Geography, Identity and the Past in Toni Morrison’s ‘Song of Solomon’

Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon revolves around the search for identity.  The desire to know oneself dominates the actions of the characters in the novel, and it is through their actions that an interconnectivity between the past, geography and identity is made apparent.  Throughout the novel, Morrison presents geography as a manifestation of time, and posits that an awareness of the past is integral to each character discovering their true identity.  Morrison explores this connection by describing to the reader, the journey of the protagonist, Milkman, to his ancestral home in the South.  It is only by undertaking this physical, geographical journey that he can unlock his past and identity, and genuinely understand himself.

The importance of identity in Song of Solomon is immediately established in the opening line of the novel, “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.”[1].  The novel begins not with action, but with a formal introduction to a man identified only by his occupation, beginning a theme repeated throughout the novel of people being defined not by their character, but by the impersonality of their work.  Although we learn his name is Robert Smith a few lines later from his signature at the bottom of his brief note, our tentative familiarity is instantly rebuffed by his addition of “Ins. agent”[2].  This addition instils a sense of distance that is exacerbated by the presence of a narrator who refers to Robert as Mr. Smith.  Morrison’s insistence on formality erects a barrier to our understanding of Robert’s intent, and typifies the frosty impersonality of the first half of the novel.  However, it soon becomes clear that while formality erects a barrier to understanding, it is our ignorance of his past that solidifies our inability to interpret and understand this seemingly random event.  Smith’s note provides no reason for his flight, and the narrator’s short discussion of what little his neighbours knew about him is summarised by the doubt inherent in their conjecture that “He never beat anybody up and he wasn’t seen after dark, so they thought he probably was a nice man.”[3]  Smith’s past in the city is only defined by its absence; which suggests that without a past, one does not have an identity.  The novel’s immediate connection of the past with identity is soon furthered by the introduction of other characters.  In particular, this correlation of the past and identity is demonstrated in the differences between Milkman’s aunt, Pilate, and his father, Macon Dead Jr.  Pilate is an earthy, open and happy woman who embraces her culture, her past, and therefore her identity, whereas Macon Jr. craves wealth, and prestige.  He believes that if he owns enough property it will nullify his skin colour, which visually represents his past and his identity.   As such, he is the shining example of “those characters who are not concerned with their ancestral… heritage, those who refuse to acknowledge and accept their past and their racial identity, [and therefore] are lost, confused.”[4]

The difference between the siblings, which causes contrasting connections to their past, and therefore identity, is their understanding of, and association with geography.  This can be seen “When the omniscient narrator comments on the difference between Ruth, Milkman’s bourgeois mother and his Aunt Pilate, [as] he/she highlights the geographical issue: ‘One well read but ill traveled. The other had read only a geography book, but had been from one end of the country to another’”[5].  Pilate lives a wanderer’s lifestyle and her identity is “tied in with the localities where she has been”[6].  “The only things she does carry with her are linked to her past and geography; a bag with bones…”[7] and a geography book.  This suggests geography as a representation of time.

What we understand of the interconnection between the past, identity and geography from the novel’s opening scene and the introduction of characters can be surmised in the following statements: firstly, the past is integral in defining one’s identity and secondly, to access this past, one must have knowledge of geography therefore; geography is a manifestation of time.  With these two concepts now established, the importance of geography as a means to discover the past and, in turn, one’s identity can be fully understood.

The interplay of geography as time is a continuous force in the novel.  The theme is represented in Song of Solomon on both a macrocosmic and microcosmic scale.  On the macrocosmic scale, the most obvious example is the divide between the Northern and Southern States.  Derived from the historically accurate political alignment of the American States during the Civil War, Morrison exploits this divide.  She uses the different lingering social and economic climates inherent to the North and South to present them as two separate time periods.  She assigns the present to the modern, industrially developed, and supposedly socially progressive North, and assigns the past to the agrarian, socially conservative South.  This country-wide assignment is validated by the novel-wide reincarnation of Milkman’s character during his journey south to his ancestral home in Virginia.  While Milkman is in the North, in what is likely Detroit due to its position on Lake Superior, he lives his life in a rather detached and aimless way.  He cannot forge the familial bonds so integral to identity with his mother, father or siblings and he does not enjoy his job or wealth.   This dearth of connection with family stems from that fact that in the North Milkman is disconnected from his ancestral past   Milkman’s journey south, morphs from a search for gold into a search for his past, allowing him to realise his subconscious desire to acquire the wealth of his identity rather than the monetary wealth of gold.  Milkman’s slow discovery of his identity as he journey ever southwards through America towards his ancestral roots beautifully illustrates on a nationwide scale the idea that geography and travel are intimately connected with time.  On his journey Milkman moves from the modernity of the North to the agrarian past of the South.  The journey becomes a reconnection with his past, a re-forging of old familial bonds; and importantly shows the connection of travel and geography with the past and a true understanding of self.

The assertion that geography is time, established on this massive, country spanning scale, is portrayed in smaller scale in the geography of Detroit itself.  Despite being in the North, the demographics of Detroit’s neighbourhoods mirror the wider physical and temporal divide between North and South.  The Southside of the city is a predominantly poor, black area.  The ‘blackest’ area of the community, colloquially known as the Blood Bank.  Ostensibly deriving its name from the violence of the neighbourhood, the fact that much of the novel’s severe violence is actually perpetrated by racially motivated whites, suggests that in fact, the Blood Bank more aptly describes the area as being the heart of the black community.  Here, the black citizens are geographically the furthest from the white suburbs; and here, in the bars and barbershops, the black community is most at home.  They can relax and even Milkman manages to enjoy himself in the Blood Bank, foreshadowing Milkman’s future personality change as he journeys south into the past, and therefore discovers his identity.  The Blood Bank is a Detroit version of Shalimar, his forebear Solomon’s hometown.  The nature and location of the Blood Bank and the Southside within Detroit, reflects the North/South divide and reiterates the union between geography and the past, and the past’s effect on people’s identity.

The effect of geography on identity is further demonstrated by where the characters reside.  The Dead’s house, situated on Not Doctor Street, was deliberately bought by the Doctor, the first black doctor in town, to be as far from the Blood Bank as possible in an attempt to efface his black skin colour; a visual reminder of his heritage and past.  The Doctor’s desire to distance himself from his identity is continued by Macon Dead Jr. who marries the Doctor’s daughter Ruth in an effort to acquire the large house and expand his material wealth.  Morrison casts this desire for prestige and wealth as a white aspiration and it underscores the concept that the Dead’s geographic isolation from the Blood Bank removes them from their past and in turn their identity and happiness, “…the first years of Milkman’s life, in the urban North, in a home that fits the name of the family, Dead.  There is no life in the house, not even in the car.”[8]  In contrast, Macon Dead Jr.’s sister Pilate has rejected the white notion of monetary wealth as a means of happiness, embodying the opposite end of the spectrum by living with her daughter and granddaughter close to the Blood Bank and openly embracing her culture, her past, and her identity.  This close association with the heart of the South Side manifests itself in the atmosphere of  “Pilate’s home, which emanates life and love, and actually has a spiritual, magical quality.”[9]  The varied geographic locations of the characters’ homes within Detroit, directly influence their differing connections to the past and therefore, their identity.  Detroit then, on a smaller geographic scale, reinforces the representation of the North as the present and the South as the past, and that the characters’ differing geographic locations, directly correlates with their engagement with the past and identity.

Having established the North as a representation of the modernity and the South as a symbol of the past, Morrison uses Milkman’s journey to Virginia as a vehicle to allow a closer, microscopic examination of the interconnectivity of geography, the past and identity.   One of the first comprehensive images of Milkman, which helps to establish his identity, comes during his family’s weekly drive.  Whereas the reader would expect “The rational dominant note would be that of driving, of mobility, of passing landscape… in Morrison’s description, geography is much more linked to time.  Little Milkman trapped between his parents in the front seat can see no landscape… The only way to see something was to kneel and face backwards, yet the implication of only seeing what had passed, makes him uneasy: Milkman does not want to see the past.”[10]  This shows that from his first days Milkman’s desire to physically look behind him is suppressed.  It mirrors his fathers rejection of the past, but furthermore, his distaste of looking behind him represents “his desire to beat a path away from his parents’ past, which was also their present and which was threatening to become his present as well”[11].  While these early references to the past are negative and are focused on his immediate family, the past ultimately becomes a positive force, which is revealed when Milkman travels into his further ancestors’ homeland.  This occurs because his ancestral past, unlike that of his immediate family, is not one of exclusion.  The alienated, fabricated and isolated past of his immediate family, typified by their geographic location in Detroit, differs from that of their ancestors and as such, young “Milkman’s alienation from black culture is expressed in his hollow, daily monotony as a result from trying to cling to the white, bourgeois, urban values that his parents have given him.”[12] This detached past defines Milkman’s character in the beginning of the novel.  Before his journey, he is self-centred and uncaring, isolated him from both his black and white peers, but he also feels inherently unfulfilled and discomforted.  Eventually this disconnection from others becomes too much for him.  Milkman’s relationships with other characters become increasingly difficult; and his increasingly introspective and depressed behavior strains even his relationship with his best friend Guitar.  In order to liberate himself “from his father’s domination and emotional blackmail”[13] he feels he must leave the city, which he does at the first opportunity.  Motivated by his family’s stories of gold in a cave he sets out to acquire this wealth for himself.  Milkman journeys south, interestingly reversing the historical pattern of black migration.  This supports the geographical symbolism of the South as the past, and effectively heralds Milkman’s imminent discovery of the true gold, his real identity and sense of self.

As Milkman south, “Milkman travels from indifference and egotism in urban Michigan to empowerment and community in Virginia.”[14]  This change of identity is not immediate, but rather, it builds gradually, reflecting the slow and increasingly deep embrace of his past as he moves south.  Milkman’s understanding grows as he slowly learns to read the significance of the landscape that Morrison has imbued with supernatural qualities.  “The presence of this supernatural quality of the landscape, which contains the secrets and the mythic history of the people who live there is intentional on behalf of the writer.”[15]  “It’s an animated world in which…the presence or absence of birds is meaningful. You have to be very still to understand these so called signs, in addition to which they inform you about your own behavior.”[16]  The need to be still in order to understand the past’s secrets reveals why Milkman’s journey to his family’s ancestral home (within America), the fountain of his past and identity, is not an easy one.  Whereas his ancestors were intimately tied to the slow seasonal turns of the rustic South, his immediate family knows instead “…the time of the Industrial Revolution where schedules had to be met…”[17] a rejection of his forebears’ connection to the land.  Therefore, in order to link with his past, Milkman must slowly learn to acknowledge and understand the landscape.  As such, his journey south begins a “process of deculturization”[18] revolving around “the gradual dispossession of his urban commodities.”[19]

Milkman begins his journey south in the comfort of a modern aeroplane.  In Song of Solomon Morrison depicts flight as a symbol of escape and at this early point in his journey Milkman is escaping Detroit.  However, as he journeys south, Milkman is no longer escaping, but is unconsciously reconnecting with, and grounding himself in his past and his origins.  To emphasise this growing reconnection Morrison underscores this figurative grounding by physically grounding the plane and having Milkman travel further south by bus. In the novel characters, such as Pilate, who have forged strong links to their past, and therefore, a fully formed identity, possess the strength to escape at will.  “Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.”[20]  In the air Milkman is bereft, escaping from Detroit but disconnected from his past and identity.  On the ground Milkman can begin “the gradual dispossession of his urban commodities.”[21]  However, once on the bus, “His conditioning has made him incapable of appreciating the landscape or nature. It has no meaning for him.”[22]  Morrison then further downgrades Milkman to travelling by foot and car, which sometimes breaks down, ensuring “a learning process… to be able to “read” the book of nature and the significance of places.”[23]  This learning process starts in Danville where, “he begins to understand the links between place, people and heritage.”[24] and it is here that time begins to warp and slow. Milkman has to wait four days for his car to be fixed and it becomes apparent that a quick visit with Circe, his father’s midwife, is out of the question.  This contrasts with the fast moving pace of city life and is a significant step into his past.

Milkman’s visit to Circe’s house in Danville continues the blurring of past and present.  After he has sweated and laboured his way to her house, Milkman is overwhelmed by the stench of rot.  However, turning away, the rot is replaced by another smell: the smell of ginger spice.  This mysterious, animalistic scent, inherently linked with the past, is characteristic of the Far East and of Milkman’s heritage.  The smell of ginger evoking the past appears earlier in the novel.  It is smelt by the residents of the Southside, whose neighbourhood symbolises the past in Detroit while it is absent from the Dead’s home in modern northern Detroit indicating their disconnection from the past and isolation from their ancestors.  Milkman’s ability to discern the smell of ginger spice in place of the stench of decay triggers a kind of suspended reality, or dream state.  In this state Milkman is open, for the first time, to the reality of the supernatural.  This acceptance of the supernatural symbolises Milkman’s fledgling ability to understand his surrounding landscape and in turn, discover his past and identity.  With this increased understanding he is now ready for the directions that Circe provides him for the next step in his search for gold.  In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe helps Odysseus find his way home and in Song of Solomon she similarly inhabits a house in the woods and fulfils the same role.  Through references to Milkman’s family history, it is suggested that Circe has been alive for an unnaturally long time and Morrison makes it is unclear whether she is an apparition or not.  Regardless, her unnaturally long, supernatural existence outside Danville, combined with the redolent ginger scent, signifies how Milkman’s journey south is being transformed from a search for gold, into a search for his past and his true identity.

While in Danville however, his obsession with the gold prohibits his learning.  Milkman is unaware that his meeting with Circe is a major milestone in the process of his deculturalisation; however, while he follows her directions to the cave, this process continues.  The difficulties and realities of the geography he travels through force him to remove pieces of his clothing, physical representations of his modern city life.  This purging of his city identity represents Milkman discarding his alienated and detached past.  As he crosses the stream, now deprived of the fine thin socks and shoes he loves so much, he slips and is immersed by the waters of the stream.  This conjures baptismal imagery, and suggests Milkman is being baptised by the land, being joined to the past.  Just as the Christian rite of baptism symbolises an embracement in the folds of religion, Milkman’s baptism by the land is an embrace by the arms of his ancestral past.  When he eventually reaches the cave he finds it empty.  This absence of gold, the commodity by which his father, Macon Dead Jr. has defined himself, signifies the decreasing relevance of monetary wealth in Milkman’s identity and that “his desire to beat a path away from his parents’ past, which was also their present and which was threatening to become his present as well”[25] is in the process of being realised.  Returning to the road to Danville, the same forest that had so heavily obstructed his path when clothed in the trappings of the city seems to yield.  Significantly one of the items broken is his watch, an object of “city time, the time of the Industrial Revolution where schedules had to be met, was of no significance here.”[26]  The destruction of this symbol of the present, of the modernity and the North, emphasises the fact that his immersion in the past is now total.

Milkman’s now total immersion and connection with the past now allows him to start finding his identity.  Although at this stage he is not entirely aware of this, he feels compelled visit Shalimar, despite the fact that his is now very doubtful the gold he seeks even exists.  It is in Shalimar that Milkman finally uses the skills gained in the forest outside Danville to read the landscape and feel connected to it.  This connection to the land and the past provides the vital link he needs to fully recognise his identity.  This burgeoning connection occurs in what is a more intense version of his first forest experience, but this time with the men of Shalimar.  Arriving at Shalimar, which significantly is not signposted suggesting Milkman’s growing sense of direction and connection to the landscape, he is immediately struck by the fact that “there was something he felt now-here in Shalimar, and earlier in Danville-that reminded him of how he used to feel in Pilate’s house”[27].  He is, of course, recognising the link between the past and his identity.  However, before he can fully embrace the past and be accepted among the people that share his ancestor’s identity, he must complete the process of cleansing himself of his city values.  He does so in a fight with one of the men, demonstrating his grit and worth.  As a result, the local men invite him on a ritualised hunt.  For this “He is made to shed completely his urban attire-protection, even his money, the very symbol of his aim in life, by changing clothes”[28] into hunting gear.  In doing so he is garbed appropriately for his location, and similar to the people who surround him and share his ancestors identity.  Mirroring his earlier forest ordeal, Milkman plunges into the night forest.  Morrison’s decision to stage the hunt at night emphasises the identity crisis Milkman is facing.  He is not sure which way to turn, what to do in this foreign environment as he does not identify with the black ideal of hunting.  It is in this terrifying darkness however, that “He realizes his mistakes: ‘Ignorance, he thought, and vanity’”[29] and “realizes that nothing he has is of any use to him out in this wilderness, ‘where all a man had was what he was born with, or had learned to use. And endurance. Eyes, ears, nose, taste, touch-and some other sense that he knew he did not have: an ability to separate out, of all the things there were to sense, the one that life itself might depend on’”[30] It is this connection to the land and the ability it bestows upon Milkman “…to separate out, of all the things there were to sense,”[31] that allows him to unravel the riddle of his past, which is wrapped up in the riddle of the children’s song.

Like the landscape, song can maintain the past as ideas and stories are passed from generation to generation.  Throughout Song of Solomon singing is used to recall and resurrect the past, to have the power to heal, and to bring people closer.  Pilate, perhaps the strongest and most earthly character in the novel constantly sings.  When Macon Jr. is depressed and unable to return to his home, which is removed from black culture, he listens to Pilate singing and thinks back to his childhood when he was connected to Pilate, his father, the land and his people.  Pilate and Reba retreat into song to cope with Hagar’s death.  Importantly, singing is often not a solitary activity, highlighting a significant theme of the novel that identity comes from a shared past and experience. It is therefore entirely fitting that it the symbol of Milkman’s final and full connection with his past and ancestors is his realisation of the meaning of song sung by the children Shalimar about the flight of his ancestor Solomon.  Now that he understands and is connected to a shared past, Milkman lusts for the ocean, desiring to baptise himself in its vast waters.  This baptism mirrors his earlier baptism in the forest stream, but on a grander, much larger scale symbolising his embrace of his true self and a shared enriching identity.

Song of Solomon is a quest for individual and shared identity.  In the novel characters who are disconnected from themselves and estranged from their past and community are uneasy and uncomfortable, but characters with strong connections to the past and their cultural and ancestral roots are at ease and happy.  The novel is anchored in Milkman’s physical journey from alienation and estrangement to his discovery himself and cultural identity.  Through his southerly journey Morrison clearly establishes the links between geography and the past and the eventual realisation of self and identity.   In order for Milkman to truly discover his identity and his worth he must connect with his past and strip away the acquired aggregations of modernity and formality.  Milkman’s journey south enables him to slowly understand the land and feel a physical connection and closeness with the geography of his past.  Milkman can only find the true gold of happiness by establishing an identity rooted in a connection with his past, his ancestors and the sense of place and belonging derived from the geography of his journey.

Bibliography:

Furman, Jan, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: A Casebook (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Junquera, Carmen Flys, “Time as Georaphy in Song of Solomon”, Web. 12 Apr. 2013. <http://dspace.uah.es/dspace/bitstream/handle/10017/4849/Time%20as%20Geography%20in%20Song%20of%20Solomon.pdf?sequence=1

Morrison, Toni, Song of Solomon, (Vintage Books, 2006).

Smith, Valerie, Self-discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative, (Harvard University Press, 1991).


[1] Morrison, Toni, Song of Solomon, (Vintage Books, 2006). Pg. 1

[2] Morrison, Pg. 1

[3] Morrison, Pg. 8

[4] Junquera, Carmen Flys, “Time as Georaphy in Song of Solomon”, Web. 12 Apr. 2013. <http://dspace.uah.es/dspace/bitstream/handle/10017/4849/Time%20as%20Geography%20in%20Song%20of%20Solomon.pdf?sequence=1>  Pg. 60

[5] Junquera, Pg. 60

[6] Junquera, Pg. 60

[7] Junquera, Pg. 60

[8] Junquera, Pg. 62

[9] Junquera, Pg. 64

[10] Junquera, Pg. 65

[11] Morrison, Pg. 81

[12] Junquera, Pg. 65

[13] Junquera, Pg. 66

[14] Furman, Jan, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: A Casebook (Oxford University Press, 2003). Pg. 12

[15] Junquera, Pg. 62

[16] Junquera, Pg. 62

[17] Junquera, Pg. 67

[18] Junquera, Pg. 67

[19] Junquera, Pg. 68

[20] Morrison, Pg. 336

[21] Junquera, Pg. 67

[22] Junquera, Pg. 66

[23] Junquera, Pg. 66

[24] Junquera, Pg. 67

[25] Morrison, Pg. 81

[26] Junquera, Pg. 67

[27] Smith, Valerie, Self-discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative, (Harvard University Press, 1991).

[28] Junquera, Pg. 70

[29] Junquera, Pg. 71

[30] Junquera, Pg. 71

[31] Morrison, Pg. 277

© Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

3 comments

  1. I wish I could write literary criticism as in depth, but as concise as this, and I’m certain my professors wish I could too. Very nice work.

  2. Well done. Thanks for following me on Cold, too – I’m delighted to have found your blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: