Though Milkman’s car has been repaired, it gives out once again while he is driving through a small town near Shalimar called Jistann. Milkman sells the car for twenty dollars and takes the bus instead.
Milkman no longer cares about money; he’s progressed to less material concerns, such as his family’s name and history
Milkman thinks of his behavior after he left Susan Byrd’s house. He returned to Sweet’s home in Shalimar, where he ecstatically told her that he wants to swim in the “sea! The whole goddam sea!” Even when Sweet tells him that a man came by to see him, Milkman isn’t perturbed, though he assumes that it must have been Guitar. Together, Sweet and Milkman walk to the nearby river, with Milkman chanting the children’s nursery rhyme. At the river, Milkman encourages Sweet to jump in. They swim and kiss.
Milkman’s desire to bathe in the “sea” suggests a new expansiveness to his vision of himself and the world. Now that he has a past he wants to connect with all the world, rather than protect himself behind money. Bathing in the water suggests a Christian baptism — he’s born again. Yet even with this happy news, there’s a shadow of menace cast over the scene, since we know that Guitar is still looking for Milkman, and still thinks he stole the gold.
Milkman tells Sweet that his great grandfather, Solomon, could fly. He can’t wait to tell everyone what he’s learned: Pilate, his father, and even Reverend Cooper and his friends. He also tells Sweet that if Guitar is still in Virginia and looking for Milkman that she should tell him about Solomon.
The news that brings Milkman such great pleasure is empowering for a few reasons. He seems to believe that flight is literally possible, but what’s equally empowering for him is the knowledge that he comes from somewhere, that he descends from a family with a notable history. Milkman wanting to share this news with Guitar, who he knows wants to kill him, shows his changing worldview, how he wants to share this history with others as an empowering thing.
As Milkman rides the bus back to Michigan, he sees signs along the road. Each sign is a name, and each name has its own meaning, just as Not Doctor Street is a name with a meaning: it refers to his grandfather, the first influential Black man to work in the area. He thinks of all the Black men he has met in Danville, Shalimar, and other towns, and how every man’s name arose for many different reasons, including weakness, ambition, and random chance.
Milkman’s bus ride gives us more information about why he’s so happy about his great-grandfather — he’s finally learned his name, and thus taken control over his own life. What’s remarkable about this section is that it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know — Morrison has made it clear from the first page of Song of Solomon that names are power — names can be a form of political rebellion, a form of subjugation, a form of liberation. The realization, then, is Milkman’s not ours.
Milkman tries to convince himself that when he returns to Michigan, he’ll be able to convince Guitar to be friends with him again — Guitar will see that no crate has arrived, with or without gold. But Milkman realizes that this isn’t the truth. Guitar has always secretly despised him, associating him with his father and the other wealthy, entitled Black people. Guitar’s belief in revenge against white people, Milkman decides, is immoral — he’s already killed four innocent woman and one innocent Black man.
In the past, Milkman has been optimistic about his friendship with Guitar, thinking that Guitar is benign even when he’s clearly bloodthirsty. After his baptism, Milkman is more honest with himself, and his honesty is rooted in a more acute sense of right and wrong. Thus, he’s not afraid to think that Guitar is wrong to kill innocent white people. Even more basically, he recognizes what he’d refused to acknowledge before: Guitar must be responsible for the recent murders in Michigan.
As Milkman arrives back in Michigan, he thinks that everyone in his life would seem to prefer him dead, with the exception of Reba and Pilate — two people for whom he’s never done anything. Rather than go home right away, he decides to go to Pilate’s home to greet her. When he does, she hits him over the head with a bottle, knocking him out.
Pilate’s act of knocking out Milkman might at first seem shocking, especially as he was coming to her to bring such good news. But it is important to look at it in context. Pilate knows that it was Milkman’s abandonment of Hagar that killed her. But Pilate does not kill Milkman in return—she does not practice an eye-for-an-eye. Guitar wants to kill Milkman over money. Pilate only knocks him out in response to Milkman’s role in her granddaughter’s death.
Milkman wakes up in Pilate’s cellar and tries to figure out why Pilate hit him. At first, he thinks that it’s revenge for stealing her bones, but then he realizes that Hagar must be dead. Without trying to deduce how she died, he feels guilty for driving her away from him.
Milkman’s ability to figure out what happened marks his increased empathy. His guilt speaks to his growing sense of responsibility. Both of these new traits stem from his journey and his discovery of his family history.
Milkman remembers the words Pilate claims her own father told her: “You just can’t fly off and leave a body.” He shouts from the basement to Pilate upstairs that Jake wasn’t talking about the dead body in the cave; he was talking about his own father, Solomon, who flew back to Africa, trying to take Jake with him but ultimately leaving him behind. He also realizes that her father wasn’t telling her to “sing” songs; he was referring to his own mother, Sing.
Once again it is revealed that a character has misinterpreted an event. But while previous misinterpretations seemed damaging, this misinterpretation isn’t at all: Pilate has continued to sing, bringing joy to others, even Macon Dead. Just as the song about Solomon became a song about Sugarman, the ghost of Jake’s reference to his wife has become Pilate’s inspiration to sing. The past and its traditions and stories, the novel suggests, are not static: they can change and grow, and whether they grow toward something bountiful and joyous or the opposite depends on what one does with them.
Pilate hears Milkman’s voice and comes down to the cellar. Milkman tells her what he’s come to realize: the body Pilate found when she returned to the cave wasn’t that of the old man Macon killed — it was the body of her own father, whose bones she has been carrying for years. Milkman tells Pilate, who can only repeat, “Papa,” that she must bury her father. Pilate agrees to do so. She also produces a small shoe box, which she says she must bury, too. Milkman insists that she give him the shoebox. Later, as Milkman walks back to his home, the narrator reveals that the shoebox is full of Hagar’s hair.
Again, Milkman guesses what’s happening with very few clues — he seems to know what the shoebox contained right away. This contrasts sharply with his mistaken theft of the bones (which he now recognizes to be his own grandfather’s). Hagar despised her own hair, seeing it as a symbol of her Blackness and her separateness from Milkman and white culture — but in death, it’s how Pilate wants to remember her.
Milkman drives Pilate to Virginia, since she refuses to ride in a plane. Before he does so, however, he returns to his family. His return isn’t triumphant, as he had hoped. Lena doesn’t forgive him for his cruelty. Corinthians has moved in with Porter. The Seven Days, Milkman guesses, will be looking for a new member — the narrator notes that they’d had to find a new member when Smith jumped off the hospital roof. When Milkman tells his father what he’s learned, Macon is indifferent to the fact that Solomon flew, but he likes to hear that people in other states respect him, and he’s proud that there are parts of the country named after his family. He says that he’d like to go to Danville, noting that Freddie can run his business while he’s away. He and Pilate don’t reconcile, but he’s happy to learn that his father will be buried.
Milkman’s reunion isn’t as purely happy as he’d thought it would be, showing that epiphanies don’t solve everything. Ruth and Macon will continue to mistreat each other, and Lena will continue to hate him. Milkman can’t make up for the things he’s done wrong; he can only try to be a different person now that he knows better. Most of all, then, his epiphany is of use to himself, not to other people. The revelation that Smith, whose jump from the hospital began the novel, was a member of the Seven Days vigilante group is interesting. It suggests a number of possibilities: that being in the group drove Smith crazy, perhaps. Or that Smith felt that by being in the group that responded to white racism with eye-for-an-eye vengeance gave him some sort of power that mirrored the abilities of “Sugarman” (i.e. Solomon). Yet Smith’s jump failed, and Smith died, suggesting that the logic of the Seven Days leads not to flight but to destruction, that it is a dead end.
Once Milkman arrives with Pilate back in Shalimar, everyone is happy to see him again, and Pilate gets along with everyone. One night, they go to Solomon’s Leap, an outcropping of two rocks from which Solomon began his flight to Africa, to bury Jake. After they’ve finished, Milkman wants to put a rock or a cross on the grave, but Pilate removes her earring and buries it on Jake’s remains. As she is finishing doing this, a gunshot rings out, and Pilate collapses.
Pilate’s mysterious earring, which contains all the names of her family, is finally being put to rest. It’s as if she’s been carrying a burden (a cross?) for her entire adult life, and now, thanks to Milkman’s help, she doesn’t have to anymore. What was this burden? One could say that Pilate was carrying the burden of her family’s legacy — all the troubled relationships and affairs and deaths that had characterized her ancestors, and which, perhaps, could not be laid to rest because there was no past in which to rest them without a link to Solomon. Now that Milkman has traced these things back to a starting point — Solomon — she doesn’t need to carry them.
As Milkman holds the dying Pilate, she begs him to watch Reba, and says that she wishes she’d met more people, since she would have loved all of them. She asks Milkman to sing her a song, and Milkman sings the nursery rhyme about Solomon, but changes the words to “Sugargirl don’t leave me here.” He realizes why he loves her — she could fly without leaving the ground.
As Pilate undergoes a Christ-like death (and Milkman holding the dying Pilate in his arms is purposefully similar to the image of the dying Christ in the arms of Mary), Milkman realizes that she lived unencumbered by the circumstances of her life – her soul is “free,” even though her body has obligations to work, eat, sleep, and help other people. Pilate responded to the world with love – the opposite of both Macon’s cold search for safety in money, and Guitar’s balancing of hate with hate through eye-for-an-eye vengeance, and here this love is connected to flight. It is a different flight than Solomon’s, which involved abandonment. It seems like a more feminine flight, of freedom without leavetaking.
Milkman understands that Guitar is the one who shot Pilate, and was in fact trying to shoot him. He knows that when he stands up, Guitar will kill him. Nevertheless, he stands up and yells to Guitar, asking if he wants Milkman’s life. Guitar, who is standing by some rocks, smiles and puts down his gun.
Milkman risks his own life — curiously, Guitar doesn’t shoot him. Will the two former friends reconcile, even after the enormous evil Guitar has committed? Milkman’s question alludes to the speech Guitar has made about how everyone wants a Black man’s life. Previously, Guitar has used this mantra as a justification for his violence against white people and Black women — the two groups he deems most guilty of wanting a Black man’s life. Here, Milkman makes it very clear that Guitar is no better than the people he criticizes: he, too, wants “a black man’s life,” insofar as he wants to kill Milkman.
Milkman, weeping, runs toward Guitar, asking, “You want my life? You need it? Here.” He jumps into the air, and the narrator says that it doesn’t matter which of them dies. Milkman has learned what Shalimar knew: “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
Morrison leaves it up to us whether or not Guitar and Milkman will fight or reconcile. What’s clear from Milkman’s final words, though, is that he no longer cares about himself — he’s become as selfless as Pilate. And, in contrast to Smith who jumped and died to start the novel, and who as a member of Seven Days certainly surrendered to nothing, Milkman finds that flight comes not from force of will but by giving yourself to the wind, just as being a part of history and community comes by giving oneself to those things, by surrendering to them as Pilate did.