New & Notable: Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon
By Toni Morrison
New York: Vintage International, c2004
PS3563.O8749.S6 2004

From Professor Robert Chang:

Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon begins with a suicide.  It’s a tough way for a book to begin, but then Toni Morrison does not shy away from tough subjects.  The opening suicide invokes the myth of flying Africans.  In one traditional version, an African witch doctor uses his power to aid field slaves, weak from work and the heat, to raise their arms and fly back to Africa.  Escape here is communal.

A modern update of this myth, Song of Solomon opens up space for a rich discussion of gender dynamics in African American communities.  In Morrison’s version, repeated in various ways throughout her book, African American men fly away, leaving their families and communities behind.  Escape in Song of Solomon is individual rather than communal.

I find additional lessons in Song of Solomon.  Flying away serves as a metaphor for upward mobility.  For individuals, as we progress ever upward, what happens to our (former) families and communities?  Will we fly away by ourselves or will we work to bring along our communities.  With regard to groups, as Asian Americans progress, will we remember our broader racial communities?  For those of us who are better able to “pass” as American through our accents and education, will we remember our brothers and sisters?  Will we remember the recent immigrants and those waiting on the other side of the border?

Song of Solomon is one of my favorite books.

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From the Publisher:

Milkman Dead was born shortly after a neighborhood eccentric hurled himself off a rooftop in a vain attempt at flight. For the rest of his life he, too, will be trying to fly. As she follows Milkman from his rustbelt city to the place of his family’s origins, Morrison introduces an entire cast of strivers and seeresses, liars and assassins, the inhabitants of a fully realized black world. Her earthy, poetic voice compliments perfectly the fantastical and mythical elements of Song of Solomon. A world where fathers fly in clouds of rose petals, and women can cast spells.

Morrison lays out before us the complex lives and backgrounds of four generations of black family life in the south. Central is the character Milkman–an unfortunate nickname owed to his lengthy nursing period and delayed coming of age. Although a late starter, Milkman develops into a fundamentally strong person, who eventually learns to cherish his family and the importance of his roots.

Morrison breathes life into an intriguing and diverse set of characters–from violent criminals to devout parents. Through them she explores complex social and racial issues using luscious lyrical language

About the Author:
Toni Morrison is the Robert F. Goheen Professor of Humanities at Princeton University. She has received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She lives in Rockland County, New York, and Princeton, New Jersey.

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