Song of Solomon

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Themes and Colors
The Power of Names Theme Icon
Racism Theme Icon
Memory and Storytelling Theme Icon
Masculinity and Femininity Theme Icon
Mercy and Forgiveness Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Song of Solomon, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Racism Theme Icon

Song of Solomon, set between the 1930s and the 1960s, alludes to many milestones for black culture in the 20th century: the rise of the New Deal Coalition, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, etc. It’s no coincidence that many of these milestones are related to race and blacks’ battle with racism — Morrison’s novel is concerned with the many different forms that racism can take.

To begin with, it’s important to note that there are almost no white characters in Song of Solomon. White racism, directed at black Americans, is a real thing in the novel, but it’s an offstage presence, a terrifying monster that affects how the black characters talk, think, and behave. Morrison is concerned with the way white culture shapes and imprisons black culture, and the way that white racism can cause blacks to be racist to other blacks — in other words, how blacks internalize racism.

One form that blacks’ racism against other blacks takes is economic. Macon Dead, a wealthy black businessman, uses his influence and power to squeeze money from the poorest townspeople. He does so because, in many ways, he looks down on blacks; he wants to live far away from them, in the largely white community of Honoré. In much the same way, Hagar comes to hate her hair and dark skin because they mark her as a black woman. She envies Lena and Corinthians, and other light-skinned black women, because they’re not so obviously African; indeed, she dies of grief because she realizes that she’ll never be able to look as light-skinned as the women she thinks Milkman likes. Even if they have nothing else in common, Hagar and Macon Dead share a common desire to be as white as possible. Though they’re born in a black community, they come to dislike their own blackness, and gravitate toward the white people who oppress them and, ironically, regard all black people as the same.

Guitar embodies another form that racism takes in Song of Solomon. Where Hagar and Macon try to be as white as possible, Guitar responds to whiteness by despising it as thoroughly as whites despise him. Ever since his father was killed in a white-owned sawmill accident, he has refused to accept any sympathy from the white community; on the contrary, he regards all white people, beginning with the man who owned the sawmill, as complicit in the murder of black people. Milkman comes to realize that Guitar, along with his organization, the Seven Days, is responsible for murdering white people in retaliation for black murders in the area. Though most of the white people he kills weren’t immediately involved in crimes against black people, Guitar nonetheless considers them racists who deserve to die. Ironically Guitar’s monolithic, unsympathetic attitude toward whites is itself a form of race-based prejudice.

So the novel portrays two ways that white racism against blacks affects black consciousness. The former, that of Macon Dead and Hagar, is an almost unconscious internalizing of white racism which leads to a hatred of black people, and thus, hatred of the self. The latter, that of Guitar, is a retaliatory hatred of all white people. Though diametrically opposed, both responses are warping and destructive to the individual and to society. Ultimately, Morrison suggests that the true antidote to racism isn’t more violence and prejudice, as Guitar thinks: the antidote is love for oneself, the necessary precursor to love for other people. In this way, Milkman’s transformation from a spoiled, myopic child to a mature, loving man might symbolize an alternative to the racism from whites that blacks endure, and the internalized racism of many black people.

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Racism Quotes in Song of Solomon

Below you will find the important quotes in Song of Solomon related to the theme of Racism.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

Some of the city legislators, whose concern for appropriate names and the maintenance of the city’s landmarks was the principal part of their political life, saw to it that “Doctor Street” was never used in any official capacity. And since they knew that only Southside residents kept it up, they had notices posted in the stores, barbershops, and restaurants in that part of the city saying that the avenue running northerly and southerly from Shore Road fronting the lake to the junction of routes 6 and 2 leading to Pennsylvania, and also running parallel to and between Rutherford Avenue and Broadway, had always been and would always be known as Mains Avenue and not Doctor Street.

Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

In the opening passage of the novel, we learn that in the town where the story is set (we're never told what town this is, exactly), there was a street that's important to the story. At various points, this street--which ran through a mostly African-American neighborhood--was known as Doctor Street and Mains Street.

As Morrison makes clear, the two names of the street correspond to two different ways of looking at the black community. "Doctor Street" is a testament to the hard work and professionalism of the community: there was indeed a black doctor who operated in the area. "Mains Street," on the other hand, is a bland, forgettable name--an attempt by the white community to erase the culture and success of their black neighbors. From the very beginning, names are important: by changing something (or someone's) name, one can entrench racist ideas.


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Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

They had picture-taking people and everything waiting for the next person to walk in the door. But they never did put my picture in the paper. Me and Mama looked, too, didn’t we?” She glanced at Pilate for confirmation and went on. “But they put the picture of the man who won second prize in. He won a war bond. He was white.” “Second prize?” Guitar asked. “What kind of ‘second prize’? Either you the half-millionth person or you ain’t. Can’t be no next-to-the-half-millionth.” “Can if the winner is Reba,” Hagar said. “The only reason they got a second was cause she was the first. And the only reason they gave it to her was because of them cameras.”

Related Characters: Ruth Foster (speaker), Guitar Bains (speaker), Hagar (speaker)
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Guitar and Milkman meet Reba and Hagar, the daughters of Pilate. Reba is renowned for her luckiness: she's always the first to win raffles and lotteries. Here, for example, Reba wins a prize for being the five-hundred-thousandth person to walk into a Sears and Roebuck store.

Reba's extreme luckiness tells us a few things about the style of the novel. Above all, her luckiness suggests the magical realism of the book. In real life, almost nobody is as lucky as Reba--and yet within the limits of the story nobody comments on Reba's fortune; it's accepted as a given (the very definition of magical realism). Furthermore, Reba's surreal good luck accentuates the racism of her society. As we learn here, Reba's picture isn't taken after she wins the prize, because the racist newspaper publishers don't want to honor a black woman (they give her the prize money but don't put her picture in the paper). Even with all her luck, Reba still loses out to the racism of her society--a harsh reminder of the extent of all the other black characters' "bad luck."

Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

“Since I was little. Since my father got sliced up in a sawmill and his boss came by and gave us kids some candy. Divinity. A big sack of divinity. His wife made it special for us. It’s sweet, divinity is. Sweeter than syrup. Real sweet. Sweeter than…” He stopped walking and wiped from his forehead the beads of sweat that were collecting there. His eyes paled and wavered. He spit on the sidewalk. “Ho—hold it,” he whispered, and stepped into a space between a fried-fish restaurant and Lilly’s Beauty Parlor.

Related Characters: Guitar Bains (speaker), Milkman
Page Number: 61-62
Explanation and Analysis:

Guitar, one of Milkman's friends, recalls his childhood, when his father was killed in a sawing accident. Guitar recalls what happened after his father's death in cinematic detail: the sawmill owner gave him sweet candy. Ever since eating the owner's sweet candy, Guitar has found himself unable to enjoy sweetness of any kind.

Guitar's quotation is important on many different levels. First, we have the evocative conceit of a white store owner offering candy to a black child after the child's father dies. This incident is meant to symbolize the way that white Americans (even the well-meaning ones) deal with racism and oppression: instead of trying to solve the problem or make any fundamental change in their way of life, white Americans try to "paper over" the tragedy with sappy cliches or quick fixes--like giving a child candy. Furthermore, the incident forms an important part of Guitar's character: he's so disgusted with the white man's fake kindness that he seems to abandon kindness altogether (symbolized by his rejection of sugar). Perhaps Guitar goes too far in responding to the tragedy in his life: he becomes too brutal in his desire to obtain justice for the deaths of his friends and family, murdering whites as indiscriminately as his own family was murdered.

Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

“There is a society. It’s made up of a few men who are willing to take some risks. They don’t initiate anything; they don’t even choose. They are as indifferent as rain. But when a Negro child, Negro woman, or Negro man is killed by whites and nothing is done about it by their law and their courts, this society selects a similar victim at random, and they execute him or her in a similar manner if they can. If the Negro was hanged, they hang; if a Negro was burnt, they burn; raped and murdered, they rape and murder.

Related Characters: Guitar Bains (speaker), Milkman
Page Number: 154
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Guitar illustrates the iron law of "blood for blood" that he holds as a member of his secret society, the Seven Days. As Guitar sees it, there is a constant "exchange" between the white community and the black community. Whenever a black child is killed by racist whites, the black community as a whole has a duty to avenge the child's death by killing a member of the white community. While most people in the black community lack the determination to avenge their peers' deaths, the aim of Guitar's secret society is precisely to execute whites.

Guitar is calm and intimidating as he explains this violent rule to Milkman. He never stops to address an obvious moral flaw in the system: he and his peers may be executing innocent white people whenever they avenge the murder of an innocent black person. It may be "just" to punish murder with murder, but it isn't exactly fair to group an entire race together and consider them all equally complicit in a crime. While white people can obviously still be racist and uphold racist structures without actually killing black people, in practice the idea that an innocent white child should be killed in exchange for an innocent black child seems brutal and unjust.

Part 1, Chapter 8 Quotes

“How come it can’t fly no better than a chicken?” Milkman asked. “Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” The peacock jumped onto the hood of the Buick and once more spread its tail, sending the flashy Buick into oblivion. “Faggot.” Guitar laughed softly. “White faggot.”

Related Characters: Milkman (speaker), Guitar Bains (speaker)
Related Symbols: Flight
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

In this symbolic passage, Milkman and Guitar, preparing to steal gold from Pilate's house, notice a large peacock strutting around outside. As Milkman and Guitar discuss the bird, they notice that it's unable to fly: it is so weighed down with its fancy plumage that it can't fly away from its home on the ground.

The peacock has obvious symbolic resonances for the characters--it's like an inkblot test, revealing the characters' psychology. From Milkman's perspective, the bird seems to symbolize the weight of the past. Milkman sees himself as being weighed down by the legacy of his family--slavery, incest, violence, etc. And yet we, the readers, recognize that the peacock is also an omen of the futility of Milkman's plans to free himself. Milkman believes that by stealing gold, he'll be able to "fly away" to a new place--but we suspect that he, like, the peacock, will get too weighed down by his new wealth to find any real freedom at all. Finally, we should note that Guitar thinks of the peacock as the symbol of white extravagance and complacency: the bird, like the average wealthy white man, is a ridiculous, incompetent figure (no match for a clever, motivated black man like Guitar).

Part 1, Chapter 9 Quotes

She was First Corinthians Dead, daughter of a wealthy property owner and the elegant Ruth Foster, granddaughter of the magnificent and worshipped Dr. Foster, who had been the second man in the city to have a two-horse carriage, and a woman who had turned heads on every deck of the Queen Mary and had Frenchmen salivating all over Paris. Corinthians Dead, who had held herself pure all these years (well, almost all, and almost pure), was now banging on the car-door window of a yardman.

Related Characters: Ruth Foster, First Corinthians, Henry Porter
Page Number: 197-198
Explanation and Analysis:

First Corinthians has begun a romance with an unlikely suitor, Henry Porter. Henry Porter has a reputation for being an old drunk (indeed, we first see him when he's urinating in public). But in this chapter, Porter seems like a pleasant, self-controlled, middle-aged man. First Corinthians is disgusted with Porter, since she is much younger than he, and comes from a much wealthier family. In the quotation, we see Corinthians repeating her family's legacy like a chant. Pathetically, Corinthians has to remind herself of her family's dignity--her mother's trip to Paris, her grandfather's purchase of a carriage, and other milestones that become increasingly irrelevant with each passing year. Corinthians has no job or husband to be proud of--her only real cultural asset is her family's fading legacy. So although Corinthians might seem snooty and arrogant in the passage, we can also feel sorry for her: she clings to the past because racist society has denied her the present she deserves.

Part 2, Chapter 10 Quotes

“Look. It’s the condition our condition is in. Everybody wants the life of a black man. Everybody. White men want us dead or quiet—which is the same thing as dead. White women, same thing. They want us, you know, ‘universal,’ human, no ‘race consciousness.’ Tame, except in bed. They like a little racial loincloth in the bed. But outside the bed they want us to be individuals. You tell them, ‘But they lynched my papa,’ and they say, ‘Yeah, but you’re better than the lynchers are, so forget it.’ And black women, they want your whole self. Love, they call it, and understanding.

Related Characters: Guitar Bains (speaker)
Page Number: 222
Explanation and Analysis:

Guitar makes this speech to Milkman, who's being chased by his jealous, spurned lover, Hagar. Guitar's speech is both self-serving and insightful: he argues that all of the United States looks to destroy "the life of a black man." White men and women think of black men as scary and intimidating: they want black men to be quiet and docile, i.e., dead. Guitar goes on to argue that black women want black men to love them completely--in other words, to commit to monogamy and marriage right away, and to not be angry about the racism they have to face.

Guitar's complaints that black women are too "needy" sound like sexism, however: Guitar seems to have no real respect for black women, meaning that he treats them like sexual objects, not human beings. Guitar's speech is designed to make Milkman feel better about ignoring Hagar. Yet in the process, Guitar makes it clear that his own views of women are quite twisted.

Part 2, Chapter 15 Quotes

He closed his eyes and thought of the black men in Shalimar, Roanoke, Petersburg, Newport News, Danville, in the Blood Bank, on Darling Street, in the pool halls, the barbershops. Their names. Names they got from yearnings, gestures, flaws, events, mistakes, weaknesses. Names that bore witness.

Related Characters: Milkman
Page Number: 330
Explanation and Analysis:

After "discovering" (in reality, more like, "choosing to believe") that his ancestor Solomon flew back to Africa, Milkman is in a state of bliss. He rides the bus all the way back to his hometown, no longer the least bit concerned with tracking down the gold that motivated his quest in the first place. As he rides the bus, Milkman stares out the window and sees a universe of names, each with its own special story and history.

Milkman has found something more valuable than gold: the power of language. For most of the novel, Milkman has tried to come to terms with his conflicted family legacy, a legacy full of betrayal, incest, and slavery. As we reach the end of the novel, Milkman seems to realize the truth: he's been struggling to find the right words all along. Finally confident in the strength of his family "name," Milkman can see, very clearly, that the struggle for power itself is a struggle for the right to name. Milkman's realization takes us back to the first lines of the novel, in which Morrison showed us how a seemingly trivial dispute over the proper name for "Mains Avenue" reflected the struggle for power between black and white people in the community.