Tags

, , , ,

African-American literature is a very young subset of literature, considering that Western literature has been around at least since the days of Beowulf in the early Middle Ages. Even though it is quite young, African American literature has many complexities due to its relation to race issues, poverty, and its connection with Africa. As its name designates, there is a certain aura of “African-ness” to this type of literature. Toni Morrison published Song of Solomon in 1977 during a time when race issues were still heightened throughout the United States. It would appear that as Morrison wrote this work, she considered a potent question: “Have I made a whole world and led you through it toward a new comprehension of our life and time, maybe all human history?” (Price x). While it is certainly true that this novel describes a torn and strife filled life of African Americans, there is a deeper cultural world that underlies the unique names and ideas in the novel that Price never realized in his introduction.

Gay Wilentz alludes to another question that Morrison made in her dedication to the book that suggests the African roots within this complex novel. She wrote, “if the fathers fly back to Africa, how will the children know their names?” (Wilentz 640). Much of this book is about naming and is known for the bizarre names of some of the characters; i.e. Macon Dead. Pilate, First Corinthians, Milkman, Guitar, etc. While none of the names within the novel are inherently African, they do follow the African tradition for naming. In West Africa, people are named for various reasons and often will change their name, especially after having been circumcised (Samarin 40). There is also the custom or pattern that a child will go nameless for a time after someone’s death or some other traumatic event (Samarin 40). While none of these practices are directly used in Song of Solomon, there are traces of these traditions underlying some of the names. For a time, Milkman Dead went without a name until “his legs [were] dangling almost to the floor” (Morrison 19). This was more of a nickname but it stuck with him better than his real name (which is alluded to later): Macon Dead III. There was no tragic event or ritual circumcision that gave him his name although he was born after the death of Mr. Smith who decided to fly off the roof of the hospital. Rather, Milkman was named when Freddy the janitor saw his mother, Ruth, breast feeding Milkman when he was much too old to be breastfed (Morrison 19-21). Freddy is one who “christens” him, “A milkman. That’s what you got here, Miss Rufie. A natural milkman if ever I saw one. Look out, womens. Here he comes!” (Morrison 21). This naming of Milkman defines him in much the same way an African name does.

There are many indirect allusions to African culture within the novel but very few direct mentions of the continent or any specific part of Africa. The most direct allusion is when their family history is being discussed and the origin of the name “Macon Dead”. Macon Dead (II) is relating to Milkman the origin of his name and remarks,

I don’t remember my mother too well. She died when I was four. Light-skinned, pretty. Looked like a white woman to me. Me and Pilate don’t take nothing after her. If you ever have a doubt we come from Africa, look at Pilate. She look just like Papa and he looked like all them pictures you ever see of Africans. A Pennsylvania African. Acted like one too. Close his face up like a door (Morrison 63).

This allusion to Africa demonstrates a phenomenon that Wilentz talks of in her article. This phenomenon is called “Ethiopianism”. “Ethiopianism” is a theory that comes “from King James Bible versions of Ethiopia and the history of that empire. As Gruesser notes, Ethiopianism ‘refers to the whole continent of Africa rather than simply the East African nation’” (Wilentz 641). Most of the slaves brought to the United States were from Western and Central Africa and it is those cultures which were forcibly blended with American Western culture to reach the present African-American culture of today (Wilentz 641). Therefore, the present day African Americans, as in Song of Solomon, would say their culture belongs to all of Africa rather than a cultural group. This is the mindset behind Macon’s general statement.

One of the most important themes in the novel, one that the book begins and ends with is the interesting notion of flying Africans. The novel opens with the story of a Mr. Smith who decides to put to practice the African myth of being able to fly (Morrison 9-12). What is this myth or idea? Olivia Smith Storey in her article, “Flying Words: Contests of Orality and Literacy in the Trope of the Flying Africans,” explains that this idea alludes to “African born slaves flying from slavery in the Americas” (3). This is a carry-over of the myth of shape-shifting which is still present in African culture today (Storey 3). This event, wherein the insurance man Mr. Smith jumped off the cupola of Mercy Hospital, is very interesting, not only because it suggests an African cultural myth, but it also suggests an underlying meaning to this event. As Storey’s article suggests, the “trope” has to do with becoming free from the bondage of slavery. Ruth Dead is in a sense in bondage to the racial segregation at the time and therefore cannot give birth in a white hospital. The traumatic event could be seen a sacrifice wherein Smith’s death allows for the freedom and life of another.

At the end of the novel, this theme is renewed when Milkman goes to Shalimar in Virginia to retrace his family history. Milkman asks Susan Byrd, “What was Jake’s last name? Can you tell me? (Morrison 346).” Her response is thus: “I don’t think he had one. He was one of those flying African children. They must all be dead a long time now (Morrison 346).” Later she explains what she meant by flying African children, Oh, that’s just some old folks’ lie they tell around here. Some of those Africans they brought over here as slaves could really fly. A lot of them flew back to Africa. The one who did around here was this same Solomon, or Shalimar—I never knew which was right” (Morrison 347). When asked about whether or not he really flew away Susan said, “No, I mean flew. Oh, it’s just foolishness, you know, but according to the story he wasn’t running away. He was flying. He flew. You know, just like a bird. Just stood up in the fields one day, ran up a hill, spun around a couple of times, and was lifted up in the air. Went right back to wherever it was he came from” (Morrison 347-8). A certain rock near a ravine is named “Solomon’s Leap” after him (Morrison 348). This passage confirms both sides of Storey’s argument. One the one hand, it is confirmed by Jake who is labeled “one of those flying African children” who led slaves to freedom up north (Morrison 346). Additionally, Solomon’s flight is full of magical realism and harkens to the statement about the myth of flying Africans. This sudden flight does remind one of Enoch’s sudden disappearance in Genesis 5:24 where he “walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (The Holy Bible). This story of flying Africans is brought full circle in the very end as Milkman realizes the error of his ways and realizes what he must do. He recalls his father’s commandment, “You can’t fly on off and leave a body” (Morrison 358). He calls to Pilate, “He didn’t mean that. He wasn’t talking about the man in the cave. Pilate! He was talking about himself. His own father flew away. He was the ‘body’” (Morrison 358). This idea of “flying off” is full of ambiguity. Within the novel it means fleeing slavery, actually flying, dying or leaving one’s responsibilities behind (as Milkman did with Hagar) (Morrison 357). This is confirmed by Storey as she indicates this “flying” is flight from a human representative of a coercive culture, and flight towards a refuge or home” (7). As Milkman and Pilate bring her father’s bones to Solomon’s Leap, Pilate dies and Milkman comes to realize “without ever leaving the ground, she could fly” (Morrison 362). Consumed by grief and at the zenith of realizing his end, he leaps over the edge of Solomon’s Leap (Morrison 362). Morrison relates what his finals thoughts were: “For now he knew what Shalimar knew: if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it” (363). This brings completion to the novel and this theme of flying Africans by assuming that only through flight can one attain freedom and the status of legend. Just as Solomon and Mr. Smith flew in desperation to attain freedom from actual slavery or slavery of grief, so Milkman flew to escape the sorrow of death and his errors and all three men attained the status of legend.

Nada Elia wrote an article about the origin of the flying Africans and the interesting possibility that these flying Africans were in fact Muslim. This idea is tied with the next part of our study: the African roots of the songs in Song of Solomon. This is in reference to a portion of the song sung in Shalimar by the children: “Solomon and Ryna Belali Shalut/ Yaruba Medina Muhammet too./Nestor Kalina Saraka cake./Twenty-one children, the last one Jake!” (Morrison 328).  Elia declares that the weird names in the song are

indeed the names of Africans, and one can even specify they are the names of Muslim Africans who lived in Sapelo Island off the coast of Georgia, although Morrison took some poetic liberty as she wrote the novel Song of Solomon, transplanting Belali Mohomet and his descendants to Virginia and fusing their history with that of the Ibos, to recreate the collective history of the U.S. South’s Afrodiasporans (183).

This popular argument is countered by Wilentz who states (in reference to another critic who has a similar stance as Elia), “Nothing in the novel suggests that the family’s ancestry is connected to Muslims, and Cartwright’s only evidence is that he relates the novel’s Flying African theme to one story of a “Fulbe Muslim” (645). Her argument is that the regions and peoples on which the Deads and people of Shalimar are based are from non-Muslim regions of West Africa (Wilentz 645-7). The family of the Deads is reported to have been based on the Gullah and according to Wilentz this people group was made of Bantus and other such groups (347). Such arguments do definitely counter each other and I must say I side with Wilentz. The only possible Muslim allusion in the novel is the brief list of seemingly Muslim names but apart from that there is no other Muslim influence. Although the characters are not very pious, there is no doubt to the heavy prevalence of Christian allusions in the names and the culture of the family. Furthermore, the names of the folks in Shalimar are not Muslim but Christian i.e. Luther, Calvin, Solomon, Susan, Grace, etc.

Attached to the legend of flying Africans are the songs that are sung by those associated with the flyers. There are many derivations of the songs but they all have African roots in the song sung by the children in Shalimar. The song in Michigan is:

O Sugarman don’t leave me here

Cotton balls to choke me

O Sugarman don’t leave me here

Buckra’s arms to yoke me…

Sugarman done fly away

Sugarman done gone

Sugarman cut across the sky

Sugarman gone home (Morrison 58).

This song is very much like a gospel song and is sung by an older shabbily dressed woman at the flight of Mr. Smith, Reba, Hagar, Pilate, children in Shalimar, and finally a variation is sung by Milkman at the death of Pilate. This “blues” song is sung mostly unchanged throughout the novel in most cases by those of the Dead family from up north. It must be noted that the singers of this song (and the two others in the novel) are sung by either women or children. The only man who sings in novel is Milkman who sings a few modified lines at Pilate’s death, “Sugargirl don’t leave me here/ Cotton balls to choke me/ Sugargirl don’t leave me here/ Buckra’s arms to yoke me” (Morrison 361). Michael Awkward gives an answer to this interesting situation. Although he doesn’t deal directly with the songs in the novel, he does deal with gender issues in the novel and states, “she writes ‘without gender focus,’ her attraction to the ‘unruly’ features of ‘women’s imagination,’ which ‘can bring things to the surface that men-trained to be men in a certain way-have difficulty getting access to’ (Awkward 484). From this one can assume that Morrison ascribes more imaginative powers to her women and therefore they are procreators of song and culture. This is very true to African ideas of culture. A Ugandan friend of mine named Henry Mello once told me that women are those who are responsible to teach the children the culture and customs of the tribe. This is why the older derivation of the song is sung in Shalimar by children. This derivation is much more African in nature than the other song. Due to its length, I cannot include it at this instance but please refer to the song quoted at the end of this essay in the appendix. As explained in the novel, this song has much to do with the family history of the children of Solomon and the folks in Shalimar. A lot of it is a nonsense rhyme in the African musical tradition (Morrison 326). African music is quite similar to this.

There are a few instances in the novel where the African tradition of voodoo is used and therefore the last item to be discussed. This is in reference to Ruth’s pregnancy. Macon was furious to hear that she was pregnant and “tried to get her to abort” (Morrison 145). He forced her to try various methods and then after punching her stomach, Pilate used some of her African voodoo traditions to stop Macon from abusing Ruth (Morrison 145). Pilate lead Ruth “into the bedroom, where the woman wrapped her in a homemade-on-the-spot girdle—tight in the crotch—and told her to keep it on until the fourth month and ‘don’t take no more mess off Macon and don’t ram another thing up in your womb’” (Morrison 146). Furthermore, Ruth learned that

Pilate put a small doll on Macon’s chair in his office. A male doll with a small painted chicken bone stuck between its legs and a round red circle painted on its belly. Macon knocked it out of the chair and with a yardstick pushed into the bathroom, where he doused it with alcohol and burned it. It took nine separate burnings before the fire got down to the straw and cotton ticking of the insides. But he must have remembered the round fire-red stomach, for he left Ruth alone after that (Morrison 146).

He knew the witchcraft involved in that doll and was deathly afraid of it. Much of this is still done in Africa. Wilentz talks about this incident and states that “When Pilate finds out later that Macon is trying to abort the child conceived in deception, she reminds him of her obeah powers: She puts a male doll with a chicken bone stuck between its legs in his office” (Civilizations 67). Obeah powers are defined as “a person or thing involved in or associated with the practice of a kind of sorcery, witchcraft, or folk medicine originating in West Africa and mainly practised in the English-speaking areas of the Caribbean” (OED online). This once again show the African roots within Song of Solomon.

After a reading of the novel, one comes to see the African American culture underlying the plot. But on a closer look, this culture has many African roots that are manifested through songs, myths, names, and even cultural practices, more than what Reynolds Price first alluded to. Most critics are in agreement as to the African roots save those who differ on whether the family is of Muslim or non-Muslim ancestry. Looking at such complexities within a seemingly straightforward work is always rewarding and makes one appreciate it more.

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Awkward, Michael. “Unruly and Let Loose”: Myth, Ideology, and Gender in Song of Solomon.” Callaloo 13:3 (1990) 482-498.  JSTOR. Web. 4 March 2012.

Elia, Nada.“ ‘Kum Buba Yali Kum Buba Tambe, Ameen, Ameen, Ameen’: Did Some Flying Africans Bow to Allah?” Callaloo, 26:1 (2003) 182-202. Project Muse. Web. 4 March 2012.

Genesis 5:24. The Holy Bible. Wheaton: Crossway-Good News, 2003. Print. Eng. Standard Vers.

Mello, Henry. Personal interview. July 2011.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Print.

“Obeah, adj. and n.”. OED Online. March 2012. Web. 17 April 2012.

Price, Reynolds. Introduction. Song of Solomon. x. Print.

Samarin, William J. “Lessons in Sango”. Basic Course in Sango.  Vol. 1. Grace Theological Seminary and College. 1967. 3.21. Print.

Storey, Olivia Smith. “Flying Words: Contests of Orality and Literacy in the Trope of the Flying Africans.” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 5:3 (2004). Web. 4 March 2012.

Wilentz, Gay. “Civilizations Underneath: African Heritage as Cultural Discourse in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” African American Review 26:1 (1992) 61-76. JSTOR. Web. 4 March 2012.

—.”What Is Africa to Me?”: Reading the African Cultural Base of (African) American Literary History. American Literary History 15:3 (2003) 639-653. Project Muse. Web. 4 March 2012.

 

Appendix

Below lies the quoted song from Song of Solomon referring to the section concerning the songs in Song of Solomon.

Jake the only son of Solomon

Come booba yalle, come booba tambee

Whirled about and touched the sun

Come konka yalle, come konka tambee

Left that baby in a white man’s house

Come booba yalle, come booba tambee

Heddy took him to a red man’s house

Come konka yalle, come konka tambee

Black lady fell down on the ground

Come booba yalle, come booba tambee

Threw her body all around

Come konka yalle, come konka tambee

Solomon and Ryna Belali Shalut

Yaruba Medina Muhamet too.

Nestor Kalina Saraka cake.

Twenty-one children, the last one Jake!

O Solomon don’t leave me here

Cotton balls to choke me

O Solomon don’t leave me here

Buckra’s arms to yoke me

Solomon done fly, Solomon done gone

Solomon cut across the sky, Solomon gone home (Morrison 328).

 

Advertisements