Song of Solomon

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The Power of Names Theme Analysis

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.
The Power of Names Theme Icon

From the first page of Song of Solomon, it’s clear that names have enormous power. Names tell stories, record history, and build community. The name Doctor Street, for instance, celebrates Dr. Foster, the first wealthy, influential black man to live in the town. By repeating this name, the townspeople honor their hero and celebrate their race and their culture. Government officials are completely aware of the power of names — that’s why they insist on calling the street Mains Street; Doctor Street would give blacks too much pride. The “compromise name,” in which the black community ignores the official name of the street and instead calls it “Not Doctor Street”, is a way for blacks to mock government officials while both making clear white power’s efforts to efface black history and keeping that history alive. Names, then, aren’t just arbitrary sounds describing arbitrary things. The right name, chosen for the right reasons, can change the way people think, and even change the thing it’s describing.

Although names have power, much of the novel shows how names can also imprison people. Milkman, whose given name is Macon Dead III, feels trapped by his own family name. He’s named after his grandfather, who was accidentally given the name “Dead” by the Freedman’s bureau. By carrying the name “Dead,” Milkman feels that he’s been condemned to live the same life that his father and grandfather lived, working at the family business, living in the same town, etc. In part, Milkman’s dissatisfaction with his name is just another way of saying that he feels trapped in his obligations to his family. But in another sense, it is the name itself that imprisons him. As he tells Guitar many times, he feels “Dead” because his name is Dead.

As he grows up, Milkman begins to see that his entire family is trapped by their names, too. Macon, like his father before him, names his children by randomly choosing a name from the Bible, even a very unusual name like “First Corinthians.” Though Morrison doesn’t explicit say this, this is similar to the method slave owners would use to name their slaves. By repeating the slave owner’s naming system, the Deads are effectively acknowledging that slavery continues to shape their thinking and their behavior.

When Milkman goes to Virginia in search of his aunt Pilate’s gold, he comes to realize that learning his family’s names is a far greater reward than the gold could ever be. After discovering that his great-grandfather’s real name was Solomon — and that people and places all over the country are named after him — he’s ecstatic, and thinks to himself that every name in the world tells a long, complex story. For most of his life, Milkman had no understanding of his own story — he had no history and no culture. Now that he understands the history of his names, he feels invincible.

Milkman’s journey, then, brings him to the realization that learning a name can be a liberating experience. Where before the knowledge of his family name had made him feel small and confined, the knowledge of his family’s “true” name, Solomon, makes him see that his family history is something to be proud of, and that like Solomon, he has the power to travel across the country, spreading his name and his culture to new places.

Yet it’s important to note that Morrison also complicates the idea of the power of names. Consider Pilate, who has spent her entire life singing and bringing joy to her family because she misinterpreted what her father’s ghost told her when it visited her and said “Sing,” as “Sing” was the name of his wife, not a command for her to continue to sing. Pilate misinterpreted a name, but her misinterpretation didn’t imprison her; on the contrary, it encouraged her to live a better life. Everyone enjoys her singing — even Macon, who doesn’t speak to his sister.

In all, Morrison forwards a complex point about names, and their history and power. One must seek out the true meanings of names, she seems to suggest, and the rewards for doing so can be enormous. At the same time, she portrays deriving power from a name as an act of creation as well as investigation — to some extent, one can invent what names mean, one can give them new power beyond what they inherit from history, and so in this way names both carry the history and culture of the past to the present and act as vessels through which the present can interact with that past, engage it and build and shift it, and carry that culture and history into the future.

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The Power of Names ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Power of Names appears in each chapter of Song of Solomon. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Power of Names Quotes in Song of Solomon

Below you will find the important quotes in Song of Solomon related to the theme of The Power of Names.
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 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

Amanuensis. That was the word she chose, and since it was straight out of the nineteenth century, her mother approved, relishing the blank stares she received when she told her lady guests what position her daughter had acquired with the State Poet Laureate. “She’s Michael-Mary Graham’s amanuensis.” The rickety Latin word made the work her daughter did (she, after all, wasn’t required to work) sound intricate, demanding, and totally in keeping with her education.

Related Characters: Ruth Foster, First Corinthians, Miss Graham
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we catch up with First Corinthians, the daughter of Ruth and Macon Dead II. First Corinthians has gone to college, and had a wealthy upbringing. And yet after she graduates, she finds that she's unable to get any work for herself, except for humiliating housework. In the end, First Corinthians finds a compromise: she works as an amanuensis, i.e., a literary assistant or secretary, to Miss Graham, a wealthy white woman. Although the work is tiring and extremely basic, First Corinthians is proud that the name of her job is fancy and old-fashioned.

First Corinthians' desire to rename the job with Miss Graham betrays her vanity: she's concerned with how her peers perceive her, and doesn't want to be seen as a failure (a college-educated woman doing unskilled labor). Moreover, the very fact that First Corinthians would only be capable of getting work as an amanuensis suggests the continuing frustrations of racism--to most white employers, an educated black woman is no different from an uneducated one, so when it comes to the practical realities of employment, all First Corinthians' work comes to nothing.

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 15 Quotes

“Yeah. That tribe. That flyin motherfuckin tribe. Oh, man! 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. Can you dig it? Jesus God, that must have been something to see. And you know what else? He tried to take his baby boy with him. My grandfather. Wow! Woooee! Guitar! You hear that? Guitar, my great-granddaddy could flyyyyyy and the whole damn town is named after him. Tell him, Sweet. Tell him my great- granddaddy could fly.”

Related Characters: Milkman (speaker), Guitar Bains, Solomon
Related Symbols: Flight
Page Number: 328
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Milkman embraces the knowledge he's just learned. His distant ancestor, Jake, was the son of a man named Solomon--a man who's so famous in some parts of country that his name can be found everywhere. Solomon, according to legend, was a slave who, dissatisfied with slavery, decided to fly back to Africa--and did. Solomon tried to take his favorite child, Jake, back to Africa with him, but failed. Now, Milkman realizes, he is the descendant of Jake--and therefore the inheritor of a rich, magical family legacy.

Milkman's joy in this scene stems from the fact that he's finally found a history for himself. After years of being tormented by the knowledge that his grandfather was a pathetic, abused slave, and his other grandfather might have been guilty of incest, Milkman is overjoyed to finally have a family history to be proud of. The fact that this family history is bizarre and possibly imaginary is never addressed. In other words, it's never clear if Solomon's ability to fly is accepted as a fact according to the rules of the novel (i.e., Solomon's flight is an example of magical realism) or if Milkman is so desperate to find something to believe in that he chooses to believe in a myth. Ultimately, though, the reality of Milkman's family history matters less than the effect it has on him. Milkman has finally found a family for himself--one to be embraced, not despised.

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.