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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
Morrison plots Song of Solomon chronologically from the birth of the protagonist Milkman Dead until the time he is in his early thirties. She intertwines this chronological plot with a series of flashbacks into the past of his ancestors. These glimpses into the past are presented in the stories his parents and his aunt Pilate tell him. His growing up is therefore saturated with the weight of the past.
The two levels of plot come together as Milkman travels south first to Danville, Pennsylvania where his paternal grandfather created a farm out of a forest and was killed by European-American landowners in a land grab, and then to Shalimar, Virginia where his paternal grandparents were born and raised before their journey to Pennsylvania. On this journey, Milkman who has grown up without any awareness of his familyís history is reconciled with that history and thereby finds wholeness and connection.
In her novel Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison writes of the rootlessness of African Americans who live in northern cities. Many of the people living in northern cities trace their families to ancestors who lived in the south under slavery and Reconstruction. Morrisonís northern characters are deeply influenced by their past in the south. They carry the wounds of the past and these wounds are passed down to the next generation, young women and men who grow up disconnected from their ancestors but nevertheless shaped by their heritage. Milkman Dead is of this generation. He grows up in the privilege gained by class status, unaware and largely unconcerned with racial injustices because of his privilege. Nevertheless, he is wounded by that history. His parents who have hurt each other out of a reaction to the wounds of that history have passed on a legacy to Milkman of the pain of disconnection, betrayal, and loss. Milkman is impelled on a search for his ancestors out of a desire to escape his parentsí lives. A search for family means a journey south. A search for family means a search for connection, identity, and history.
Milkman begins his journey with the presumption that he is searching for stolen gold in hopes that this gold will seed his future and grant him freedom. He learns that the only means of gaining his freedom is in ridding himself of the encumbrances of his material privilege. On the first stop of his journey, Milkman finds himself among men of his fatherís generation who tell him the story of his paternal grandfatherís strength in leaving slavery and making a farm of his own. Milkman has already heard the story of the famous farm called Lincolnís Heaven, populated with the kindly farm animals named after the European-American leaders of the Civil War and Reconstruction: Lincoln, Lee, and Grant. There, the brutal history of slavery and Reconstruction is transformed into a place full with the plenty of harvest and helpful and kindly farm animals. However, this revision of history is interrupted when the original Macon Dead is murdered for his land and his children are forced to flee. In Danville, Pennsylvania, Milkman learns for the first time of the strength and determination of his ancestors. He learns of what he lost before he was even born and he recognizes for the first time the injustices of racism in America. On Milkmanís second stop of his journey, he encounters a stronger relation than admiration. In Shalimar, Virginia, Milkman is beaten for his arrogant display of wealth, symbolically and literally re-dressed in the clothing of everyday people, and loved in a way that only reciprocation can feel love. Instead of finding gold, Milkman finds family history and reconciles himself to the land, the people, and the family he has always scorned.
Part of the reconciliation Milkman experiences in the town of Shalimar, Virginia is in healing the wounds inflicted by his own familyís dysfunction. His parents have all his life acted out the effects of racism--the overt racism of land-grabbing and murdering and the subtle racism of internalized oppression. Milkmanís parents manifest the effects of these two kinds of racism in their dysfunctional relationship to each other and their children. Macon Dead, Milkmanís father, has reacted to the murder of his father by continuing what he sees as what his father started, accumulating wealth. Macon Dead doesnít recognize that though his father strove to build a farm in Pennsylvania, he did so with love. When Macon Dead, Jr., gets to Michigan, he only concentrates on building a fortune, and he does so by exploiting his own people, profiting from the poverty of African Americans, and becoming rich out of a ruthless disregard for their humanity. In this way, Macon Dead, Jr., emulates the Butlers, his fatherís murderers, more than he does his father. Ruth Foster Dead brings another kind of damage to the family that forms Milkmanís origins. She learns from her father that her worth is in her class pretensions, her distance from African Americans who arenít of her class, and her light skin. When she marries Macon Dead, she joins her father in ridiculing Macon for making his money as a slum lord. She raises her daughters on the assumption that they will marry doctors, not recognizing the fact that there are too few African-American doctors living in her city for her daughters to choose from. She raises her son as a personal weapon against the husband who has scorned her body, hoping to turn him into a doctor like her father.
When Milkman finds connection with the story of his ancestors in Shalimar, Virginia, he also finds a way to reconcile the difficult contradictions of his dysfunctional family. He forgives his parents their flaws when he recognizes that they have acted out of the damage of racism. He recognizes his self-indulgence in his relations to his sisters, his mother, his aunt, and his lover and learns that love is best when it is reciprocated. Sadly enough, these are all lessons Milkman might never get to live. His best friend, also damaged by a legacy of racism--first in his fatherís death, treated as a minor interruption in the operation of a saw mill by the white mill owner, then in his poverty-stricken upbringing, made worse by the ruthless practices of his grandmotherís landlord, Macon Dead--believes he has betrayed him for the gold. The final struggle between Milkman and Guitar is not represented in the novel. In this struggle, Morrison hints at the fracture class differences make in the community of African Americans. In cutting the novel short of depicting the outcome of that struggle, Morrison suggests that there is as yet no resolution to that fracture.
In Milkmanís last thoughts before he leaps toward Guitar, however, Morrison provides the values of the novel: "if you surrender to the air, you can ride it." Milkman has left behind all the encumbrances of his class position, encumbrances that have cut him off from his fellow African Americans, from his family, and from his past.