I first read Toni Morrison as a freshman in college in the fall of 1990 when my freshman seminar on the African diaspora included Beloved. That moment of racial awakening, of beginning to peer into the depths of my white privilege, is etched in my memory. So why, I wonder, has it taken me so long to return to Morrison’s older work? Bluest Eye has been on my list for years, but it wasn’t until this Penguin edition of Song of Solomon appeared on the discard shelf outside our library that I took up the call.
Her prose is, as so many have said, masterful. It’s poetic, but spare rather than flowery. She opens Song of Solomon with a suicide jump from a hospital tower and the first “colored” birth in that hospital that are set against red velvet rose petals swirling in the wind. How’s that for vivid imagery. The suicide’s role in the plot is unclear, a seed planted that Morrison will come back to for its fruit later. The birth is more direct, as it’s the birth of the main character, Macon Dead, whose mother is the daughter of the town’s first black doctor and whose father is the slumlord who does not realize or care how white his fellows see him.
Morrison uses sexual tension throughout the novel. Macon’s mother is pregnant while her daughters are half grown and her pregnancy is an embarrassment, proof that middle-aged people continue to be sexual. She nurses Macon until he’s a young boy, only stopping when she is spied enjoying this guilty pleasure. Later a grown Macon loses his virginity to his cousin, Hagar, and carries on a decade-long affair before breaking it off on account of their familial relationship. His sister, Corinthians, overcomes her class bias and her fear of her father to fulfill her own sexual desires well into her forties. This sexual tension continues to the end of the novel, when Macon goes on a pilgrimage to find gold and instead finds his people and finally his identity.
Song of Solomon made me think and analyze much the way Beloved had done twenty plus years earlier, but this time I could hear the voices of many others as I thought it through. I heard friends who have expressed their frustration at tracing their family trees, knowing they will run into the wall that is America’s slavery past, having to use different tools to discover and trace family history, relying much more on oral history and tradition, pulling apart puzzles, like Macon does with the Song of Solomon, to come closer to some truth. I heard a fellow academic talk about being torn between the academic world and the world of her home that sees belong to academia as a betrayal.
Although Song of Solomon was written in the late 70s, at moments its utterances were too timely, like the discussion of Emmet Till’s death, when Freddie, the rent collector, says, “They say Till had a knife,” and Guitar, Macon’s best friend, replies, “They always say that. He could of had a wad of bubble gum, they’d swear it was a hand grenade.”
Returning to Morrison makes me want to go back to Beloved and finally pick up Bluest Eye and get into a book group to chew on them together.