Milkman's mythological journey to heal "double consciousness" in Song of Solomon
by Danielle Wagner
This paper will discuss how the main character, Milkman, is propelled to embark upon a mythological journey that symbolizes African Americans' spiritual healing of double consciousness. The stories that are told to the main character ignite the need to know his identity. Morrison uses the written word to embody reality; reality can be ever changing and different but is constrained by "conforming" to language. Morrison does not conform to language but uses it to create a new reality, changing something like slavery and/or double-consciousness and reclaiming a new identity. I will explore the use of words, in the form of story telling, folklore, and naming because it is through stories that Milkman first hears about his family's history. He was moved by the desire to retrieve the gold his father described in the stories, it is also very important to point out how the women in Milkman's life also propel him towards his discovery of his family's history, his identity, and spiritual healing. This spiritual healing also represents the spiritual healing of African people who were enslaved and denied their own history and identity. This is Morrison's way of healing what W.E.B. DuBois calls "double-consciousness" in African American literature and culture.
To better understand African American literature we must first understand double consciousness. W. E. B. Dubois defines double-consciousness as "this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others" (Dubois 71). He continues, "The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, -this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self" (Dubois 71). History shows that people crave an identity, need a past, and a founding m yth or mythology and without his/her own history he/she lacks a unified consciousness. The Black Power Movement played a role in creating a culture that is not identified as white and in turn aims to unify double consciousness. Larry Neal writes, "Every black writer in America has had to react to this history, either to make peace with it or make war with it...the tension, or double-consciousness is most often resolved in violence" (Neal 647). Neal problematizes double consciousness, insisting that it was detrimental to African American's identity by causing this cultural schizophrenia, which always seemed to be resolved by some form of violence. Morrison does not resolve her "tension" through violence but instead employs the use of her own writing to bring a better understanding to African American's consciousness. Morrison knew, as Neal points out, that black people need a "profound sense of a unique and beautiful culture; and a sense that there are many spiritual areas to explore within th is culture" (Neal 647). She knows that the problem of double-consciousness can not be fixed by violence but by turning awareness to the internal problems, that the "oppressed" must understand themselves, socially and spiritually before they can destroy double-consciousness (Neal 647). This is what Morrison is trying to achieve with her work, Song of Solomon. She blends oral culture with the written word to create a "better and truer self" through the use of her literary vehicles.
Morrison is able to create reality by merging myth and language in a way to change a person's consciousness, to change their culture, and heal. "Consciousness creates reality... reality exists, but only in conjunction or "unity" with consciousness" (Bey). If that is to be believed as true then by raising consciousness through the use of language, Toni Morrison can create reality. Toni Morrison uses language to "wage verbal war on the institutions of slavery and racism in this country that would deny them their lineage, their procreative power, and the rights to make themselves (Holloway 27). Macon Sr., Macon Jr., Milkman, and Pilate are all characters that claim their rights to these freedoms. Macon Sr. died for his farm and his right to make himself while Macon Jr. accumulates material wealth as proof for his achievements. Milkman wants to know his lineage and make better himself while Pilate had a sense of her lineage, procreative power, and has made something of herself. Morrison frames h er novels around merging language and myth to create intimacy between language and the act (Holloway 22). The myths in Song of Solomon turn up in the very beginning, starting with the insurance agent, Mr. Smith, who creates the exposition for the epic journey that shrouds the Dead family in folklore and myth. Milkman's birth is commemorated by the song that Pilate sings:
"O Sugarman done fly away
The song becomes a recurring vehicle that Morrison uses to strengthen women's connection to language. "Women inhabit worlds temporal and spiritual through their connection to the word" (Holloway 26). She is reclaiming her legacy and uses her stories to inform her readers, more importantly fellow African Americans, the need to stand up and take back his/her freedom by reclaiming his/her heritage.
Morrison also employs oral traditions to strengthen rituals and forge the bridge between oral traditions and the written word. Some writings point out that they have relevance in the present, take this excerpt for example: "(Leslie Marmon) Silko and Morrison have a similar preoccupation with their respective communal oral rituals and the use of memory as a way of ensuring the historical continuity of such rituals. Both privilege different oral tradition and assert the relevance of the past for the present by manipulating the literary forms, conventions, and narrative strategies of Western culture in which their own historical cultural discourses have been stereotyped and marginalized" (Ferrari 2).
This excerpt points out that oral traditions ensure rituals, history, and traditions that are kept continuous and alive. It also shows that Morrison and other authors, like Silko, are able to manipulate writing strategies to create "talking books" (Ferrari 3). The oral forms she employs are "superstitions, folktales, legends, antiphonal patterns, the verbal art of ‘signifying', the practice of naming, ritual, games, spirituals, worksongs, blues and jazz" (Ferrari 6). It is through oral traditions that Milkman is introduced to his family history, first through unknown contact with the song of "sugarman", through his mother and father's stories of the past, and through the journey to Virginia where he hears the song of Solomon, just to name just a few.
The reader comes to the conclusion that names are important from meeting Pilate and Milkman's Aunt. Naming is another device that Morrison uses to propel the spiritual journey and the discovery of what names really mean. It is through names that a person identifies with him/her self and with others around him/herself. Milkman's father tells him how Macon Sr.; "Wrote one word in his life- Pilate's name; copied it out of the Bible. That's what she got folded up in her earring" (Morrison 53) The reader can see how names are important when Pilate takes the magical vestige of the past that is written by her father and seals it in a snuff box and attaches it to a gold wire so she can hang it from her ear. Pilate's name comes from the Bible and is the name of the judge who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is just as important as her identity and it is part of her power. Pilate is a mother earth goddess figure in Milkman's journey, the guide to his identity, and the earth mother that black women like Pilate " maintained the maternal world through myths" (Holloway 26). The supernatural character, Pilate, "was a natural healer" that made use of magic throughout the story (Morrison 150). Ruth tells Milkman that Pilate gave her "some greenish-gray grassy-looking stuff to put in his (Macon Jr.) food" (Morrison 125). She charmed her husband to sleep with her so she could get pregnant with Milkman. She is a very important character in relation to Milkman, because it is through Pilate's intervention that Milkman is saved from abortion and abuse. Pilate, although having none of the material comforts, "gives peace" to Milkman when ever he is around her and her home. She is the one who sparks his curiosity and guides him to a reckoning that opens his eyes about his race, his family, and his own autonomy. By the end of the novel, Milkman comes to this conclusion, "Names that had meaning. No wonder Pilate put hers in her ear. When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you do" (Morrison 329). Milkman reflects on these names that held no importance in the beginning of his journey but now were a part of him and his relatives.
Another important female figure in Milkman's journey is Circe. The naming is very important because Circe in Greek mythology was a minor goddess of magic that lived in a great mansion that was protected by wolves and lions. The character has a similar personality and place. Milkman even mistakes her for the witch from his dreams; "witches in black dresses and red underskirts; witches with pick eyes and green lips, tiny witches, long rangy witches, frowning witches, smiling witches...so when he saw the woman at the top of the stairs there was no way for him to resist climbing up toward her outstretched hands" (Morrison 239). He thought Circe, like the oracle, to be dead and thought, "she had to be dead. Not because of the wrinkles... but because out of the toothless mouth came the strong, mellifluent voice of a twenty-year-old girl" (Morrison 240). Circe had a supernatural aura just like her namesake, who Odysseus meets off the coast of Greece. She is an integral part of Milkman's journey because she leads him in the direction of his history.
Oral culture in Song of Solomon is an element to the process of self-discovery (Ferrari 2). The increased exposure to "black art forms" or oral culture inducts him into his quest for facts and autonomy allowing him to gain personal power and spiritual healing (Scott 27). It is his resistance to not accept his place in life ultimately leads him to follow the "gold" for what he thought would be the escape to "live my own life" (Morrison 221-22). Instead he found something more than gold, as on the hunting trip he found, "there was nothing here to help him- not his money, his car, his father's reputation, his suit, or his shoes" (Morrison 277). Milkman has "shed the materialism fostered by white America as he traces his paternal history" and is able to find out truths about him self (Ferrari 2). His contact with the natural world has put his spiritual transformation into motion, allowing for his senses to take over and realize that the living world speaks. "It was all language...it was what there was before language. Before things were written down. Language in the time when men and animals did talk to one another" (Morrison 278). It is as Derrick Jensen calls, "A Language Older Than Words" and he explains that humans have forgotten it just as Milkman has forgotten his cultural heritage (Jensen).
The clash between written language and oral culture are central to the text because written language subordinates Milkman's cultural heritage. Morrison uses the written and oral language to create a new reality where Milkman can become his true self. John Zerzan, a green anarchist writer, comes to the conclusion, "An infinitely diverse reality is captured by finite language; it subordinates all of nature to its formal system." (Zerzan 3). He is illustrating that reality can be ever changing and different but is constrained by "conforming" to language. Milkman is conformed to the written, taking and recording money for example. What little history he is told is through folklore and he only gets sparse details. The thing about African history and culture is that it was not recorded while the slave traders tried to suppress their cultural traits such as their African language. Although the colonizers tried to separate the Africans from their cultural heritage through restricting the use of their oral communication, it is "in fact, one of the cultural vestiges Africans transported to America" (Hamlet 27). Words become magical through their power to create reality, for example the naming of the characters. Through the use of the Bible, the characters are named by pointing to a section and whatever name the finger landed on was the names of the Dead children. It also seems interesting that Macon Dead Sr. could not read but had a direct connection with the land he owned. When words become written they also become "symbolic" and turn "towards abstraction" which "eroded face-to-face interaction and eroded people's direct, intimate relationship with the natural world" (Zerzan 7). Dead Sr. had an intimate relationship with his property, "the man who could plow forty (acres) in no time flat and sang like an angel while he did it" (Morrison 235). Macon Sr.'s power is with the land, animals, and the living world, not in the symbolic, written reality that brought about his destruction.
Place is also a very important tool used by Morrison to show the great migration of African-Americans from the North to the South. It can be seen as a reversal of the great migration where freed slaves traveled from the North to the South in order to find their cultural heritage. In order for Milkman to complete his journey he must trek back to his origins to discover his identity. It is the disconnection from place and from the traditional ritualistic culture of African Americans that the Dead family is missing. A sense of place is not only a physical place but also a sense of being. Place is the acceptance by the people around you along with being a physical point on Earth. Milkman's first time experiencing a true sense of place is when he is at Pilate's house and he realizes that "it was the first time in his life that he remembered being completely happy" (Morrison 47). As Milkman continues his journey he comes to revelations that seem to challenge all that he felt and thought about his family and his home. He is in Shalimar, Virginia when he remembers Pilate, "Hundreds of miles away, he was homesick for her, for her house, for the very people he had been hell-bent to leave" (Morrison 299). It is hundreds of miles away that he realizes how important his place really is. He understands after going through all his trials and tribulations that a place can be, "without one article of comfort in it...but peace was there, energy, singing, and now his own remembrances" (Morrison 301).
Milkman must complete a "ritual" before he can learn his true identity. The catalyst is when he faces death, in the form of Guitar with a noose, and he is able to free himself from his ego. This ego is eloquently described by Milkman's sister, "And to this day, you have never asked one of us if we were tired, or sad, or wanted a cup of coffee. You've never picked up anything heavier than your own feet, or solved a problem harder than fourth-grade arithmetic. Where do you get the right to decide our lives?" (Morrison 215). Milkman never even notices the people and things he has taken advantage of. He never once thought of Hagar as a person, just as he never really thought of his mother and sisters as individuals. Once he transforms, once his ego dies, Milkman's "self- the cocoon that was "personality" &emdash;gave way" (Morrison 277). This realization helps Milkman to come to peace with himself, with his identity. He sees the error in believing he "deserves" anything and comes to the conclusion that, if anything, he did deserve to die at Hagar's hands.
The first part of the "ritual" towards Milkman's true identity is the act of hunting, a primitive act, an act for men. Ursula K. LeGuin, another green anarchist writer, writes about the primitive man pointing out that hunting is the wilderness of men while childbirth is the women's wilderness (LeGuin 149). The second "ritual" that Milkman must forgo is facing his death. In order for Milkman to be reborn he must first experience a spiritual death. His death "filled him with such sadness to be dying, leaving this world at the fingertips of his friend" and took another breath but that was not a dying one but the breath of the living (Morrison 279). It is through this act that Milkman is able to cross over from double-consciousness to a more whole truer self. When he leaves the woods he was "really laughing, and he found himself exhilarated by simply walking the earth... and he did not limp" (Morrison 281). This excerpt conveys how his experience has physically healed his disability, which caused him to limp on one leg. It also shows the re-born Milkman who is transformed physically and spiritually through this ritual of hunting and death.
The reader discovers that the main character, Milkman's great-grandfather, was the descendant of the famous flying African, Solomon. The folktale of the flying Africans starts with a shaman getting caught and brought to the Americas. The shaman, finding his enslaved people, teaches "the words which can induce the power to fly" because they had forgotten the magical words. In one version, the shaman teaches the words to a woman, Sarah, and her child and upon uttering them, they fly "clumsily at first" before rising "free as a bird" (Wilentz 23). "It is through the acknowledgment of one's African heritage and the learning of the power of the ancestors that the African American community can achieve wholeness" (Wilentz 28). This story is the main frame for the "Odyssey" like journey that Milkman must take to find his family's legacy and rebirth. It is through the learning of the power of his ancestors and by going through a symbolic rebirth that Milkman is able to achieve wholeness.
After Milkman travels back home he discovers that Hagar has died from a broken heart and once he tells Pilate of the story of Solomon and her father she wants to travel to Shalimar, Virginia. They want to return the bones of Pilate's father to Solomon's Leap. It is the place where the legend all started and where it also ends. It mimics the cyclic motions of his journey when he goes South to look for gold and comes back to conclude the epic journey of the past where he finds that the real riches are the myths of his forefathers. This theme of going back to the original leap in which he was born is a symbolic symmetry between his birth and death. Milkman's life starts with flying and song while the end of the novel is commemorated with Milkman being a part of the oral traditions that are normally part of the maternal world. Oral traditions are part of the maternal world because it is the spoken that is the women's history whereas the written is men's history and is a means to serve the present. He commemorates his own flight with singing to Pilate at her death just as she sung for him when he was born. Milkman's grandfather becomes part of the landscape, as does Pilate when she dies at the hands of Guitar.
In conclusion, the reader discovers that oral traditions are central to Toni Morrison's novels, especially in Song of Solomon. It is through the oral traditions that Milkman is able to find spiritual solace and transformation. He reaches a point where he understands his own shortcomings and accepts them as egotistical. Milkman's realization sparks his knowledge that, "if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it" (Morrison 337). The question that is left behind by these men who ride the air is, who is left? The women are left behind and it is the women who keep these men's memories alive. Milkman knows that it is the women and children who remember the men who "fly" away, whether they literally fly or leave through death, they still leave their memory. "You can't just fly on off and leave a body" is what Milkman's great grandfather kept telling Pilate but he didn't mean dead bodies, he meant the people that are left alone without an identity (Morrison 332). It becomes the children and women's duty to keep oral tradition, myth, and cultural identity passed on to the next generation but due to the Dead family's move to the North during the great migration these traditions were lost. Milkman's quest for his cultural heritage allowed him to discover his true whole self while also opening his eyes to his own flaws, which enables him to abolish double consciousness within himself. This duty to keep the oral culture alive is how Toni Morrison uses her literary vehicle to enlighten the "oppressed" into understanding so that African American's can heal.
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