Response Essay on 'Song of Solomon' by Toni Morrison

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Toni Morrison is one of the most recognized and honored authors in the world. In addition to her timeless essays and stories such as “Recitatif” and “Tar Baby,” her classic novels have earned her numerous reputable awards including the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize (“Nobel Prize in Literature 1993”). Needless to say, Morrison’s work has ignited and motivated a generation of writers to follow in her footsteps and will continue to do so as long as it is around.

Toni Morrison, whose real name at birth was Chloe Anthony Wofford, was born in Lorain, Ohio, on February 18, 1931, during the Great Migration. Raised by her mother and father, who both had strong Southern roots, Morrison was taught much about the concept of racism and growing up in predominantly white America at a young age. While her mother was somewhat supportive of the integration of blacks and whites in society, her father heavily opposed it and resented white people, as he experienced a great deal of racial prejudice and violence growing up. Her father’s professions included road construction, shipyard work, car washing, and steel mill welding, which represented the broad labor lifestyle of African-American men living during the Great Depression (Magill).

While Morrison faced racial discrimination and trouble in school, she always remained an involved student, taking part in activities such as the school’s debate team and yearbook club (Alexander). In addition, Morrison’s school, as well as her parents, sparked her interest in reading into Morrison at a very young age, allowing for her later career of writing to come organically. In 1965, when Morrison was 34 years old, she received her first big writing job, working as a fiction editor at Random House (Alexander). Shortly after in 1970, she published her first work and novel, “The Bluest Eye” (Bracken).

In many of her popular novels, Toni Morrison dwells upon the uneasy, heavy themes of racial violence, oppression, and tension. Some novels that exhibit these themes include Morrison’s “Recitatif,” “Sula,” and “Song of Solomon.” Morrison’s parents, as well as her personal life experiences, are often seen as the driving factors in the writing for these pieces.

In the first story, “Recitatif,” the theme of racial tension is seen between the two main characters, Twyla and Roberta. In the short story, the narration is done by Twyla and follows the five unions, as well as reunions, of her and Roberta, another girl whom she met at her orphanage. The scenes of the five encounters include an orphanage, a diner, a grocery store, and a school protest (Morrison). During each of the encounters, both of the women are shown at different stages of their lives with different social statuses. In addition, the reader is told that one girl is black and one is white but is never explicitly told which one is what race.

The first instance of racial tension in the story can be discerned at the very beginning of the story during Twyla and Roberta’s very first interaction. In this particular meeting, Twyla walks into the room in the orphanage to which she is assigned. Upon walking in, she sees her new roommate, Roberta, and is somewhat shocked and offended. Twyla’s reasoning for this reaction was that to her “It was one thing to be taken out of your own bed early in the morning—it was something else to be stuck in a strange place with a girl from a whole other race” (Morrison). She also went on to explain how her mother warned her about Roberta’s race previously, stating that they “never washed their hair and they smelled funny” (Morrison). This scene shows racial tension as it gives insight and perspective as to how race delegates how Twyla treats and thinks of others before even attempting to get to know that person.

Another occasion of racial tension in the story can be seen in the scene of the two’s argument over school integration. At this part of the story, Roberta now lives in an affluent neighborhood among doctors and chiefs, while Twyla lives in the widely welfare-dependent city of Newburgh. Twyla goes on and continues to explain to Roberta that her own son, Joseph, was part of a list of students to be bused out of his school. However, even as we got further into Twyla and Roberta’s disagreement over the busing policy, it was never completely evident what stance either woman had regarding racial integration in general. Morrison emphasizes the racial tension when, in the heat of the two’s argument, Roberta and Twyla both declare, “I wonder what made me think you were different” (Morrison). While this quote may simply sound like just racial prejudice; both women have generally pessimistic views of the other’s race but thought that the other woman was “different” enough to be given a “second chance” or “opportunity,” only to apparently be proven wrong.

In “Sula,” the theme of racial violence is most apparent. In Morrison’s second-ever novel, Morrison follows a young black girl named Sula as she grows and develops into a strong and persistent woman amidst the state of hardships, wariness, and even animosity, towards her by the African-American community in which she resides. Additionally, Morrison questions to what lengths mothers will go to defend their children, and whether or not these actions act as favorable or damaging.

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Within “Sula,” the cases of racial violence are clear, graphic, and in-your-face. More than one character in the story is burnt to death and many are buried alive or drowned. There are several fights, natural disasters, collapsing bridges, and acts of humiliation, which all stem from the dominant whites and an ironic “nigger joke” (Morrison). The novel, essentially, is an account of the slow, but steady deterioration of the entire community of the Bottom.

In “Song of Solomon,” Morrison’s third novel, violence stemming from racist intentions, while not as prevalent as it is in other stories, is yet again present. The story follows an African-American man named Macon 'Milkman' Dead III, who lives in Michigan, within the span of roughly 30 years. The novel begins with a scene of Robert Smith, a Michigan-native insurance agent and member of The Seven Days, a group that assassinated white people in vengeance for the racial killing of blacks. In this scene, the insurance agent is on top of a hospital called the “Mercy Hospital” suited in blue silk wings, declaring that he will fly to the other side of Lake Superior. With this much of a spectacle, a large crowd formed, and could not help but watch it all unfold. Among this crowd was Milkman’s mother, Ruth Dead, who was pregnant with him at the time, as well as Milkman’s two sisters, First Corinthians and Magdalene. As one would assume, Mr. Smith plummeted to his death. Struck with much shock from the event, Ruth, who happened to be the daughter of the first black doctor in town, gave birth to Milkman, the first black child to ever be born in Mercy Hospital.

After the birth of Milkman, the story picks up when he is four years old and first receives his nickname “the Milkman.” He was given this nickname by one of Macon Dead Jr’s workers when one day, he saw Ruth breastfeeding Milkman and proclaimed, 'A milkman... Look out, womens. Here he comes' (Morrison). At this point in his life, Milkman can best be described as discontent and alienated, although he grows up surrounded by the love of his mother and his aunt, Pilate. On top of this, he was also taken care of by his sisters, First Corinthians and Magdalene, and adored by his cousin, Hagar. Not reciprocating their love or kindness, Milkman essentially grows up bored and privileged, much like his father, Macon Dead II, who was a merciless landlord who pursued only the accumulation of riches.

Milkman is harrowed with a hereditary ailment, an emotional sickness that carries its origins in oppression experienced by past generations and passed on to future ones. Milkman’s grandfather, Macon Dead, obtained his unusual name when a drunk Union soldier incorrectly filled out his documents. In due course, while protecting his land, Macon was murdered, and his two children, Macon Jr., and Pilate were there to witness it. Becoming quite distant from each other after, Pilate became a poor but strong and independent woman, serving as the mother of a family that included her daughter, Reba, and her granddaughter, Hagar. On the other hand, Macon Jr. spent his time getting money, resulting in both his family and his residents condemning him.

By the time Milkman reached his thirties, he felt suffocated still living under the same roof as his parents, and wanted to get away. Macon Jr., understanding his frustration, informed Milkman that Pilate, Milkman’s aunt, may have millions of dollars in gold stashed in a green tarp in her rundown shack. With the help of Guitar Bains, his long-time best friend whom he promised a share of the gold if successful, the two went and robbed Pilate. However, inside the green tarp, the two found only some rocks and a human skeleton, which we later learned was that of Milkman’s grandfather, Macon Dead I. Still, Guitar was especially upset not to find the gold because he needed the funds to carry out his plan for the Seven Days.

Still determined to find the treasure, Milkman left his Michigan hometown and headed south, again promising Guitar a share of whatever he uncovers. Before embarking on his journey, Milkman finally ends his romantic relationship with Hagar, who has gone crazy at his rejection and has tried to kill him on multiple occasions. After arriving in Montour County, Pennsylvania, Milkman discovered that there was no gold to be found. Accepting that he wouldn't come up on any gold, he decided to instead search for answers about his long-lost family history. On his search, Milkman meets Circe, an old midwife who helped deliver Macon Jr. and Pilate, who tells him that Macon’s original name was Jake and that he was wedded to an Indian girl named Sing.

Motivated by these findings, Milkman headed south to his grandfather’s ancestral home in Virginia, Shalimar. However, what Milkman did not know is that he was being trailed by Guitar, who wants to kill him because he thought that Milkman had found the gold and had fled and cheated him out of his share. While Milkman initially felt uneasy about the vibe of Shalimar, he grew to eventually love it more and more as he unearthed clues about his family’s history. The one discovery that resonated with Milkman the most was his learning that Jake’s father, his great-grandfather, was the legendary flying African, Solomon, who fled slavery by miraculous flight to Africa. After a failed attempt to bring Jake, his youngest son, with him on the escape to Africa, Solomon left his wife, Ryna, and their twenty-one children. Unable to manage without Solomon, Ryna became hysterical, leaving Jake to have to be raised by Heddy, an Indian woman whose daughter, Sing, he married.

Milkman’s findings give him intense happiness and a sense of direction, ultimately turning him into a more understanding and responsible adult. After surviving an assassination attempt by Guitar, Milkman returns to his Michigan hometown to tell Macon Jr. and Pilate about his findings. Upon arrival, however, Milkman found out that Hagar had died of a broken heart and that the emotional issues plaguing his family had not left. Nonetheless, Milkman accompanied Pilate back to Shalimar, where they properly buried Jake’s bones on Solomon’s Leap, the mountain from which Solomon started his flight to Africa. Immediately after Jake’s burial, Pilate was shot to death by a bullet that Guitar had shot for Milkman. The story ends with Milkman calling out for Guitar and leaping toward him, leaving for an open ending. This ending, however, suggests that Milkman has finally received the ability to “fly.”

In this story, racial violence stems from the peer pressure that the white society placed on the African-American community to abandon their conventional values and adopt the white values of materialism. Here the recurring pattern of revenge and racial violence emerge in clear terms with the introduction of the “Seven Days,” a group of seven African American men sworn to kill one white person for every black person murdered by a white. Furthermore, much like in all of Morrison’s other novels, the violence within this society leads to a sacrifice. In this case, Pilate, another defenseless girl, was the one to become the scapegoat for society.

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Response Essay on ‘Song of Solomon’ by Toni Morrison. (2024, January 04). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 20, 2024, from
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