Milkman returns to Susan Byrd’s house, noting that it looks different than it did the last time he was there. He knocks, and Susan invites him in. Grace Long is not there this time.
Milkman thinks that the house looks different, but of course, it is he who has changed. His quest for names has refocused him and made him turn away from his quest for gold.
Milkman asks Susan about Jake, and Susan tells him that Jake married Sing, and may have traveled to Boston with her. Milkman asks Susan why she told him that Sing went to school in Boston, and Susan tells him that she answered him differently because Grace was present. Now, Susan tells him that Jake was one of “those flying African children.”
Grace’s presence wasn’t just obnoxious; it actually interfered with Milkman’s investigation. Now his return to see Susan Byrd, which had nothing to do with the gold and instead focused on his history, begins to pay off as she seems to know about his family’s past.
Milkman asks Susan about Heddy; he learns that Heddy was Susan’s grandmother, an Indian woman, who took care of Jake after Jake’s father mysteriously disappeared. Heddy later gave birth to Susan’s father, Crowell. Susan had previously refused to talk about Heddy because Grace was around — Heddy never married, which would have scandalized Grace. Susan continues that Heddy raised Jake and Sing, neither of whom ever met their biological fathers.
Milkman’s family is full of strong, nurturing women who put their love for others before their own interests. As Milkman gets closer to the truth, Susan, for all her helpfulness, shows that she’s more committed to the appearance of politeness, and perhaps a desire to avoid shame, than to telling the truth. Grace’s presence kept her from giving Milkman everything she knew.
Milkman asks Susan about the “flying African children,” and she mentions the folktale of the slaves who fly back to Africa. Solomon, also known as Shalimar, was a man who was rumored to have successfully flown back to Africa, leaving behind him a wife and twenty-one children. Though he tried to take Jake with him, the young boy was knocked from his arms by some branches and Solomon left him behind and returned to Africa by himself. Ryna, Solomon’s wife, went insane with grief after Solomon left her, and, Susan implies, threw herself off a ravine, know as Ryna’s Gulch. Susan then dismisses this entire story as a fairy tale.
Solomon’s return to Africa reflects a long-standing black folk tale that engages both the idea of black power and the escape from racist, slave-holding America. In that regard, Solomon’s flight seems triumphant, but it also causes his wife to go insane with grief. This suggests that flight is a little more complicated than it would seem — it’s not just a matter of leaving everything one knows behind, as Milkman seems to think. Flight can be deadly for other people — Solomon effectively kills his wife, just as Milkman can be said to have killed Hagar. Susan Byrd doesn’t believe that the story is “true” in the sense of having happened, but Milkman seems not to care about truth is precisely that way, and in a novel where so many interpretations of events have turned out to be inaccurate, what is “true” turns out to be something of debate.
Milkman pieces together Susan’s information and his own. Jake and Sing must have traveled to Boston but taken a wrong turn (no doubt because Jake was illiterate) and ended up in Danville, Pennsylvania. Remembering the children’s nursery rhyme he heard yesterday, he asks Susan why Jake is said to be the only son of Solomon. Susan isn’t sure, but guesses that it’s because Jake was the son Solomon tried to take back to Africa with him.
Again, Jake’s illiteracy changes the course of his life. Understanding language is no mere party trick — it’s real power, representing the ability to take control over one’s own life.
Milkman asks if Jake was a slave; Susan reminds him that no one in her own family was a slave, but also notes that Jake registered with the Freedmen’s Bureau before he left the state of Virginia, as all slaves were required to do. On this uncertain note, Milkman leaves, thanking Susan for her time. He asks her if she still has his watch, explaining that he left it with Grace the other day. Susan laughs and tells him that he’ll never get it back — Grace will have told everyone that Milkman gave her a beautiful watch.
Milkman leaves Susan on a note of ambiguity — it’s clear he’s learned something, but it’s hard to put one’s finger on what it is. We don’t know about Jake’s experiences with slavery, and we’re unclear on what conclusions Milkman draws from the new information. But it’s clear that something has changed — Milkman is never getting his watch back, and, symbolically, he’ll never be the same materialistic person he was.