Song of Solomon, set between the 1930s and the 1960s, alludes to many milestones for black culture in the 20th century: the rise of the New Deal Coalition, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, etc. It’s no coincidence that many of these milestones are related to race and blacks’ battle with racism — Morrison’s novel is concerned with the many different forms that racism can take.
To begin with, it’s important to note that there are almost no white characters in Song of Solomon. White racism, directed at black Americans, is a real thing in the novel, but it’s an offstage presence, a terrifying monster that affects how the black characters talk, think, and behave. Morrison is concerned with the way white culture shapes and imprisons black culture, and the way that white racism can cause blacks to be racist to other blacks — in other words, how blacks internalize racism.
One form that blacks’ racism against other blacks takes is economic. Macon Dead, a wealthy black businessman, uses his influence and power to squeeze money from the poorest townspeople. He does so because, in many ways, he looks down on blacks; he wants to live far away from them, in the largely white community of Honoré. In much the same way, Hagar comes to hate her hair and dark skin because they mark her as a black woman. She envies Lena and Corinthians, and other light-skinned black women, because they’re not so obviously African; indeed, she dies of grief because she realizes that she’ll never be able to look as light-skinned as the women she thinks Milkman likes. Even if they have nothing else in common, Hagar and Macon Dead share a common desire to be as white as possible. Though they’re born in a black community, they come to dislike their own blackness, and gravitate toward the white people who oppress them and, ironically, regard all black people as the same.
Guitar embodies another form that racism takes in Song of Solomon. Where Hagar and Macon try to be as white as possible, Guitar responds to whiteness by despising it as thoroughly as whites despise him. Ever since his father was killed in a white-owned sawmill accident, he has refused to accept any sympathy from the white community; on the contrary, he regards all white people, beginning with the man who owned the sawmill, as complicit in the murder of black people. Milkman comes to realize that Guitar, along with his organization, the Seven Days, is responsible for murdering white people in retaliation for black murders in the area. Though most of the white people he kills weren’t immediately involved in crimes against black people, Guitar nonetheless considers them racists who deserve to die. Ironically Guitar’s monolithic, unsympathetic attitude toward whites is itself a form of race-based prejudice.
So the novel portrays two ways that white racism against blacks affects black consciousness. The former, that of Macon Dead and Hagar, is an almost unconscious internalizing of white racism which leads to a hatred of black people, and thus, hatred of the self. The latter, that of Guitar, is a retaliatory hatred of all white people. Though diametrically opposed, both responses are warping and destructive to the individual and to society. Ultimately, Morrison suggests that the true antidote to racism isn’t more violence and prejudice, as Guitar thinks: the antidote is love for oneself, the necessary precursor to love for other people. In this way, Milkman’s transformation from a spoiled, myopic child to a mature, loving man might symbolize an alternative to the racism from whites that blacks endure, and the internalized racism of many black people.
Racism Quotes in Song of Solomon
Some of the city legislators, whose concern for appropriate names and the maintenance of the city’s landmarks was the principal part of their political life, saw to it that “Doctor Street” was never used in any official capacity. And since they knew that only Southside residents kept it up, they had notices posted in the stores, barbershops, and restaurants in that part of the city saying that the avenue running northerly and southerly from Shore Road fronting the lake to the junction of routes 6 and 2 leading to Pennsylvania, and also running parallel to and between Rutherford Avenue and Broadway, had always been and would always be known as Mains Avenue and not Doctor Street.
They had picture-taking people and everything waiting for the next person to walk in the door. But they never did put my picture in the paper. Me and Mama looked, too, didn’t we?” She glanced at Pilate for confirmation and went on. “But they put the picture of the man who won second prize in. He won a war bond. He was white.” “Second prize?” Guitar asked. “What kind of ‘second prize’? Either you the half-millionth person or you ain’t. Can’t be no next-to-the-half-millionth.” “Can if the winner is Reba,” Hagar said. “The only reason they got a second was cause she was the first. And the only reason they gave it to her was because of them cameras.”
“Since I was little. Since my father got sliced up in a sawmill and his boss came by and gave us kids some candy. Divinity. A big sack of divinity. His wife made it special for us. It’s sweet, divinity is. Sweeter than syrup. Real sweet. Sweeter than…” He stopped walking and wiped from his forehead the beads of sweat that were collecting there. His eyes paled and wavered. He spit on the sidewalk. “Ho—hold it,” he whispered, and stepped into a space between a fried-fish restaurant and Lilly’s Beauty Parlor.
“There is a society. It’s made up of a few men who are willing to take some risks. They don’t initiate anything; they don’t even choose. They are as indifferent as rain. But when a Negro child, Negro woman, or Negro man is killed by whites and nothing is done about it by their law and their courts, this society selects a similar victim at random, and they execute him or her in a similar manner if they can. If the Negro was hanged, they hang; if a Negro was burnt, they burn; raped and murdered, they rape and murder.
“How come it can’t fly no better than a chicken?” Milkman asked. “Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” The peacock jumped onto the hood of the Buick and once more spread its tail, sending the flashy Buick into oblivion. “Faggot.” Guitar laughed softly. “White faggot.”
She was First Corinthians Dead, daughter of a wealthy property owner and the elegant Ruth Foster, granddaughter of the magnificent and worshipped Dr. Foster, who had been the second man in the city to have a two-horse carriage, and a woman who had turned heads on every deck of the Queen Mary and had Frenchmen salivating all over Paris. Corinthians Dead, who had held herself pure all these years (well, almost all, and almost pure), was now banging on the car-door window of a yardman.
“Look. It’s the condition our condition is in. Everybody wants the life of a black man. Everybody. White men want us dead or quiet—which is the same thing as dead. White women, same thing. They want us, you know, ‘universal,’ human, no ‘race consciousness.’ Tame, except in bed. They like a little racial loincloth in the bed. But outside the bed they want us to be individuals. You tell them, ‘But they lynched my papa,’ and they say, ‘Yeah, but you’re better than the lynchers are, so forget it.’ And black women, they want your whole self. Love, they call it, and understanding.
He closed his eyes and thought of the black men in Shalimar, Roanoke, Petersburg, Newport News, Danville, in the Blood Bank, on Darling Street, in the pool halls, the barbershops. Their names. Names they got from yearnings, gestures, flaws, events, mistakes, weaknesses. Names that bore witness.