The day after Guitar tries to kill him, Milkman travels to Susan Byrd’s home. He thinks that Guitar won’t try to kill him in broad daylight, and tries to imagine why Guitar would want him dead — he guesses that it has something to do with the gold.
Guitar’s betrayal not only shocks Milkman; it distances Milkman from the original purpose of his journey, to find the gold. If Guitar was willing to kill for gold, as Milk correctly guesses, then maybe the gold isn’t worth the trouble.
Milkman arrives at Susan Byrd’s house and introduces himself as Macon. Susan appears to be around the same age as Ruth; she invites Milkman into her home and introduces him to her friend, Miss Grace Long, a schoolteacher who asks Milkman various trivial questions, and hints that she’s looking for a husband. Ignoring Grace, Susan explains that her father, Crowell Byrd, had a sister named Sing; Milkman deduces that this must be his own grandmother. He’s confused when Susan tells him that Sing never married. He asks Susan about Pilate, but Susan can’t remember anyone by this name. Grace admires Milkman’s gold watch, and asks to see it; Milkman takes it off and hands it to her. He thanks Susan, noting that his visit has been valuable if only because he now knows where not to look.
The presence of Grace Long in this chapter, along with Pilate’s question, “no why would they want that?”, is a comic highlight of Song of Solomon. Clearly, she’s flirting with Milkman, and seems to be planning to marry him. This is funny, but also strangely appropriate — as Milkman tries to figure out his lineage, Grace tries to join his lineage with hers. Milkman continues to act as a detective in this scene, building on the aptitude for the job he’s shown in some earlier chapters. We don’t know exactly what the information he learns here tells him, but it’s impressive to see him forging ahead with his questions, not in the least because it suggests that he’s becoming more interested in finding his family history than finding the treasure Pilate supposedly took.
As he leaves Byrd’s home, Milkman thinks that he feels the same pleasure in Shalimar that he felt at Pilate’s house. He has dozens of questions about his family history, and is particularly curious if the Sing whom Susan mentioned is the same Sing who married his grandfather. Since Pilate really didn’t have a navel, he thinks, anything is possible. He remembers that he left his watch behind, but can’t muster enough enthusiasm to go back to retrieve it.
In this section, Milkman proves how much he’s changed in a short time. Where his business training taught him to think rationally and critically, he’s now willing to expand his willingness to believe, no matter how fantastic it sounds. Most noticeably, Milkman doesn’t care enough about his gold watch to retrieve it — even though the point of his journeying here was to find gold!
As he walks away from the house, thinking about his family, Milkman runs into Guitar, who is casually trimming his nails, and seems to have been waiting for Milkman. Stunned and angry, Milkman demands that Guitar tell him why he tried to kill him; Guitar accuses Milkman of stealing the gold for himself, noting that he saw Milkman unloading a heavy crate at the freight station in Danville; Milkman remembers helping an old man lift such a crate, but knows as he explains this to Guitar that he’ll never believe him — Guitar knows Milkman well enough to know that he never helps anyone unnecessarily. He tries to convince Guitar that he wouldn’t ship the gold anywhere unattended, but Guitar refuses to believe him. Having learned that the crate at the freight station is headed for Virginia, Guitar has come to the Blue Ridge Mountains to wait for its arrival. As Milkman leaves, he asks Guitar why he left a message at the General Store, alerting Milkman to his presence; Guitar says that it was the least he could do for his old friend.
Milkman’s confrontation with Guitar illustrates how much his thinking has changed in the last few chapters. He correctly predicts that Guitar tried to kill him over the gold, but he himself seems uninterested in gold at this stage. The fact that Milkman can’t convince Guitar that he’s innocent of the crime Guitar suspects him of demonstrates that he’s grown more compassionate in this time — he would never have helped another person previously. The confrontation ends on a sad note, with Guitar saying that he tried to warn Milkman — though Milkman treats this information with contempt, it suggests that some part of Guitar continues to regard Milkman as a friend.
Milkman returns to Sweet’s home, where he spends the night with her. He dreams about flying, and feels invincible. The next day, he wakes up early to find that Omar and Solomon are repairing his car. As he waits for them to finish, he strolls through town, noting that Southerners wake up early before the sun is hot. He sees children playing and singing the same song Pilate used to song, “O Sugarman,” except the children sing “Solomon” instead of “Sugarman.” He thinks fondly of Pilate, but then remembers his father. Milkman realizes that he’s imitated his father and his father’s desires — money, power, property — without ever deriving any happiness from these things. He remembers Hagar, and realizes that he has treated her horribly.
Milkman’s behavior has changed. He is engaging with and noticing the world. He is kind to Sweet, and regretful for his treatment of Hagar. He is empathetic, connected, and self-reflective, and recognizes how the pursuit of money has harmed him. Here also we see how the tradition and song of Solomon has spread and changed, through Shalimar and among all black communities. The name has changed through misinterpretation—otherwise it wouldn’t have changed—but in many ways those changes haven’t been harmful, they have been liberating, they are like evolution: the story has changed as it has needed to.
It occurs to Milkman that everything in the town of Shalimar is named after Solomon: Solomon’s General Store, Solomon’s Leap — even “Shalimar” itself sounds like “Solomon.” The children sing about “Jay the only son of Solomon,” and Milkman wonders if the song is a reference to his grandfather, Jake. The song continues, “Heddy took him to a red man’s house,” which Milkman concludes must be a reference to Susan Byrd’s grandmother, an Indian.
Milkman performs the act to which the entire book has been building — the interpretation of names. That his interpretation begins with a children’s song suggests that mystery and enlightenment are hidden in plain view sometimes.
Quickly, Milkman interprets the rest of the children’s song, realizing that they’re singing about his own family. Jake, his grandfather, was the son of a man named Solomon, who seems to have loved a woman named Ryna. Jake and Sing lived in Shalimar, just as Circe had suggested, and Sing must have had a brother named Crowell Byrd, whose real name was probably Crow Bird. Giddy with his own detective work, Milkman decides to go back to Susan Byrd’s house, certain that she knows more than she told him. He feels as happy as he’s ever felt in his life.
At times in Song of Solomon, it’s seemed as if names are arbitrary, almost accidental things that bear no relation to the thing they’re naming. But now, Milkman comes to see that names do tell a story — he traces his family’s location and race simply by analyzing their names. He’s also seeing how names grow and change over time, through engagement, interpretation, and even misinterpretation, just as stories do. By engaging with names and stories Milkman is finding the history he had been cut off from.