Identity comes in many forms. Some aspects are predetermined and some are chosen by the individual. People tend to self-segregate into communities of those who look and act similar to themselves. Often, race and class are the broadest, quickest, and most discriminatory labels assigned and as these are the most visible, people tend to divide and identify very strongly with these categories. In addition to broad group identities, there are personal identities namely a name. Names serve as both a label and an identifier and are one of the most important things parents choose for a child, because a name lasts a lifetime. The combination of race, class, past, and name constitute the initial identity everyone is given. Although they are forced into identities not suited for them, Milkman and Pilate from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon escape from confining societal norms and familial expectations by metaphorically learning how to fly, showing that people, despite the circumstances of their birth, possess the ability to change themselves and social perceptions.
Milkman is never given the opportunity to develop an identity of his own, so he decides to go on a journey of self-discovery to the South. The origin of Milkman’s identity crisis comes from his grandfather, Macon Dead. The name Macon Dead “… scrawled in perfect thoughtlessness by a drunken Yankee…” that was “… handed to his only son, and his son likewise handed onto his…” (18) acts like a curse to Milkman. Milkman’s name is Macon Dead,
his father’s name is Macon Dead, and his grandfather is also Macon Dead. Because he held the same name as his father and his grandfather, he grew up relying on their identities and people’s perceptions of that identity rather than creating his own. In one memory, Milkman’s older sister Lena had “…stepped away from him to pick flowers, returned, and at the sound of her footsteps behind him, he’d turned around before he was through. It was becoming a habit-this concentration on things behind him. Almost as though there were no future to be had.” (35) Even as a young child, Milkman believed that he had no future to look forward to. He was “concentrating on things behind him”, effectively focusing on his past, his father’s past, and his grandfather’s past. Because he expects to turn out like his father, Milkman never gives himself the chance to live a life of his own. He never got to experience a childhood because he was always viewed in the same light as his adult father. Macon is a landlord making him one of the city’s few rich black men, and as such, he associates with richer blacks and white people. As a result, Milkman grows up in two conflicting worlds. He is perpetually stuck in a world where he does not belong, and for Milkman being able to escape the confines of this restrictive world created by his family and society is his ticket to freedom. In his flight away from home, Milkman escapes from his demanding family and friends, because “In the air away from real life, he felt free, but on the ground …the wings of all those other people’s nightmares flapped in his face and constrained him.” (221) His father wants him to succeed him, his mother wants him to stay with her forever, Hagar wants him to love her, and Guitar wants his money keeping him trapped. He lives his life trying to satisfy all these people and Milkman decides it is time to find out what he wants in life, so he leaves home. After isolating himself from their influence, Milkman gets the opportunity to think about his life and what he wants, not what everybody wants from him. His
flight for escape doubles as a journey of self-discovery. “I just know that I want to live my own life. I don’t want to be my old man’s office boy no more. And as long as I’m in this place I will be. “(221-222) He decides that he will no longer be under the command of his father, who keeps Milkman docile by making Milkman reliant on him for money. In the process of finding himself, Milkman uncovers the story of Solomon, who he believes is his direct ancestor. He continues to unravel the story of his family’s past until he is satisfied and decides to return home, now sure of who he is, because he has a full understanding of his past, his present, and his future.
Pilate Dead overcomes the unfortunate circumstances of her birth and her naming by taking control of her life and ignoring the judgement of others all while acting as a role model to Milkman. The original Macon Dead chose Pilate’s name from the Bible and “… since he could not read a word, chose a group of letters that seemed to him strong and handsome; saw in them a large figure that looked like a tree hanging in some princely but protective way over a row of smaller trees.”(18) Ironically, Pilate is named after the Roman magistrate that called for the crucifixion of Jesus. Pilate moves past the association with the Roman Pilate and establishes an identity of her own. She takes the original reasons why her father chose the name and becomes the “strong and handsome”, “princely”, and “protective” tree that watches over the “smaller trees”, Milkman, Hagar, Reba, and Ruth. She becomes the motherly figure that she lacked as a child. Pilate’s mother died while giving birth to her, so Pilate delivered herself; even from the beginning, Pilate had agency over her own life, she was the one who chose to be born and to live. Perhaps Pilate’s most amazing talent is that, “Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.” (336) The ground represents the world in its current state. Pilate’s flight is a flight to escape social conventions. She is already shunned as an African American, a single mother, and a winemaker, but Pilate does not let these obstacles hinder her or affect her attitude towards life. She welcomes everyone with open arms and has moved past the feelings of hate, anger, and jealousy. For that reason, she “flies” free as a bird, because she does not worry about what society thinks of her. Even her name sounds like the word “pilot”, so in the end, Pilate took the name her father gave to her and made it her own.
By using flight as a means to escape the judgmental culture that surrounds them, Milkman and Pilate mold themselves into who they desire to be, not who society dictates them to be. Raised in a polarizing environment, Milkman never fully fit in. On one side of his racialized environment, he was naturally inferior to the white people and to the other he was seen as naturally superior to the other poorer black people. By observing his eclectic aunt Pilate who did manage to escape binding social conventions, Milkman learns to “fly”. He flies away from his toxic family and friends, he flies away from an inherently racist society, and he flies to discover the world around him and himself. Milkman’s coming of age story reveals to readers the struggle that African Americans faced before the Civil Rights movement as they struggled to adapt to a world that would not and did not want to accept them. It took isolation and a complete rejection of society’s conventions in order for black people to be who they wanted to be.