From the first page of Song of Solomon, it’s clear that names have enormous power. Names tell stories, record history, and build community. The name Doctor Street, for instance, celebrates Dr. Foster, the first wealthy, influential black man to live in the town. By repeating this name, the townspeople honor their hero and celebrate their race and their culture. Government officials are completely aware of the power of names — that’s why they insist on calling the street Mains Street; Doctor Street would give blacks too much pride. The “compromise name,” in which the black community ignores the official name of the street and instead calls it “Not Doctor Street”, is a way for blacks to mock government officials while both making clear white power’s efforts to efface black history and keeping that history alive. Names, then, aren’t just arbitrary sounds describing arbitrary things. The right name, chosen for the right reasons, can change the way people think, and even change the thing it’s describing.
Although names have power, much of the novel shows how names can also imprison people. Milkman, whose given name is Macon Dead III, feels trapped by his own family name. He’s named after his grandfather, who was accidentally given the name “Dead” by the Freedman’s bureau. By carrying the name “Dead,” Milkman feels that he’s been condemned to live the same life that his father and grandfather lived, working at the family business, living in the same town, etc. In part, Milkman’s dissatisfaction with his name is just another way of saying that he feels trapped in his obligations to his family. But in another sense, it is the name itself that imprisons him. As he tells Guitar many times, he feels “Dead” because his name is Dead.
As he grows up, Milkman begins to see that his entire family is trapped by their names, too. Macon, like his father before him, names his children by randomly choosing a name from the Bible, even a very unusual name like “First Corinthians.” Though Morrison doesn’t explicit say this, this is similar to the method slave owners would use to name their slaves. By repeating the slave owner’s naming system, the Deads are effectively acknowledging that slavery continues to shape their thinking and their behavior.
When Milkman goes to Virginia in search of his aunt Pilate’s gold, he comes to realize that learning his family’s names is a far greater reward than the gold could ever be. After discovering that his great-grandfather’s real name was Solomon — and that people and places all over the country are named after him — he’s ecstatic, and thinks to himself that every name in the world tells a long, complex story. For most of his life, Milkman had no understanding of his own story — he had no history and no culture. Now that he understands the history of his names, he feels invincible.
Milkman’s journey, then, brings him to the realization that learning a name can be a liberating experience. Where before the knowledge of his family name had made him feel small and confined, the knowledge of his family’s “true” name, Solomon, makes him see that his family history is something to be proud of, and that like Solomon, he has the power to travel across the country, spreading his name and his culture to new places.
Yet it’s important to note that Morrison also complicates the idea of the power of names. Consider Pilate, who has spent her entire life singing and bringing joy to her family because she misinterpreted what her father’s ghost told her when it visited her and said “Sing,” as “Sing” was the name of his wife, not a command for her to continue to sing. Pilate misinterpreted a name, but her misinterpretation didn’t imprison her; on the contrary, it encouraged her to live a better life. Everyone enjoys her singing — even Macon, who doesn’t speak to his sister.
In all, Morrison forwards a complex point about names, and their history and power. One must seek out the true meanings of names, she seems to suggest, and the rewards for doing so can be enormous. At the same time, she portrays deriving power from a name as an act of creation as well as investigation — to some extent, one can invent what names mean, one can give them new power beyond what they inherit from history, and so in this way names both carry the history and culture of the past to the present and act as vessels through which the present can interact with that past, engage it and build and shift it, and carry that culture and history into the future.
The Power of Names ThemeTracker
The Power of Names 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.
“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.”
Amanuensis. That was the word she chose, and since it was straight out of the nineteenth century, her mother approved, relishing the blank stares she received when she told her lady guests what position her daughter had acquired with the State Poet Laureate. “She’s Michael-Mary Graham’s amanuensis.” The rickety Latin word made the work her daughter did (she, after all, wasn’t required to work) sound intricate, demanding, and totally in keeping with her education.
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.
“Yeah. That tribe. That flyin motherfuckin tribe. Oh, man! He didn’t need no airplane. He just took off; got fed up. All the way up! No more cotton! No more bales! No more orders! No more shit! He flew, baby. Lifted his beautiful black ass up in the sky and flew on home. Can you dig it? Jesus God, that must have been something to see. And you know what else? He tried to take his baby boy with him. My grandfather. Wow! Woooee! Guitar! You hear that? Guitar, my great-granddaddy could flyyyyyy and the whole damn town is named after him. Tell him, Sweet. Tell him my great- granddaddy could fly.”
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.