Milkman’s life gets better after he begins working for his father. He runs errands to the houses Macon is renting, which gives him opportunities to visit the wine house where Pilate lives. Milkman is friendly, the opposite of Macon, and so renters are more open with him than they are with his father.
Milkman is coming of age under the influence of both his father and his aunt. This creates a conflict with him between the gentleness he learns form Pilate and the stern masculinity Macon teaches him.
One day — one of the few days when Milkman has opportunities to see Guitar anymore — Milkman and Guitar go to a pool hall, owned by a man named Feather. Feather, who rents from Macon, tells Milkman to get out, on the grounds that he’s Macon’s son. Guitar tries to convince Feather to let them both stay, but Feather insists that they leave. Guitar and Milkman wander through town, eventually reaching a barbershop owned by Railroad Tommy and Hospital Tommy. Hospital Tommy, an articulate man with a good vocabulary, scolds them for skipping school, and Railroad Tommy warns them not to drink or gamble.
Milkman is still growing — he doesn’t know what kind of man he’ll grow up to be — but this doesn’t matter to the people in town. Milkman is Macon’s son, and as far as Feather is concerned, this means that Milkman isn’t worth knowing, or even allowing into his pool hall. Feather responds to what he sees as Macon’s aggression with aggression of his own, and applies that aggression to Macon’s son. Such behavior allows no way for anyone to ever change or escape the cycle of reprisal. The two Tommy’s are clearly concerned with the moral behavior of Black boys.
Guitar mentions that he doesn’t like to eat sweet foods, and Milkman is amazed. Guitar can’t explain why he doesn’t like them, except that they make him think of dead people and white people, and reveals that when his father died in a sawmill accident, the sawmill’s boss responded by stopping by Guitar’s house and giving him candy. Guitar and Milkman pass by a beauty shop, and notice that, unlike the male-populated barbershop, the beauty shop has curtains, since women don’t want others to see them getting their hair done.
We begin to get a better sense of Guitar’s personality. His distaste for sweet foods arises from his hatred for white people, which itself arises for the way that white people responded to his father’s death (which they were at least partly culpable for) not with respect but with insulting paternalism, as if Guitar’s grief could really be assuaged by candy. The curtains on the beauty shop provide another symbol of women’s rich, secret inner life.
At the age of fourteen, Milkman notices that his left foot is slightly shorter than the other. This makes him seem to strut in a showy, arrogant way — Milkman tries to disguise his shorter foot, though fewer people notice it than he imagines. He feels a secret connection to President Roosevelt (who can’t walk because of having caught polio when he was young), often thinking that he has more in common with FDR than with his father. While he fears and respects Macon, he deliberately tries to be different from him.
Where Guitar despises white people and wants to separate himself from them altogether, Milkman identifies with white people, recognizing that they’re not all the same. This might suggests that Pilate has influenced his thinking more than Macon: like Pilate, Milkman is more interested in union than separation, more interested in what seemingly unlike people have in common than what distinguishes them.
Macon enjoys teaching his son his business, since it means that his son belongs to him and not to Ruth. While Milkman collects rent, Macon contemplates ways to grow his business. Because he’s Black, it’s difficult to find new properties, but he is optimistic that he will be able to find properties that no one knows are valuable yet. The year is 1945, and life is good for Macon, with the exception of Ruth. She is now 50 years old, and still disappears from Macon’s house, though no one knows where she goes. Macon is suspicious that Ruth has lovers, but he doesn’t hit her anymore.
As a Black businessman, Macon has to contend with his white competitors, who have better access to prime real estate. At the same time, Macon has to endure the hatred of the town for his efforts to make money, because the money he earns comes from the other Black people of the town— people like Feather despise him for charging what they see as extreme rents. The Black community expects to be put in positions of lack of power by white people, but find it infuriating to have it done to them by Black people. And Macon’s wealth still doesn’t bring him or Ruth happiness.
The last time that Macon hits Ruth occurs when Milkman is 22 years old — and Milkman hits Macon back. Milkman is a mature young man and has been having sex for years. He sees his mother as a sad, weak woman taking care of small, weak things like flowers and goldfish. Ruth resents Macon, and feels that their marriage somehow inspired her father to kill himself. She provokes Macon in small ways; Lena doesn’t notice her manipulation, but Corinthians does.
Milkman protects his mother but doesn’t fully understand her — the images of flowers and fish are clichés, indicating that Milkman doesn’t have any real access to Ruth’s inner life. Corinthians is more insightful about how Ruth thinks — she sees that she’s not a saint, and that she deliberately provokes Macon.
One example of the way Ruth provokes Macon occurs when the family is eating dinner. Ruth describes going to the wedding of Anna Djvorak’s granddaughter. Anna Djvorak was a former patient of Ruth’s father’s and was always grateful to him for keeping her son out of the tuberculosis sanatorium, where he surely would have died. At the wedding, Ruth was offered communion and asked if she was a Catholic; she replied that she was a Methodist, and thus unfamiliar with communion. It is a simple anecdote. As Lena listens to it, she notices her mother’s attention to detail. Corinthians waits for Ruth to use the story to provoke Macon, while Milkman barely listens at all.
It’s remarkable how the same story provokes such different reactions from different members of the same family, but this reinforces how great the differences between seemingly similar human beings can be. The scene is something like the old story about the blind men touching different parts of the elephant’s body — none of them has a total understanding of what the elephant — Ruth — really is, but they all catch different aspects of it.
Macon doesn’t believe that Ruth didn’t know about communion, and shouts that Anna Djvorak doesn’t even know Ruth’s name — Ruth is only her father’s daughter. Ruth smiles and agrees. In response Macon hits her in the jaw. Milkman then grabs Macon, pushes him into the radiator, and threatens to kill him if he hits Ruth again.
It’s unclear, both to us and to Milkman, why Macon dislikes Ruth talking about her father so intensely. Of course this doesn’t mean that Macon is right to hit his wife, but the truth about why he does so, as always in Song of Solomon, is more complicated than it seems.
Macon is humiliated and surprised that another man is dominating him, but is also a little proud of Milkman. Milkman is angry with Macon, but is also saddened to have so easily defeated a man whom he once thought unbeatable. Milkman asks Ruth if she’s all right, and notes his sisters, who are 35 and 36, staring at him with hatred. He goes to his room, and realizes that he hasn’t changed the relationship between his parents at all.
Milkman’s actions change the way people around him — Ruth, Macon, Corinthians — perceive him, but he ultimately concludes that they do nothing to change the way Ruth and Macon think about each other. Thus, his action is more important to himself than it is to either Ruth or Macon — he’s growing up.
Milkman has been sleeping with Hagar, and thinks that it has made him kind and generous. He remembers talking with Ruth about going to medical school; Ruth had encouraged him to use his middle name, Foster, instead of going by “Dr. Dead.” Macon wants his daughters to attend school, since they’ll be able to meet husbands there, but he sees no point in Macon attending, since he helps out in the office. Macon also uses his influence with bankers to transfer Milkman out of the draft for World War II.
Macon and Ruth are fighting with each other for control of Milkman’s future. Macon uses his influence to protect him and keep him working at the family business, while Ruth wants him to leave town and follow in her father’s footsteps by taking on her father’s name as his own.
Macon enters Milkman’s room and tells him to sit down, which Milkman does. Macon explains that he married Ruth in 1917, when she was 16 years old. He wasn’t really in love with her, but wanted a good wife. Ruth’s father didn’t like him, Macon continues. Dr. Foster was a rich, respected Black man, but he was also an ether addict and didn’t care about Black people at all; indeed, he was happy when his granddaughters Lena and Corinthians were born with lighter skin. Macon recalls a time when a railroad was being built through town; Macon had deduced where the tracks would be laid, and needed to borrow money from Dr. Foster so that he could buy the land cheap and then sell it for a huge profit. Dr. Foster refused to lend him any money, and when Macon asked Ruth to convince her father to do so, she said that it was her father’s decision. At this time, Macon began to wonder who Ruth was married to — him, or her own father.
Dr. Foster has the respect of the Black people in town, but he doesn’t return this respect; indeed, he treats them much as a white man would treat them. The powerful Black men in Song of Solomon are in an uncomfortable place: many of them want to be white — witness Macon buying property in a white, beachfront neighborhood. Meanwhile, Macon seems to see marriage as a relationship commanding loyalty above all other loyalties, and in all things. He believes that because Ruth is married to him she must support and help him. And it isn’t at all clear that he owes her any such loyalty.
Macon then adds that after Dr. Foster died, Macon came upon Ruth lying next to her father’s body, kissing him and putting his fingers in her mouth. After this, Macon grew paranoid that Lena and Corinthians might be Dr. Foster’s children, not his own, but eventually he decided that Foster wouldn’t have been so concerned about their skin color unless Macon were the father. Macon concludes by telling Milkman that he isn’t a bad man, but that he couldn’t stand Ruth smirking about being her father’s daughter. He walks out of Milkman’s room before Milkman can say a word.
What Macon witnesses is certainly out of the ordinary, and it is also totally possible that his interpretation of it is accurate. But it is also interesting that his interpretation fits with the concerns he already has. Later in the novel we will hear Ruth’s side of this story. Now, in telling the story to Milkman, Macon is both passing on his version of events so as to show that he is not a bad man—he is “controlling the narrative”—and he is also passing along his distrust of women in general along to his son.
Milkman doesn’t know what to think. He tries to convince himself that he defended Ruth because he loves his mother, but knows deep down that this isn’t true: he begins to think of her as a complicated woman, a separate person with thoughts and emotions. Milkman leaves the house and goes in search of Guitar. He is angry that his father told him about his mother, and feels that he isn’t ready to talk to any woman, even Hagar. As Milkman thinks about Dr. Foster, his grandfather, having sex with his own daughter, he remembers the way Ruth breastfed him as a child.
Now, under the influence of his father’s story, Milkman begins to doubt his own relationship with his mother. We’ve been given hints that Milkman already didn’t love his mother, but now there’s no ambiguity: Milkman can’t force himself to love his mother because he sees himself as a victim of her incestuous desires, just as she was a victim of her father’s desires. And his disgust with his mother spreads also to his feelings for and about Hagar.
As Milkman walks down Not Doctor Street, he realizes that no one else is on the other side of the street; when he asks a stranger why, he doesn’t get an answer. He thinks to himself that he is thinking coldly and rationally: he’s never loved Ruth, but he sensed that she loved him. He had thought of his visits to Pilate as extensions of his mother’s love for him. Now he begins to question all women’s love for him: his sisters, his mother, Pilate, Hagar.
Milkman is alone, both literally (on the street) and metaphysically: he’s cut off from his mother and his father, and doesn’t know what kind of man he’s going to be. The tragedy of this scene is that Milkman begins to question his relationship with all women because of what Macon has told him. Milkman here feels himself cut off from all women’s love.
Milkman finds Guitar in Tommy’s Barbershop. Everyone in the shop is listening to a radio report about a Black boy named Till who was killed in Mississippi after whistling at a white woman. His killers, white men, have boasted of their murder. Freddie takes the view that Till was foolish and arrogant to have whistled; Guitar, on the other hand, is furious that Till was murdered for something as trivial as a whistle, and calls Freddie a coward.
That this scene follows upon the moment when Milkman feels cut off from women’s love is important, as the story now steps into the “masculine” sphere of murder and vengeance. The story of Emmett Till and his murder is true, it happened in the real world. Freddie’s belief that the Black boy was “asking for it” indicates the level of internalized racism that exists in the town — Black people are so used to white oppression that they’ve come to believe that they’re in some ways responsible for their own oppression. Guitar’s response here seems noble and principled, a refusal to accept white dominance and aggression, but it is just beginning the novel’s arc regarding Guitar and the direction his stand against white oppression takes.
Milkman and Guitar walk to a nearby bar, Mary’s, where Milkman asks Guitar where his name comes from and tells him that he punched his father. Guitar responds by telling a story about how he used to go hunting in Florida. He had no guilt about shooting at rabbits or birds, but when he shot a doe, he found himself regretting his hunting. Guitar compares shooting a doe to hitting a woman, but his words don’t change Milkman’s state of mind at all. Guitar adds that the deck is stacked against Black people, and as a result, they do unfortunate things. The conversation turns to Till, and Milkman says that he was crazy to whistle at the woman, a statement that Guitar disagrees with. Milkman concludes that he hates his name, and asks to stay with Guitar; Guitar instead suggests that he stay with Hagar. As they walk to the wine house, Milkman wonders what his grandfather’s real name was, and guesses that Pilate has it in her earring. He condemns his grandfather for accepting the name the Freedman’s Bureau accidentally gave him, and Guitar puns that his grandfather was already “Dead” when white men shot him.
Guitar’s attempts to console Milkman fail spectacularly. The story about killing a doe has an unclear relevance to Milkman’s own experiences — it’s as if Guitar is struggling to find anything he can say to console his friend. The lack of significance in the story of the doe is itself significant — the crimes of incest that Milkman is now thinking about are beyond comprehension; no story could rationalize them. In a sense, Milkman “grows up” in this scene — he begins to understand his father’s mistake in accepting his own father’s name. Guitar’s pun, then, is funny but also serious — by accepting the name “Dead,” Macon’s family accepts the racism that white people direct at Black people, and that by accepting it they cease to be alive.