It is February 18, 1931, and an employee of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance, Robert Smith, leaves a note on the door of his house saying that he plans to fly from Mercy Hospital to “the other side of Lake Superior”—from the South to the North—at 3 pm. News of Smith’s “flight” travels fast by word of mouth, and a crowd of forty or fifty people, most of whom are unemployed or very young, shows up to watch.
In her foreword to Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison says that the initial description of Smith’s note is meant to sound dry and dull, like something you’d skim in the newspaper. She’ll spend the rest of the novel unpacking this initial description. There is a great deal of symbolism in the idea of a “flight” from the South to the North as the journey from the American South to the North is the path that many Black people took during the period in which the novel is set and was associated with the idea of freedom. It’s also no coincidence that Morrison’s novel begins at a place called Mercy. Mercy is often strikingly absent from her characters’ lives, but granting it is also a moral act that emerges as being critical to her characters.
The flight takes place in “Southside,” on the shore end of Not Doctor Street. Originally, this road was called Doctor Street, since it was located in a Black part of the city, and the only Black doctor in town lived there. Yet because the local post office listed the street as Mains Avenue, letters delivered to Doctor Street were discarded. During World War I, Black soldiers from the town listed their address as “Doctor Street,” making the name more official, but after the war, local government officials concerned about the proper names for things ensured that the name “Doctor Street” was never used, and put up a notice saying that the street would always be called Mains Avenue and not Doctor Street. The locals henceforth called the area “Not Doctor Street.”
Slowly, Morrison begins to explain Smith’s flight. In the process, she establishes a key theme of the novel, the importance of names. In just a few paragraphs, she describes the history of a name: “Doctor Street.” The first conflict between Black people and white people in the novel is a conflict over what to name a place: though Black people live on the street and want to name it after an important Black person who lived there, white people insist on giving it a bland, generic name. The message is clear: only powerful people have the right to name things — in short, naming is power. Yet though the town’s Black community fails to establish the name “Doctor Street,” they find a way to rebel against the white officials by giving the street an informal name, “Not Doctor Street.” Names can be a tool of oppression, but they can also be tools of rebellion, they can be a way of hiding a culture, but they are also things that a person or community can make their own. It’s interesting, then, that Morrison doesn’t (and won’t) reveal the name of the town where her novel is set — it’s as if it could be happening anywhere.
The Black people of the town sometimes call the local hospital No Mercy Hospital, since before 1931 Black women are forced to give birth outside the building, not in it. The first Black woman to be admitted is the daughter of the doctor for whom “Not Doctor Street” is named, which happened the same year that Smith jumps from the cupola of the hospital. It may have been Smith’s “flight” that encouraged the hospital to begin accepting Black mothers.
There are no named white characters in the novel. Yet the existence and oppressive power of institutional white racism is established in these earliest scenes of the novel. And in the fact that the hospital might have started taking Black mothers because of Smith’s action, that Black people's attempts to “fly” can have impacts.
The doctor’s daughter sees Smith, wearing blue wings, standing on the cupola and drops the pieces of red velvet cut to look like rose petals that she is carrying in a basket; her two children pick them up. Others join in helping her pick up the petals, and one woman begins to sing “O Sugarman done fly.” Hospital officials gather outside, and though they think at first that they are witnessing an unusual ritual, they eventually come to their senses and begin giving orders. One nurse asks a stout woman if the young people gathered outside are her children, and then tells her to send a boy inside to the emergency admissions office, spelling out the word Admissions (incorrectly) to make sure he goes to the right place. The stout woman replies, “Guitar,” much to the white nurse’s confusion. The boy notes that the nurse misspelled “admissions.”
For the second time so far, Morrison establishes a conflict between the novel’s Black and white characters. The white characters run the hospital, and treat their Black patients and neighbors with contempt, dismissing their behavior outside the hospital as a “ritual.” The white people also view the Black people as inarticulate and foolish, are clearly not —Guitar, a child, is a better speller than the nurse. It’s important to note that when the nurse doesn’t understand what “Guitar” means, neither do we — in fact, Morrison goes out of her way to confuse us, putting this proper name at the beginning of the sentence so that we’re not sure if it’s a proper name or not. This is a message to readers: the town community effectively speaks a different language, and it will take some time before we can understand it.
The crowd knows Mr. Smith, since he travels to their houses to collect money twice a month. The community mocks him when he arrives at their doors, since he represents death and sickness, but it also regards him as a “nice,” if boring, man. Jumping from a roof, the people think, is the most interesting thing Smith has done. Smith loses his balance and tries to hold on. The same woman sings “O Sugarman” again. By the time the fire department arrives, Smith has heard the song and jumped.
It remains a mystery why Smith jumps; not even the community that watches him understands what’s going on, so the reader certainly doesn’t, either. This is a common tactic of Morrison’s, to reveal an event and then loop around and slowly reveal its significance so that it resonates within the larger structure of the novel. In this case this opening gives Morrison the opportunity to introduce the community and its tensions and a sense of its history, and to establish the importance of the ideas of flight and of song and the specific song of “O Sugarman.”
The next day, the doctor’s daughter gives birth inside the Mercy Hospital, the first Black woman to do so. Her child grows up quiet and introverted, in part because he learns that he can’t fly. His mother, Ruth Foster, lives in the large house that used to belong to her father, Doctor Foster. Most women in the community hate her, but some feel sorry for her, thinking that her large home is a prison, not a palace.
After Smith’s failed attempt at flight, we begin to understand how imprisoned the townspeople are. They’re imprisoned by racism, which keeps them poor and living in the same segregated community. But even with the Black community, some people are freer than others. Ruth, whose wealth seemingly gives her more freedom, is actually less free than her neighbors.
Ruth’s son grows up with his older sisters. Ruth is married to an angry, imposing man, Macon Dead. Dead bullies his daughters and wife, and while his presence makes them quiet and unhappy, they come to expect it and derive excitement from it. When Ruth cooks for her husband, she expects him to complain about the food and criticize her for it. Whenever she passes by the dining room, she notices an old water mark on the wooden table; like the sun to a prisoner, the water mark gives Ruth comfort, and, as an external object, reminds her that she is alive. Ruth tries to remove the water mark from the table, but it becomes larger and more noticeable over time.
Ruth spends so many years with Macon Dead that she comes to expect and in some ways depend upon his abuse — this is a common occurrence among women in abusive relationships. One can take the water mark to symbolize a few different things. Ruth depends on this external, insignificant thing for her own worth — much as she relies on an unkind husband. At the same time, Ruth’s decision to hide the water mark suggests the way she tries to repress her own sadness, an action, which only makes her sadder, just as the water mark only gets larger.
At many points throughout the year, Ruth fills a bowl with flowers, twigs, and berries and places it in the center of the table. It reminds her of the joys of her childhood, when her father was alive. Whenever she points out the beauty of the centerpiece to Macon, he only criticizes her cooking. Eventually she removes the bowl, exposing the water mark on the table.
By making a beautiful bowl, Ruth seems to be trying to connect with her husband, to share her own joy with him. Because Macon rejects the bowl, Ruth retreats into herself and gives up trying to connect him.
Ruth gets through her days by finding small pleasures, usually when her husband is absent. In the afternoon, she takes her son into her father’s study and holds him in her lap, trying to avoid looking at his legs, which almost reach the floor. Ruth breastfeeds her son, despite the fact that he is slightly too old. When she does this, she senses that her son is drinking out of a sense of obligation. She feels as if he is pulling light or gold from her body. One afternoon, Freddie the janitor comes to Ruth’s house and sees her breast-feeding her son. Ruth jumps up and covers her body, embarrassed but also sad that she will no longer be able to enjoy this activity, since by jumping up in embarrassment she has proven to her son that what she is doing is wrong.
Ruth’s interactions with her son may be difficult to comprehend, since they both are and aren’t typical motherly behavior. Ruth is close with her child, and seems to want him to stay a child forever, rather than grow into a man like her husband; this is why she tries not to look at his legs. At the same time, Ruth’s relationship with her child seems intensely sexual; bizarre as it may sound, Ruth seems to turn to her child for sexual pleasure because her husband refuses her any. That she knows what she is doing is wrong is obvious — this is why she recoils when someone sees her.
Based on what he sees, Freddie calls Ruth’s son a “milkman,” and spreads the story of how Ruth nursed him around the Southside of the town. Eventually, everyone calls Ruth’s son Milkman. Macon Dead never learns where Milkman gets his nickname, since Freddie never tells him, but he suspects that it is a “dirty” name, and has something to do with his wife, whom he views with disgust.
Again, we see the power of names. By spreading a nickname around town, Freddie inadvertently names someone else’s child, and changes that child’s relationship with his parents. We see the changes in particular between Milkman and his father — Milkman’s name alienates Macon from his child. And it establishes Milkman in a way as someone who doesn’t have his own name; and much of the second half of the novel will involve him searching into his past and finding names to connect it to.
Macon Dead spent fifteen years wanting a son; then when he had one — Milkman — he was still bitter. As a younger man, Macon Dead used to enjoy slowly undressing Ruth. He would remove her underwear and roll down her stockings, never revealing her feet, and then have quick sex, which both he and Ruth enjoyed. In the present, Macon remembers the underwear fondly, but nothing else. No one tells him how his son acquired the nickname Milkman. Most people don’t because they’re afraid of Macon, but one, Macon’s sister, who he despises, doesn’t tell him because she doesn’t care.
The fact that Macon never fully undresses Ruth even during intercourse suggests the separation between them. Similarly, the fact that Macon remembers the underwear but not Ruth herself suggests that he was never attracted to Ruth herself, only to external things about her, like her wealth. The detail about Macon’s unnamed sister establishes her as different as other people, and also as less affected by either fear or shame.
Macon walks down Not Doctor Street to his “office,” which still bears a sign that says it’s “Sonny’s Shop.” Thirty years ago, Sonny had run a shop there, and there is no point, Macon thinks, in removing the letters, since everybody will remember it anyway. He thinks that he must have an ancestor who had a “true” name, not a nickname or a joke, but he can’t imagine what this name was. His parents, and their parents, were named by people who didn’t take naming seriously, and now they have passed on to their relatives the same names they were given: Macon Dead, Lena Dead, First Corinthians Dead. Macon’s son’s name is Macon, too, but now everyone knows him as Milkman Dead. Macon’s sister, named Pilate Dead, will never tell him how Milkman got his nickname because it gives her too much pleasure to keep the secret from him.
The persistence of the obsolete “Sonny’s Shop” sign is yet another signal that Song of Solomon is about the importance of names and, more specifically, about the disagreement between names and the things they’re supposed to describe. Macon believes in the existence of “true” names, but it’s unclear if such a thing is even possible. Morrison’s characters live in a world where they don’t have access to “true” names; in other words, they either have to make do with the names they’re given, or find a way to create new names. Macon’s family uses randomly chosen Christian names, a clear echo of the way slave masters used to name the people they enslaved. By preserving this naming system, Macon seems to accept the structures of power and domination that kept his ancestors in bondage just as he accepts and never changes the “Sonny’s Shop” sign. It’s not totally clear why Macon has so much respect for a naming system that’s clearly a relic of slavery, but based on what we know about him, it seems that Macon is in favor of power and domination. Even if white people dominate him, he’ll dominate his wife and children.
As a young father, Macon followed the same naming process that his parents used: randomly pointing to a name from the Bible. He remembers his father using this process to name his sister after his mother died in childbirth. Because his father was illiterate, he had no idea what the name was until the midwife told him he had chosen Pilate, the name of an evil Christ-killer. But Macon’s father insisted that his child keep the name. When Pilate grew older, she tore out her name from the Bible and made it into an earring.
Macon’s father’s attitude toward the process of naming is important to understand: he’s more devoted to the process itself (randomly choosing a Bible character) than he is to the “rightness” of the name itself. Since the process of naming he uses is essentially the process the slave masters used, Macon’s father indicates that he’s unable to shake off the ways of thinking he learned as an enslaved person. It’s here that we first get a sense of how people might better deal with the problem of naming. Pilate over time “reshapes” her name into art — she doesn’t reject it (it’s still her name), but she doesn’t respect it as something handed to her and therefore unchangeable. Her engagement with her name is more active. She makes it into her own.
When Macon Dead’s son was born, Pilate was extremely interested in the child. She acted like an in-law, helping Ruth and later singing to the child. Pilate used to be Macon’s closest friend, but Macon remembers arguing with her outside a cave. When Pilate visited Ruth and her nephew, Macon angrily criticized her for working as a bootlegger, selling wine and dressing like a sailor. As a result, Pilate left and never returned.
Pilate remains a mystery in the first chapter. Macon doesn’t like Pilate, but since Morrison presents Macon as clearly flawed, we as readers are not sure how to feel about her. The argument at the cave is a mystery that the novel will slowly unravel. Meanwhile, Pilate here is also established as less conventional than other female characters, as she engages in typically male work and is also the head of her own family of women.
Macon arrives at his office, and meets several of his tenants: he is a landlord. A woman named Mrs. Bains tells Macon that she can’t pay rent because she has grandchildren to take care of, but Macon insists that she pay by Saturday. Bains leaves the office and tells her grandchildren that “a nigger in business is a terrible thing to see.”
The Black townspeople may be the victims of white oppression and racism, but they also victimize each other. Morrison’s novel isn’t a simplistic study of Black versus white; it’s a nuanced look at the clash between women and men, the rich and the poor, as well as white people and Black people.
Macon thinks of the first time he met Ruth’s father, Doctor Foster. He was less successful as a landlord at the time, but successful enough to meet the Doctor in his office and propose marriage to Ruth. Doctor Foster tells Macon that he dislikes his name, but will allow Ruth to make her own decision. In private, he is glad that someone is marrying Ruth. Since her mother’s death, Ruth has taken care of Doctor Foster, and Doctor Foster has felt “discomfort” when he kisses Ruth goodnight, perhaps because she looks like his dead wife, her mother.
Morrison hints at Doctor Foster’s incestuous desire for his own daughter, a desire that we’ve already seen echoed in Ruth’s apparent desire for her own child. Macon thinks he needs to be successful and prosperous to marry Ruth when in fact Dr. Foster would accept any suitor. That Dr. Foster dislikes Macon’s name is interesting (presumably he dislikes the “Dead” part of it). Macon’s name really is dead, in the sense that it was forced on him and he has done nothing to make it alive.
As Macon sits in his office and thinks, Freddie, the town gossip, tells him that Porter, a tenant of Macon’s, is drunk and threatening to kill someone with his shotgun. This reminds Macon that he disapproves of Pilate’s bootlegging. He tells Freddie that he’ll get his rent from Porter, though he doesn’t care if Porter kills someone or not. The narrator notes that Freddie is slightly wrong about his facts — Porter isn’t threatening to kill someone else; he’s threatening to kill himself if someone doesn’t have sex with him.
Freddie’s mistake is one that various other characters in the novel will make: mistaking internal anguish for external aggression. Thus, Porter’s anger at the world begins as anger with himself. We see Macon’s inner sadness in this section: everything reminds him of his sister. Macon’s insistence that he get his rent shows how cold and callous business has made him.
Macon arrives at Porter’s home and tells him to turn over his rent. Porter points his gun at Macon, but Macon threatens to kill him, and Porter turns his gun on himself. He is so drunk that he can’t shoot. He urinates from his window, and spends the next hour pleading for sex. Eventually, he falls asleep, accidentally firing his gun into the roof. Macon orders Freddie to run into the house and collect the rent.
Porter’s behavior in this scene might symbolize the failure of masculinity. We’re given various signs of masculinity — a gun, for instance — that don’t work. Porter’s gun doesn’t shoot straight, suggesting, perhaps, his weakness and impotence. More broadly, though, Porter’s clumsy handling of his weapon (it goes off after he falls asleep) suggests how people who hate themselves become a danger to others.
Macon walks by Pilate’s house, where she and her daughter survive without electricity. He remembers that she has no navel, a peculiarity that convinces others that she wasn’t born normally. Macon remembers watching Pilate’s birth: after being born, her birth cord shriveled up and left no trace behind. It wasn’t until Macon was 17 that he learned how unusual his sister’s lack of a navel was.
The navel is a symbol of lineage — it’s the first sign that a human being has parents. We’ve seen Macon imprisoned in issues of his lineage — repeating the same naming ceremony that his father used before him — so for Pilate to lack a navel suggests that she has a kind of freedom. Yet her freedom also makes her strange, almost frightening to other people.
Macon walks toward Pilate’s house and hears his sister singing along with Reba, her daughter, and Reba’s daughter, Hagar. They don’t make any money, Macon thinks. But he remembers Pilate’s habit of chewing seeds or rubber, so that her lips were always moving. He continues to listen as his sister, niece, and grandniece sing, until Pilate falls silent.
Macon tries to convince himself that Pilate is suffering; in this way, he’s trying to convince himself that he needs to be wealthy and powerful to be happy. But it’s clear that Macon doesn’t entirely believe this — the way he looks wistfully at Pilate and listens to her singing shows that he’s secretly dissatisfied with his life and wishes he could escape from it, as Pilate seems to have done.