Song of the Past, Song of the Passed
It is no accident that we strive to have our names remembered. Whether it be the Native Americans, who named their children after those who had died so that each name’s history would not be forgotten, or the Western tradition of taking on our parents’ surname, names define us and we in turn carry our family names’ history. But what if we had no knowledge of our surname? What if our surname wasn’t our actual one? This is the challenge the central character of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Macon III “Milkman” Dead, has to contend with. Having grown up without knowledge of a past, Milkman searches for his past in earnest. His quest drives the plot of Song of Solomon forward, ultimately concluding that our past is internalized in us and materializes around us, even if we are not conscious of it.
We learn from the past so as to not repeat old mistakes. Milkman Dead, however, is fated to repeat the mistakes of his ancestors because he lacks knowledge of his family’s ancestry; he is unaware of his past. In a stroke of irony, it is when he deliberately sets out to pursue the Dead family’s past that he repeats the mistake of his ancestor, Solomon. Just as Solomon leaves his wife Reyna to insanity and his twenty-one children in pursuance of something greater, so too does Milkman leave behind his ex-lover Hagar to her insanity (and ultimate death) when he travels South pursuing his ancestry. It is only after he internalizes his ancestor Solomon’s action that he realizes that he had “hurt [Hagar], left her . . . . [w]hile he dreamt of flying, Hagar was dying” (Morrison 332). In leaving behind Hagar behind, Milkman becomes his generation’s Solomon. With no knowledge of his family’s past, Milkman inevitably repeated the same mistake his ancestor made.
Our past manifests itself in our present. Even though Milkman is wholly unaware of lineage, aspects of his past reveal themselves around him and influence him. An alternate form of the Dead genealogy song, the titular ‘Song of Solomon’ is sung at his birth by Pilate Dead, his aunt. The song, which is also Reyna’s lament over Solomon’s flight, foreshadows Milkman’s future as well. Milkman parallels his ancestor’s flight when he flies (in an airplane) from his privileged life in the north to the underdeveloped south. Just as Solomon does, he sees what he leaves behind as constraining him: “Lena’s anger, Corinthians’ loose and uncombed hair, matching her slack lips, Ruth’s stepped-up surveillance, his father’s bottomless greed, Hagar’s hollow eyes,” causing him to be “fed up” and leaving all the more quickly (220-221). What drives him to the south, however, is gold. Macon II Dead, believing that the green bag Pilate carries around holds gold, orders Milkman and his friend Guitar to steal it. Upon recovering it, the Macons (and not Guitar) discover that it contains bones, assumingly the bones of the miner Pilate and Macon II Dead murdered. However, the greed for gold remained after the bones’ discovery, propelling Milkman south to Pilate’s hometown in search of it. Unbeknownst to the reader and the characters, the bones are actually those of Pilate and Macon II Dead’s father — Milkman’s grandfather’s bones. Thus, Morrison implies that Milkman’s past is the true gold to be discovered inside Pilate’s green bag, and that it is actually his ancestry that drives him to fly south.
The past has an influence in our everyday lives. However, it is only when we are wholly aware of it that we can learn from our past and the mistakes it holds. Milkman desire to uncover the past is what prompts his journey from his privileged life in the North to his ancestor’s land in the underdeveloped South, ironically paralleling the flight (and mistake) of his forefather, Solomon. He only realizes his mistake after Pilate and Hagar, his Reyna and twenty-one children are gone. Song of Solomon ends with Milkman’s flight — this time however, a flight for, not away, from Pilate and Hagar. He had learned from the past.