Flight in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon theme

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Man has always desired to travel. He longs to fly into the skies like the birds to go anywhere his wings can take him. He creates contraptions that allow him to fly. For him, flying means being alive, being able to escape life, and learn new things.
Man’s ability to travel and obsession with flying has been reflected in painting, poetry, and literature across history and throughout cultures. The tale of Icarus and Daedalus in Greek mythology tells of how the men survived their labyrinth prison by flying out on wings made by Daedalus out of feathers and wax. Flying is a popular motif in children’s literature where imagination and fantasy abound. Take for example, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan or P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins whose characters defy gravity and fly. Even the boy wizard Harry Potter finds time to fly around Hogwarts on his broomstick or on the hippogriff, a half bird half horse creature.

Flight is a recurring theme even in literature for adult readers. Here the concept takes on a different and deeper meaning than just a physical act. Flying becomes more than a wish fulfillment for the characters and stands as their means to escape from the mundane. Because humans cannot fly by themselves, novels that feature the gift of flight as a natural human ability usually fall under the fantasy, magical realism and science fiction genres.

The Song of Solomon

Written by Toni Morrison in 1977, The Song of Solomon, is a novel about the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead, from an unnamed town in Michigan. The novel starts with the brave but foolish act of an insurance man who promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior (Morrison 3) and the birth of Macon Dead III soon after. Macon is called Milkman after a town gossip saw him still nursing from his mother’s breast at the age of four.

Milkman’s story spans over 30 years from his birth to his parents, Macon II and Ruth, who are locked in a loveless marriage, up to the time he learns how to fly like his ancestors. At 31, Milkman remains an egoistic man-child living a comfortable middle-class life, unfeeling for his own family and even more uncaring about Hagar, his cousin-turned-lover, whose life he unwittingly destroys. His eccentric aunt, Pilate, nurtures him so he may find meaning in his aimless existence. His best friend and confidant is a man named Guitar Bains.

Upon learning about Aunt Pilate’s illusive gold, Milkman travels to Pennsylvania to find the cave where the gold was thought to be hidden but instead he finds people like Circe who knew his grandfather and his family’s mysterious past. Wanting to know more, Milkman goes to Shalimar, Virginia, where he learned the tales of how his great grandfather Solomon magically flew back to Africa, leaving behind his wife and children in the wake. He befriends the locals who honored Solomon’s flight to freedom in legend and he then goes back to Michigan, a new man. After knowing that Hagar has died, he tells Pilate that the bones she had been keeping were her father Jake’s and brings her to Shalimar to bury them. There at Solomon’s Leap, an angry Guitar, thinking he was cheated of the gold stash, attempts to kill Milkman but fatally shots Pilate instead. In his anger, Milkman calls out to Guitar in the dark and flies towards him since it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother (337).

Flight: Meaning and Significance

Flight in literary terms may refer to a movement towards something or someplace, an escape from something or someone, a homecoming, and even spiritual journey. In Song of Solomon,

the novel’s epigraph — The fathers may soar / And the children may know their names — foreshadows the plight and flight of the protagonist.

From the start of the novel to its precarious end, the theme of flight brings together the whole narrative in a perfect circle. Flight is manifested in different ways in Milkman’s world, from the physical act of moving away when he left Michigan to search for his Aunt Pilate’s gold in Pennsylvania to the magical when his great grandfather Solomon flew back to Africa to escape slavery as expressed by Milkman himself:

He didn’t need no airplane. He just took off; got fed up. All the way up! No more cotton! No more bales! No more orders! No more shit! He flew, baby. Lifted his beautiful black ass up in the sky and flew on home (Morrison 333).

The young Milkman has always been fascinated with flying but painfully realizes, when he was four, that only birds and airplanes can fly, not men. During his second visit, Susan Byrd reveals to Milkman that his great-grandfather was one of those flying African children (321). Her revelation alludes to an African myth of the Flying Africans and becomes a pivotal point in his life. The myth manifested the black slaves’ desire for flight away from the chains of institu-tionalized slavery and toward a land in which their forefathers were free men (Hunsicker 5).

This knowledge empowers Milkman and allows him to better appreciate his family heritage. It is this knowledge and understanding of the ways of his tribe that echoes in his mind when he confronts Guitar and leaps: For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it (Morrison 337). Readers can only surmise what happens next, did he or didn’t he fly?

However, the dual nature or consequences of actions are in place in the novel. Near the end of the novel, Sweet asks Milkman as he is raving about Solomon’s flight to freedom, Who’d he leave behind? (332) to which he answers, everyone. While flight is seen as positive escape to freedom for Solomon, it can also be seen as an act of abandonment and selfishness on his part. His sudden departure leaves his wife Ryna with the heavy burden of rearing 21 children, a realty that drives her mad. In a similar way, Milkman’s final act of flying may be left to the imagination of the readers but its consequences will likely leave Reba, whom the dying Pilate entrusted to him, to fend for herself in the end.

Conclusion

The Song of Solomon is a gripping narrative that covers more than 30 years of Milkman Dead’s life and nearly a hundred years of his family history. The novel truly embraces the theme of flight ranging from the mere act of moving away somewhere to the mystical flight of the flying African, Solomon. But beyond the episodes of flight and discovery of self, the novel imparts an important message that a human act impacts in two ways. On one hand, flight signifies an escape to freedom and the start of new beginnings but on the other, it also signifies an escape of responsibility and the reckless abandonment of those left behind.

Works Cited

Hunsicker, Samantha R.” Fly Away Home: Tracing the Flying African Folktale from Oral

Literature to Verse and Prose.” Honors Thesis. Ball State U, Indiana, 2010. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Vintage Books. 2004. Print.

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