A Character Analysis of Macon in Song of Solomon
It’s no accident that we make every effort to have our names remembered. Whether it’s the Indigenous Americans who named their youngsters after those who had died to ensure each name’s history wouldn’t be forgotten, or the Western tradition of adopting our parents’ surname, names define us, and we carry our family names’ history accordingly. But what if we had no knowledge of our surname? What if our surname wasn’t our true one? This is the challenge the central character of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Macon III “Milkman” Dead, grapples with. Having grown up without knowledge of his past, Milkman embarks on a quest to find it. His journey propels the plot of Song of Solomon forward, culminating in the realization that our past is internalized within us and manifests around us, even if we’re unconscious of it.
We learn from the past to avoid repeating old mistakes. Milkman Dead, however, is destined to repeat the errors of his ancestors since he lacks knowledge of his family’s history; he is unaware of his past. Ironically, when he intentionally sets out to explore the Dead family’s history, he repeats the mistake of his ancestor, Solomon. Just as Solomon abandoned his wife Reyna to madness and his twenty-one children in pursuit of something better, so does Milkman leave his ex-lover Hagar to her madness (and eventual death) while journeying South to trace his ancestry. It is only after he internalizes his ancestor Solomon’s actions that he realizes he “hurt [Hagar], left her … [w]hile he dreamt of flying, Hagar was dying” (Morrison 332). By leaving Hagar behind, Milkman becomes his generation’s Solomon. Without knowledge of his family’s history, Milkman inevitably repeated the same mistake his ancestor made.
How it works
Our past manifests itself in our existence. Although Milkman is completely unaware of his family tree, elements of his past expose themselves and affect him. An alternative rendition of the Dead ancestors’ song, the titular ‘Song of Solomon,’ is sung at his birth by his aunt, Pilate Dead. The song, which is also Reyna’s lament over Solomon’s journey, also foreshadows Milkman’s future. Milkman mirrors his ancestor’s flight when he flies (in an airplane) from his affluent life in the north to the underdeveloped south. Like Solomon, he sees what he leaves as restrictive: “Lena’s rage, Corinthians’ disarrayed and uncombed hair, matching her soft lips, Ruth’s escalated surveillance, his father’s unending greed, Hagar’s vacant eyes,” causing him to feel “fed up,” and consequently, leaving even more quickly (220-221). What drives him to the south, however, is gold. Macon II Dead, believing that the green bag Pilate carries holds gold, instructs Milkman and his friend, Guitar, to take it. Upon retrieving it, the Macons (excluding Guitar) discover that it contains bones, presumably, the bones of the miner Pilate and Macon II Dead murdered. However, the lust for gold persisted after the bones’ discovery, prompting Milkman to travel south to Pilate’s hometown in search of it. Unknown to the readers and characters, the bones are actually those of Pilate and Macon II Dead’s father – Milkman’s grandfather. Therefore, Morrison proposes that Milkman’s past is the real gold to be discovered within Pilate’s green bag, and that it is indeed his ancestry that propels him to fly south.
The past influences our everyday lives. However, it is only when we are fully aware of it can we learn from our past and the mistakes it entails. Milkman’s desire to uncover the past motivates his journey from his privileged life in the North to his ancestor’s land in the underdeveloped South, essentially mirroring the journey (and mistake) of his predecessor, Solomon. He only realizes his error after Pilate and Hagar, his Reyna, and twenty-one children have disappeared. Song of Solomon concludes with Milkman’s flight – this time though, he is flying toward, not away from, Pilate and Hagar. He has learned from the past.