Song of Solomon Multigenre Project
By Leigh Johnson
Two Voice Poem: Milkman and Hagar
I see you. I see you.
Bending over me.
Leaning away from me.
Your face Your face
Will you love me?
Will you forgive me?
Could you ever at all? Could you ever at all?
And when I see your eyes And when I see your eyes
Full of pain
Full of disapproval
I know that I deserved it. I know that I deserved it.
Hold me as I fall asleep.
Two names Two names
Two souls inextricably linked Two souls inextricably linked
Let me break the bonds now. Let me break the bonds now.
HagarLet me fly away. Let me fly away.
*The formatting messed up here. See the attachment to the email.
Dramatic Monologue: Sing
Momma says I don’t know much. And maybe, by her standards, she’s right. I don’t know the songs and traditions of which she speaks so fondly. I don’t understand why she insists on calling me “Singing Bird” – that is an animal, not a name. My name is Sing Byrd. It’s a real name. Being my mother’s child, I couldn’t escape the slight oddity of the name – people still give a slight double take when they hear it for the first time. But at least it’s real. When I tell Momma this, she shakes her head and begins to hum that melody she loves. I am sick of that ditty. I can’t understand why she sings it. So yes, maybe she’s right. Maybe I don’t know much. But I do know one thing. I have to get out of here.
I can’t keep living in the past anymore. I can’t keep living among the tradition and the chanting and the heartbreak. My people have been battered and humiliated because we have insisted on living in the past. We can’t seem to just pick ourselves up and GO! Do you like that phrase? I’ve heard the white men in town use it. Interestingly enough, it was one of them who showed me what I could do. I remember the day rather clearly. There I was, walking up to the storefront in my red dress, when he opened the door and said, “Here you go, pretty miss.” I tell you, I barely kept my composure – I could’ve run into the store whooping and hollering with glee. A white man wouldn’t say that to a red girl. That man thought I was white.
When I told Momma about it, she didn’t whoop and holler with glee. In fact, she looked rather troubled. She didn’t seem to understand that a world had just been opened up to me. I can pass! I can finally fly forward into the future! She doesn’t understand. She can never understand. But there’s one person who can. Jake told me last night that he’s ready to fly, too. He can’t take it either – the humiliation, the hopelessness of a broken people. He’s going to try his luck up North, see what lies in wait for a black man in the land of opportunity. I can read, and he can defend us. Together, we’ll be unstoppable. I may not know much, but I know I’m ready to fly – and together, we’re going to soar.
Photograph: Milkman Taking Flight
Original Poem: For Now He Knew What Shalimar Knew
“If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
And so he flew.
And he took with him Hagar’s fragrant hair.
And he took Macon’s greedy hands and Ruth’s broken heart.
And Pilate’s mouth, always working, moving,
And Reba’s arms, the arms that were always open.
All this he took as he flew to the cat eyes.
And so he flew,
And he took Ryna’s song and the voice of Sing:
“Shalimar, don’t leave me here.”
And so he brought his mothers home.
But the bones of Macon Dead the First –
“Jake, the only son of Shalimar”
These he left rooted in the ground of his birth.
And so he settled all that must be settled.
And so he set free all that must be set free.
And the things that he carried were not burdens, but wings.
And they lifted him, and he lifted them,
Following the winds of Ryna’s song.
And so they flew.
All together as one they flew toward the cat eyes.
Polished Piece of Precis Writing: The Woman Without a Navel
In one of her most well-known novels, Song of Solomon (1977), Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison uses the character of Pilate, the woman born with a "belly that looked like a back" (Morrison 148), to illustrate the factors that contribute to the formation of personal identity. At the core of Morrison's symbolic argument is an examination of race relations. The one square of centimeter of Pilate that appears different from other people causes her to be labeled as "some kinda mermaid" (Morrison 148); this one blemish demotes her to a status that is apparently subhuman. As the reader marvels at characters' unfair treatment of Pilate, he is forced, by an obvious progression, to examine the overarching concept of racial prejudice and see it as equally ridiculous. Just as Pilate could not control the circumstances of her birth, no person can choose the race into which she is born. The discrimination that Pilate faces, of men who shrink away from her naked body and entire communities who migrate to another place to avoid her, reflects upon the evils of racial prejudice, showing the lack of logic behind such senseless prejudice. However, at the same time, Morrison's Pilate embraces the ways that her lack of a navel defines who she is. Morrison states, "After a while, [Pilate] stopped worrying about her stomach, and stopped trying to hide it" (Morrison 148). Though Pilate's physical defect does not create in her the inherent evil that characters seem to sense, it does imbue her with a certain confidence and an unwillingness to apologize for who she is. In this way, Morrison addresses a sensitive topic, that of how race plays a defining role in the formation of identity. While race should never be a cause for prejudice, it does form an important part of who a person is, and it should be celebrated, not hidden from view.
Polished Piece of Precis Writing: That Which We Call a Rose
In one of her most brilliant literary works, Song of Solomon (1977), Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison utilizes the symbol of rose petals to illustrate the situation of the protagonist’s two sisters: Lena and Corinthians Dead. The rose petals first appear in one of the earliest pages of the novel, when a very pregnant Ruth Foster Dead and her two daughters gape at the impending suicide of insurance agent Robert Smith, who sits poised at the edge of a building, ready to fly away. Ruth drops the basket of red velvet rose petals that she is carrying to the department store, and the reader meets Lena and Corinthians for the first time as Morrison describes “her half-grown daughters” trying in vain to catch the rose petals they have sewn before they soil (Morrison 7). From the very first mention of Ruth’s daughters, the reader sees them as people who are “half-grown,” somehow stuck in between childhood and adulthood. Years later, when Corinthians and Lena are well into their forties, this situation is yet to change. Even now, they are “unfit for any work other than the making of red velvet roses” (Morrison 156). Their education has afforded them with nothing; unable to find suitable marriages, they remain listless maids. To many, roses are a symbol of youth and vitality. For Lena and Corinthians, they represent an overextended youth, a thirty-year stint of forced girlishness. Like roses, they have wilted, and they have nothing more than their fading exteriors. However, they have also developed the rose’s thorns. Each of them holds a cold resentment of their father and brother, who have held them down throughout their lives. In addition, Corinthians surrounds herself in an aura of cold superiority, refusing to accept her station in life. In fact, “when Corinthians woke up one day to find herself a forty-two-year-old maker of rose petals” (Morrison 158), the realization is almost painful. In this way, the rose becomes a symbol of Corinthians’ rebirth as she begins, for the first time, to take control of her life.
Quality Personified: Passion
Passion never liked the mountain country. The air there is too cold, too calming, too clear. She lives in the lake country, where winds blow off the bodies of water, stirring nagging feelings into sterile hearts. To meet her is to know her forever; to look into her eyes is to unlock something new and foreign within one’s self that can never again be hidden away. Some say that it’s the dress she wears, with its loud scarlet hues, that sears her image into the mind forever. Others hold that it’s her voice, that rich and melodic ocean of sound that alternates between bright sun and raging storm, that dances in one’s ears for years to come. However, most say that it’s her perfume, that teasing, elusive scent, that stays with them long after she is gone, filling their minds with fervor.
There is a song she sings, a melody that could be called an earworm were it not so alluring. They say you hear her coming before you see her, as her voice dances down the street to your open and vulnerable ears. Many have said that if one hears her melody once, he will never be able to get it out of his head again, that all the songs of his past will make way for the one progression of notes lilting ceaselessly through his head. Interestingly enough, no one seems to hear her song exactly the same way. However, they all say one thing: it makes them want to dance. They feel their bodies twitching, aching to break into wild movement. Some say that’s what she does. At night, they say, if you stay up late, you can see her leaping through the streets, her melody at her lips, her body rippling and gyrating through a wild tarantella. Several find her to be vaguely alarming; some even claim to be afraid of her. However, they will keep her in their lake town. They can all agree on that. She sings a song of forgetfulness, and that’s why they live in the lake country, after all – so that all the past can be blown away in the waves.
One Symbol Explored: The Peacock
It is rare that we think of the birds that cannot fly. Every day, we see birds soar through the air and hear them chirping from treetop to treetop. If we feel open, we say we’re “free as a bird.” If we stand on a hilltop, we have a “bird’s eye view” as we look at the countryside laid out below us. However, what about the bejeweled fowl that inspires both envy and art? If a person shows an excessive amount of egotism, we tell him that he is “proud as a peacock,” but the peacock itself cannot do that which comes so naturally to so many other birds. In Song of Solomon, Guitar Bains tells Milkman Dead, “Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” As the reader examines two peacocks, Milkman and his jilted lover Hagar, she can see the ways that ways that Milkman’s healing coincides with Hagar’s downfall.
At the beginning of the novel, Milkman cloaks himself in egotism and apathy. He struts through the town on his bad leg, isolating himself from everyone around him. He yearns to fly, but yet he keeps himself rooted with chains of his own making. However, once he returns to his homeland of Virginia, he is able to see himself in context. He understands the significance of his own heritage, and he accepts his own identity. In a twist of magical realism in the novel, there are two occasions where Milkman sees a peacock in flight. While he is alarmed and afraid the first time he sees it, by the second time, he takes it as a matter of course. For him, the flying peacock becomes a reflection of himself, of a man who is able to break past his exterior and do the impossible. Milkman’s girlfriend Hagar does not meet the same fate. In her obsession with Milkman, she becomes weighed down by the need to meet the “beautiful” white ideal for which she believes he yearns. As she fills her arms with new clothing and makeup, she takes on all the superficiality and materialism that Milkman had just set free. As Milkman moves from being a grounded peacock to a bird in flight, Hagar grounds herself in obsessive materialism. Both Milkman and Hagar are peacocks, but while the peacock becomes Milkman’s transition to flight, it only facilitates Hagar’s fall.
Literary Analysis Response
From Harriet Beecher Stowe to Pat Conroy, authors show a particular fascination with that region that has inspired both contention and praise: the South. Throughout its troubled history, the South has shown both salient evil and undeniable beauty, has rung with both shouts of jubilation and the cries of the oppressed. Some authors choose to depict the South as hellish land as they reveal the horrors of slavery and later racial prejudice and violence. Others, most notably Margaret Mitchell, pay tribute to a nostalgic vision of the South as a place of breathtaking plantation houses, soft voices, and undying chivalry. In her novel Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison chooses the South as the site of the healing of her protagonist, Milkman Dead. As Milkman reaches self-actualization in his homeland of Virginia, he separates himself from the cold, industrial nature of the North, learns the importance of his heritage, and finally becomes able to fully accept his own identity.
Milkman hails from the Great Lakes region, in an area stagnant but for the lapping waves of the body of water that it touches. Morrison depicts Milkman’s Michigan as a cold and gray place where people are unable to grow into true individuals. The area seems industrial, permeated with a sense of cold capitalism. Characters who live there seem to be stuck in a listless state of unhappiness, not an active melancholy so much as a sort of nagging dissatisfaction. People float from one location to another, very few people truly rooting themselves either physically or spiritually in one place. It is truly an atmosphere of stagnation, and neither Milkman or anyone in his family can develop fully into his or her own identity. When Milkman travels to Virginia, he enters a place very different from the atmosphere he has known before. The rural mountain area creates a tightknit community where people feel connected both with each other and with nature. Milkman finds himself able to break free from the apathetic nonexistence of his childhood and learn his place in the context of both the people around him and the natural world. Often, literary characters yearn to leave rural areas for the big city, and they receive their rites of passage when they make this transition. However, Milkman has been inundated in human corruption and apathy for all of his life, and so Morrison sends him to the rural South as a place for reconnection and healing.
In Virginia, Milkman is able to connect not only with the natural world but also with his ancestors. Growing up, he knew very little about his family; he did not even know his paternal grandfather’s real first name. Upon arriving in Virginia, though, he is able to piece together the story of his family’s past and, in conjunction with that, the people who created his identity. Suddenly, Milkman sees himself as a member of a family, of a group of people; his name, he realizes, is more than just a word used to describe him. Rather, his name reflects his family history and links him to his people. No longer does Milkman feel a sense of being disjointed from humanity, of going against the current. Instead, he realizes that he acts as part of an ongoing current, one that began with his ancestors long ago. Morrison uses the South as a vehicle to bring Milkman back together with his “people,” utilizing the region’s emphasis on family ties and tradition to show Milkman coming to terms with his family’s history.
At the conclusion of Milkman’s journey is the ultimate acceptance of himself, both in who he has been in the past and who he has become. Throughout his time in Virginia, Milkman begins to see life through the eyes of others, and he learns to understand and appreciate those who he had previously disdained. He understands Hagar’s love and Ruth’s loneliness, Pilate’s peculiarity and Macon’s materialism. As he connects with the people who molded his childhood, he sees their contributions to his life and growth, and, in conjunction with this, he can candidly assess his own actions in a way that he never could before. He loses his façade of defensive egotism in favor of a confident self-acceptance. He understands that he has done wrong in the past, and he embraces all parts of his personal history. Only upon doing this, upon leaving behind everything that weighed him down, can he achieve his lifelong dream of taking flight from the world that has heretofore held him down on the ground. It is the atmosphere of the South, of knowing his family history, that allows him this sort of self-understanding. When he learns of the story of Shalimar, he feels pride in his kinship with the man who truly took flight. When he can accept himself fully, knowing both the place from which he came and the place where he is now, he can finally achieve freedom.
Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon marks a departure from the techniques of earlier American literature, in which the South had always been used as lens for viewing controversial political and social issues of the day. Milkman’s journey to the South is a deeply personal experience, one that brings him to terms with his identity and his heritage. In Morrison’s novel, the South is a place of celebration, a place for embracing one’s roots. Morrison’s South is a land of healing, and when Milkman arrives there, he is transformed in his views of the world, of his heritage, and of himself.
Interview Transcript (Grandmother)
1. Why did our ancestors move to Fayette County? How involved were they in that community?
Archibald Mclucas from Scotland was one of the first white settlers in Fayette County, GA, having bought land there in 1829 after the treaty of Indian Springs was established.
2. Growing up, how were you aware of the political and social climates of the South?
In 1938, when I was born, things were quite different. I would have been in my teens before I could actually have described the climate in the South. At that time, my Grandfather had a farm, and we lived there. I don't remember a lot about the political and social issues. Then, we were not as aware as you young people are today. We didn't have access to cable news and TV; we listened to our parents and neighbors for our news. Parents didn't discuss issues as much with children. We went to church, and we were taught manners and respect. I can remember when my Grandfather would go into town and come and tell the family things he had heard.
3. What was it like to grow up during World War II?
I was very young when World War II started. I was aware of the sadness of parents and grandparents. My Father and my uncle both went to war.
4. Do you remember a particular situation or anecdote that you think sheds light on the experience of a child growing up during World War II?
I remember when my grandfather would go into Fayetteville, and the names of soldiers who were killed would be posted on the wall. He would come and tell my mom and grandmom if anyone they knew had died. I would feel so sad because they were always so upset. I would go and play with my dog Sam and try to be happy.
5. Describe your home. What was it like? What did you do for fun?
As I said earlier, my grandfather had a farm. I loved it because we had lots of animals and neighbors, and I was free to run and play. I went fishing with my grandmom, and we played board games and had family reunions. I remember being happy.
6. Was family tradition an important part of your childhood? Did you often hear stories about your ancestors and older relatives?
My grandfather was very proud of his family. He spoke of them often, and I enjoyed hearing about them. Tradition was very important.
7. Describe your school. What was it like there?
I loved school. We knew most of the students throughout our 12 years of school in a small town. I am still friends with lots of them today. We had discipline in our schools, and our parents supported the teachers. Learning was important to our teachers.
8. Do you have a favorite memory from when you were growing up? Describe it!
I loved going into town with my grandfather to the drug store where he worked as a pharmacist. He would buy an ice cream sundae and tell his friends about his grandchildren.
9. What was your favorite thing about your hometown?
I am not sure if I had a favorite thing about my hometown. I loved the church bells on Sunday mornings.
10. What was your least favorite thing about your hometown?
I didn't have a least favorite thing.
Born of a land steeped in tradition, my family began its journey to America by blazing a trail to an entirely new life. In 1783, John McLucas became the first member of my family to set foot on American soil when he landed in North Carolina after a journey across the Atlantic Ocean from Scotland. McLucas saw the young nation as a land of opportunity. The fourth youngest son in his family, he was drawn to America for its lack of primogeniture laws, which state that the firstborn son automatically inherits the family land. In America, he could set down his own roots. In the 1820s, the Treaty of Indian Springs provided a new opportunity for John’s relative Archibald McLucas. Under the terms of this treaty, the Creek tribe sold much of its land to the state of Georgia for $50,000. With this new land available, McLucas became one of Fayette County’s first settlers in 1829. It was here, in the area partially established by my family, that my grandmother’s story of the South began.
In 1938, the year my grandmother was born, America was on the brink of a new age. The Great Depression was coming to a close, and tensions in Europe were beginning to boil across the Atlantic. When America did enter World War II in 1941, my grandmother was not yet three. Her childhood was one of rationing not only food but also feelings. Her father and her uncle were torn from her in her youngest years when they went to serve in the war. She recalls her grandfather’s weekly trips into Fayetteville, the anticipation as she and her grandmother waited to see if the list of casualties he brought back with him carried a familiar name. Her childhood felt steeped in hardship that had little explanation. With nothing in the way of television media and little access to radio, her family was largely unable to keep in touch with the issues that tore apart the earth under her feet. What her family did learn, they typically didn’t tell her; children were typically kept insulated from current events and news. As such, though she saw the effects of the war everywhere around her, she was unable to completely understand what was happening.
Despite the turmoil that surrounded my grandmother’s childhood, she remembers it as a time of happiness, of church bells, and of playing with her dog Sam. Life was simpler then; she was unencumbered by the constant stresses of a world constantly trying to outdo itself. For twelve years, she attended a small, close-knit school, where she fostered her love of learning with people with whom she remains friends today. She enjoyed trips to town to visit her grandfather’s drug store, but she also loved to stay home on her farm where she could fish, play board games, and let her imagination run free. Her South was the idyllic South, one that seems lost, perhaps, in the fast-flowing river of the modern age. She acts as one of its few remnants.
For as long as I can remember, my grandmother has been incredibly proud of our family history, from its Scottish roots to its continuation in the Georgia red clay. It came as little surprise to me when she told me about the importance of tradition in her childhood as she relayed the stories that her grandfather used to tell her. Like the South, my family has experienced hardship and turmoil, but yet I see in my heritage a sort of timelessness that I hope to preserve even as I begin an entirely different life from the one that began for my grandmother in 1938. I am not only Leigh Johnson; I am the amalgamation of all the stories that have come before me. As I continue to write my family’s history, I will never be able to leave this heritage behind.
Index: The Role of the South in Song of Solomon
Dramatic Monologue - Sing: Here, we see the moment at which Milkman's family begins to lose touch with its heritage. Upon realizing that she can pass as white, Sing longs to move away from her past and embrace new opportunity in the North. She sees the South as something that chafes her, and so she flees from it. This is the root of Milkman's disjointed view of himself. Only when he restores his connection to the South can he truly understand who he is.
Original Poem - For Now He Knew What Shalimar Knew: The point in the novel chronicled by this poem could be seen as Milkman's moment of enlightenment. He finally understands how to take flight and embrace who he is. As he takes to the air, he brings the frustrated hopes of his family with him, ready for all of them to join with their roots in the mountains of the South. As he surrenders himself to the air, he also gives himself to the land where he has come to know himself.
Photograph - Milkman Taking Flight: Like the poem, this photograph captures Milkman's final flight into the air. Milkman is like one of the wild birds found in the South; once he is in his element, he is able to take flight. The bright blue sky in the background of the photograph speaks of Milkman's freedom and inner peace, while the bird's coloring, black as night, shows Milkman's pride in his identity and heritage as a black man.
Polished Piece of Precis Writing - The Woman Without a Navel: Pilate is probably one of the most intriguing characters in the novel. Like Milkman, she takes a journey through the South in order to understand who she is. Her acceptance of her physical defect reflects a great sense of confidence in who she is, and her identity as a part of the South instilled this within her. Often compared to a tree, she reflects the natural landscapes of the South, which clash deeply with the sterile air of the North.
Polished Piece of Precis Writing - That Which We Call a Rose: Rather than speaking directly of the South, this piece shows the negative effects of the sterile atmosphere of the North. Lena and Corinthians are full of potential that has gone to waste in the cold, industrial North. Their one semblance of nature, the velvet rose, is artificial and unable to connect them to who they are as a true natural landscape could.
Quality Personified - Passion: In this piece, passion is described as something unhealthy and intoxicating. She breeds on the atmosphere of the North, where aimless somnambulists search for life's meaning. The South, with its clear mountain air, does not allow her to fester in the hearts of men. Rather, it clears men of her influence, allowing them to see the world as it is.
One Symbol Explored: The Peacock - Once again, Milkman and Hagar are brought into direct comparison with one another. In the North, Hagar becomes a peacock as she obsesses over her physical appearance, clinging to dresses, jewelry, and makeup as ways to find meaning. Milkman, on the other hand, experiences a seemingly impossible event in the South. As he sees a peacock take flight, he not only sees how to propel himself into the air but also watches as his previous ideas of himself fly away.