Magdalene, called Lena, and First Corinthians are Macon Dead and Ruth’s daughters. On a Sunday afternoon drive, they sit in the back seat of their parents’ car, enjoying the ride as if they’re princesses in a chariot. Milkman sits up front, between Macon and Ruth. He isn’t allowed to sit in his mother’s lap because Macon forbids it.
After the sadness of the first chapter — sadness that’s rooted in adult experiences like marriage, employment, etc. — it’s both refreshing and poignant to see two young children enjoying themselves on a car ride. They’re too young to regard the car as a prison, as their mother does. Though Macon’s disgust toward and control over Ruth and the family is still evident.
As Macon drives the car down Not Doctor Street, some Black people in the street envy his wealth — in 1936, there are only a few Black people who are as rich as Macon. Others laugh at him, since they think he’s not using his car right — never driving fast, picking up friends, or rolling down the window to greet people. Privately, these people call the car Macon’s hearse.
The people on Not Doctor Street know what Lena and First Corinthians are too young to know: Macon’s car doesn’t bring him any real freedom; it’s a prison.
Lena asks where they are going, and Ruth explains that they’re driving to a beach community. Lena objects that only white people live there, but Corinthians tells her that a few Black people can afford to live there. Ruth tells Macon to slow down, and Macon angrily tells her to stop, or she can walk home.
In this scene, Lena and Corinthians almost seem more realistic and insightful about Blackness than their own parents; for all their innocence, they’re already learned a fundamental rule of their society — Black people are poorer and less powerful than white people.
Corinthians and Lena ask Macon if he’s going to buy a summer house. Macon replies that he might buy and rent out property there, and that Black people might have the money to live in the area in the next five or ten years. Milkman asks to use the bathroom, and Lena, annoyed, takes him out of the car. Corinthians asks whether there will really be enough Black people in the area to justify buying a summer house, noting that Black people don’t like the water. Meanwhile, Milkman accidentally urinates on Lena. He has a bad habit of turning around before he’s finished, as if he’s unconcerned with his future.
It’s remarkable, and chilling, that Lena and Corinthians have already learned as much as they know about racist Black stereotypes: Black people are poor, Black people don’t like to swim, etc. This illustrates the concept of “internalized racism” — in other words, Lena and Corinthians don’t learn these things because white people tell them directly; they hear them from other Black people. Milkman’s behavior while urinating parallels Porter’s in the last chapter, but it also (explicitly) symbolizes his uncertainty about what he’ll grow up to be.
Milkman goes to school. When he is twelve years old, the narrator explains, he meets a boy who will free him by taking him to a woman who will shape his future. The boy, Guitar, tells Milkman that he’s been inside Pilate’s house, and takes him to see Pilate, Milkman’s mysterious aunt. Guitar greets Pilate with a “hi,” and Pilate sternly corrects him telling him to say, “Hello” instead. Guitar asks Pilate if it’s true that she has no navel. Pilate replies that it is. Guitar introduces Milkman, and Pilate casually asks if he talks. When he greets her with a “Hi,” she calls him dumb. Milkman is ashamed, and surprised at his shame, since he has previously heard that Pilate was dumb, poor, drunk, dirty, and ugly. He notices that Pilate is surprisingly clean, clearly sober, and wearing men’s shoes.
Morrison deftly moves through a large chunk of time — in one sentence, she takes us almost a decade into the future (she’ll repeat this technique many times in the novel). Pilate’s behavior, correcting Guitar and Milkman over something as trivial as the word “Hi,” proves that she’s not only concerned with words and names, but also thinks critically about them (as opposed to Macon, who simply repeats the names his father gave him). This suggests that the rumors are wrong about Pilate — she’s intelligent and sharp.
Guitar asks if Pilate is Macon Dead’s sister, and Pilate tells him that she is one of only three Dead’s left alive. Milkman, who has been silent since saying “Hi,” suddenly exclaims that he has sisters — in other words, other Deads. Pilate laughs and escorts Guitar and Milkman into her house. She explains that the correct way to soft-boil an egg is to heat the water and egg “on an equal standing.” She tells Milkman that his father used to be a good friend to her, and mentions that her father — Milkman’s grandfather — was shot. Milkman asks who, when, why, and where. Pilate is vague on all counts: she tells him that her father was shot on his farm in Montour County in Virginia in a year when many Irishmen were also killed. She doesn’t know who shot him or why he was murdered.
Pilate’s description of the correct way to boil an egg is full of symbolism. To begin with, the egg itself is a classic symbol of maternity and womanhood, suggesting that Pilate is a mother figure to the young Milkman. Moreover, Pilate’s attention to “equal standing” contrasts sharply with the way Macon views the world: Macon doesn’t believe in the concept of equal standing at all — everything is a hierarchy (rich over poor, man over woman, etc.). Pilate’s behavior, then, exposes Milkman to a different, perhaps more feminine, way of looking at the world. Meanwhile, the interaction also elliptically introduces more of the family backstory.
As Pilate and Milkman talk, a girl comes into the house, back first, dragging a basket of brambles. Milkman is attracted to the girl, Hagar, who Pilate introduces as Milkman’s sister. Reba, who is helping Hagar move the basket, corrects Pilate — Hagar is actually Milkman’s cousin — but Pilate says there’s no difference. Milkman helps Hagar move the brambles, and thinks that Hagar is the prettiest woman he’s ever seen. She is older than he, and as strong as he is.
It’s crude but important that Milkman falls in love with Hagar before he’s seen her face. Like his father, he’s perhaps less attracted to women’s mind or personality than to their superficial qualities, such as their looks.
Pilate asks Guitar where he gets his name, and Guitar explains that his mother took him downtown when he was a baby and noticed a contest: whoever could guess the number of beans in a jar would win a guitar. Guitar cried for the guitar, but didn’t win it. Pilate notes that Reba, who’s excellent with raffles and guessing games, could have won the guitar for him. Reba shows Guitar a diamond ring that she won for being the five hundred thousandth person to walk into Sears and Roebuck — because she was Black, her picture wasn’t taken, and her victory wasn’t mentioned in the papers. Instead, the second-place winner’s photograph was published, which Guitar finds bizarre, since there can be no second place in such a challenge. Reba’s luck also has kept Pilate and Hagar alive — on one occasion, she won a hundred pounds of groceries that fed them through the winter.
Finally, we understand fully why the stout woman in the opening chapter called the young boy “Guitar.” That it’s taken us this long to get the full story proves that names take time to understand. Reba’s description of the racism she endured after winning a prize at Sears and Roebuck paints a sobering picture of the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century — with mass media on the rise, Black people weren’t allowed to appear in photographs, much less in print. Morrison’s novel could be seen as an antidote to all this: where Black people were largely kept out of the literary world, Morrison will write a book about their experiences.
The conversation turns to wine making, and Guitar asks Pilate if her wine is any good — surprisingly, Pilate replies that she has no idea, since she never drinks it. Hagar mentions that business hasn’t been good lately, since the Depression is over, and she has been hungry. Reba and Pilate gently ask her if she wants food, but eventually Pilate realizes that she isn’t talking about food at all. Together, she, Reba, and Hagar sing, “Sugarman done fly away.”
For the second time, we hear “Sugarman done fly away,” though it’s still not entirely clear what its significance is. Reba and Pilate’s gentle attention to Hagar suggests how different their way of life is from what Milkman is used to — it’s hard to imagine Macon treating his son as gently as Reba treats her daughter.
Milkman enjoys spending time with Reba, Pilate, and Hagar, in part because he’s visiting his aunt in secret, defying his father. When he returns home, Macon Dead accuses him of drinking, but Milkman insists that he hasn’t drunk anything. Macon reminds Milkman that he was told to stay away from Pilate, but refuses to explain why when Milkman asks. Milkman is intimidated by his father, but remembers that Pilate is as tall and impressive as Macon, and makes him feel happy, too.
Milkman’s coming of age in this section is closely linked to his developing secrets — in other words, developing an inner life, of the kind that Macon and Ruth clearly have. Pilate’s presence has clearly changed Milkman; when he sees his father, the memory of his aunt is enough to make him bravely talk back to Macon. His memories give him power.
Milkman asks Macon if his father treated him like a baby when he was twelve, and in spite of himself, Macon remembers his father, who died protecting his farm. He tells Milkman that he and Pilate worked together on their father’s farm in Montour County. The farm was a huge, beautiful place, which their father called Lincoln’s Heaven. Macon remembers learning about history via the names his father gave the farm animals: a pig named General Lee, a cow named Ulysses S. Grant, a horse named President Lincoln.
Macon’s memories occur almost involuntarily — even in the middle of a simple argument with his child, he can’t help think about Pilate. We begin to sympathize with Macon — clearly he’s more than just a cold-hearted bully (though he is also a cold-hearted bully). The informal “schooling” Macon gets on his father’s farm, learning about the Civil War via the names of his animals, shows how important play and whimsy — naming animals after people — can be in passing on history.
Milkman notices that Macon seems more relaxed and easy-going than usual. He asks how Macon’s father died. Macon remembers that his father, who was illiterate, was tricked into signing a contract that left his property in the hands of white people, and that everything bad that ever happened to his father happened because he was illiterate. Macon’s father had been enslaved, he recalls, and when after the Civil War it came time for him to register with the Freedman’s Bureau, he told the registrar that his father was dead, and had been born in Macon. The registrar accidentally wrote, “Dead, Macon,” in the Name section, and Macon’s father was unable to correct the error — thus, he became Macon Dead I.
Macon knows first-hand how important words and names can be — his own father lost everything because he didn’t understand names. The story of how “Macon Dead” became a family name is amusing but also tragic, since it shows how little control Black Americans had over their own lives after the Civil War. It’s especially poignant because Macon Dead refuses to change his name, even though he understands exactly how absurd a name it is. In some way, Milkman, who was named Macon Dead III, actually breaks away from this enforced history via enforced name through his nickname.
Milkman asks what Macon’s father’s real name was, and Macon replies by reminiscing about his father, who died when he was four. Milkman feels closer to his father because he’s learned information about his past, but Macon repeats that he doesn’t want Milkman visiting Pilate. When pressed again for a reason, Macon only says that she is a snake. He tells a story about a man who saves a dying snake by feeding it and taking care of it. One day, the snake bites the man and kills him; when the dying man asks the snake why it did such a thing, the snake replies that it’s a snake. Milkman is unsatisfied with this parable. Macon responds by saying that its time for Milkman to learn to work, and that he will start working for Macon.
Macon either doesn’t know his father’s real name or doesn’t want to share it with Milkman. This makes one wonder if Macon’s father could be said to have a “real” name at all – whatever name he was born with was presumably given to him by his slave master, meaning that it’s not any more “real” or valid than the name “Macon Dead.” The anecdote about the snake suggests essentialism — the belief that people are born a certain way, and never change. Morrison will question this idea — indeed, by paying close attention to Milkman’s development, she already has questioned it.