when she asks her husband for his approval of it, he tells her only that she is the worst cook imaginable. From that moment on, she gives up on a centerpiece and she watches the stain where the centerpiece bowl had been, feeling that it locates her in existence from day to day.
Ruth Dead suffers intensely under the reign of her husbandís cold shoulder, his refusal to have sex with her. From the time she is in her early twenties, she goes without sex. She compensates for this loss for a time by nursing her son Milkman far beyond the usual time of nursing until sheís caught and laughed at for doing it. From that time on, her only pleasure is in visiting her fatherís gravesite every few months and telling him her stories to her fatherís ghost. Ruthís daughter Corinthians notices that Ruth provokes Macon into hitting her. She makes him see her as a bumbling idiot in front of white people, laughing at herself, reminding him of her devotion to her father, until he hits her, thus giving her the only passionate contact she ever gets.
What formed Pilateís character more than anything is being cut off from people. Pilate is a magical character in the sense that she is born without a navel. The midwife who witnessed her birth tells Milkman that she birthed herself. Her mother had died, Circe couldnít hear a heartbeat and suddenly Pilate came out of the womb. From this beginning, Pilate is set apart from the norm.
Yet, Pilate wants to be with people. When she is twelve and goes to look for her motherís people in Virginia, her goal is to find people to be a part of. Instead, she is rejected by group after group because of her lack of a navel. The ostracism makes Pilate give up on other societal constraints. She cuts her hair short, refuses marriage, and dresses without the obligatory corsets of her day. She questions all established truths and comes up with her own morality. Pilate keeps one thing steadily in mind: a deep respect for peopleís privacy.
Pilate lives according to a courageous morality. When her brother wants to take the gold from the cave, she stands up to him ready to fight him to keep him from stealing it. When he doesnít come back, she begins her life alone even though sheís only twelve years old. When she finds her brother again and sees that his wife is dying for want of love, she concocts potions to make him have sex with Ruth so Ruth can have a baby. Then, when her brother tries to make Ruth abort the fetus, Pilate protects Ruth from him.
Pilateís connection to Milkman is strong from this point on. She protects him at birth and she is there at the end when he faces death. Pilate isnít afraid of death. She considers her fatherís ghost her closest confidante and advisor. She takes his injunction "You canít go off and leave a body" to mean that she must take responsibility for the man she thinks she and Macon killed in the cave. She retrieves the bones and carries them with her for the length of her life, believing that since leaving the past behind is impossible, she must carry it with her. Pilate is a folk woman. Sheís the strongest character in the novel and its central moral authority.
The reader is first introduced to Guitar Baines in the first chapter when he stands with his grandmother and siblings outside Mercy hospital to witness the suicide of Robert Smith. The second time we see him, he is with his grandmother as she tries to convince Macon Dead to let her stay in her home even though she cannot pay the rent. His grandmother tells him there is nothing worse than a Black man in business. It is not at that point though that Guitarís psychic wounds begin. They begin earlier when his father dies, sliced in half lengthwise in a saw mill. At the moment of his fatherís death, Guitar learns about European-American callous disregard for the people who make their profits. The white mill owner gives Guitarís mother $40 to tide the family over and his wife gives the children divinity. It is this pairing of the sweet with the offhanded disregard that shapes Guitarís conception of European Americans.
Guitar is a man who is devoted to justice. The first time he meets Milkman, he protects him from a group of bullies who are beating him up. Despite the fact that it is Milkmanís father who evicted Guitarís family, and despite the fact that Milkman is the privileged son of a moneyed Black family, Guitar recognizes that in that moment, Milkman is the oppressed and he defends him with relish. Guitarís sense of justice, however, becomes rigid and abstract. Like most African Americans in the first half of the century, Guitar heard stories of lynchings, burnings, and murders and he learned that the white perpetrators always got away with their crimes. His solution to this pervasive violence is an abstract theory. If European Americans continue killing African Americans, they will kill them off eventually. For every African American killed, Guitar tells Milkman, three to five generations are lost. The Seven Days is borne out of this abstract idea. For every African American killed by white men, the Seven Days will kill a European American in the same way, evening things out. In this theory, Guitar departs from his earlier sense of justice which honors the individual being oppressed. He sees only the abstract grid which calls for an equality of violence and death, not the individual lives.