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Free Study Guide for Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

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Every Sunday Macon Dead gets his Packard out of the garage and takes the family for a drive. Only the girls are happy. Ruth is uncomfortable and Milkman canít see over the dash. Macon himself only takes this drive to reassure himself of his own importance. The people in the community look at the car in good natured envy, but they donít think of Macon as using the car as a car should be used. He walks to work every day and only drives the car on Sundays. He never stops to chat with anyone, he never gives anyone a lift, it never breaks down so the kids can help push it, in short, the car is only a show piece. People call it Macon Deadís hearse.

First Corinthians asks on one of these Sunday drives where they are going. Macon tells her they are going to Honore Island. Magdelena called Lena canít see why they would go there since there is nothing there but a lake and white people are the only ones who live there. Macon tells her there is a portion of land on the far side of the lake that is undeveloped. He wants to build and then rent cottages for African Americans. Corinthians canít imagine that there would be very many African Americans who could afford to have two houses, but Macon assures her there will be enough in a few yearsí time. Ruth interrupts the conversation to tell Macon about his driving. He tells her he will make her get out and walk if she speaks again. Milkman interrupts the conversation to say he has to go to the toilet. Macon doesnít lessen his speed until Lena reminds him the upholstery will be ruined if Milkman has an accident. He stops on the side of the road and Lena gets out to help Milkman. In a moment they come back. Lena is angry because Milkman has urinated on her. He didnít mean to, but she had startled him and made him turn around suddenly while he was urinating.

When Milkman had grown to the age of twelve, he had a best friend who was much older named Guitar. Guitar was already in high school and he tells Milkman one day that he has been in Pilate Deadís house. They decide to go and see her. They find her sitting on her porch pealing an orange. They are dumbstruck and finally Guitar says "hi." Pilate makes fun of the word and makes Guitar say "hello." After some talk, Milkman is prompted to speak, but he says "hi" too and Pilate says that is a word used to call pigs. He feels ashamed in a way he never expected to feel. She is the one who is poor and unkempt, yet she shames him. She is "anything but pretty, but he could have watched her all day." She tells him she knows his father and she also knows him. Then she asks the boys inside for a boiled egg. She tells them of her special way of making a perfect boiled egg. As she prepares it, she tells Milkman stories of her childhood with Macon. She says it would be nice if Milkman could have known his father at that time when he was a nice boy. "He would have been a real good friend to you, too, like he was to me."

Pilate says Macon saved her life twice, once when she was born and her mother died in childbirth, and second, when their father was murdered and Macon took care of her as they hid out in the woods. She says one day their fatherís ghost came back when they were in the woods. His back was to them and he didnít look at them directly. Then he disappeared again. Macon had told her that her fears of the forest werenít founded, but she knew if she feared it, that was powerful enough. She remembers a time when she was working in Virginia for a white couple. One day the man came home terribly upset and told her he felt like he was going to fall off a cliff. She almost told him there was no cliff until she remembered her own fears in the forest, so she grabbed hold of him from behind and held onto him so he wouldnít fall. He was okay until his wife came in and wanted to know what Pilate was doing holding her husband. Pilate had to let go of him. He fell slowly to the floor and was dead when he hit it.

Guitar wants to know who shot Pilateís father. She answers his questions in a roundabout way, letting him know she doesnít know who the people were or exactly why they did it. She says the farm was in Montour County, but doesnít say the name of the state. She says she remembers the color of her motherís hair ribbons even though her mother died before she was born. She doesnít even know her motherís name because her father forbade them to say her name after her death.

Pilate interrupts her story by exclaiming at the arrival of her daughter Reba and her granddaughter Hagar. They are pulling in a big bundle of blackberry brambles into the kitchen. As Hagar enters the kitchen backward, Milkman falls in love with her, before she even turns around and faces him. Pilate introduces him as Hagarís brother. Reba corrects her and calls him Hagarís cousin and hence ensues an argument over the necessity of the distinction between "brother" and "cousin" when one acts the same way toward both. Hagar asks Milkman to help her bring in the other two brambles. He is astonished at her muscular beauty.

Pilate asks Guitar where he got his name. He says when he was a child, he had wanted a guitar that was the prize of a storeís contest. To win it, one had to guess at the number of beans in a glass jar. Pilate says Reba would have been able to win it for him. They tell the boys of Rebaís remarkable gift at winning all kinds of contests. People come from all over to get Reba to buy lottery tickets for them or stand in lines. The best prize was the Sears and Roebuck prize of a diamond ring for being the five hundred thousandth customer. Reba had walked in the door to use the toilet. The store didnít want its prize-wining customer to be an African-American woman who also looked unkempt, so they gave her the diamond ring and then put the second place winnerís picture in the paper. He was white. As Milkman sits and listens to everyone talk, he realizes that heís happy for the first time in his life. Guitar wants to drink the wine they make. They find out Pilate doesnít drink any of it.

The women discuss their dwindling profits from the wine sales. Hagar says if Reba hadnít won the hundred pounds of groceries last winter they would have starved. Both of the older women are shocked that Hagar feels so unsure of their ability to feed her. She says she has had some hungry days and they freeze. Milkman notices that when Pilate stops moving her mouth, her face turns into a mask, "as if someone had clicked off a light." Then Pilate tells Reba that Hagar isnít talking about starving from a lack of food. She begins to sing the song "O Sugarman donít leave me here / Cotton balls to choke me / O Sugarman donít leave me here / Buckraís arms to yoke me." Then Reba and Hagar join in to the chorus "Sugarman done fly away." Milkman is astonished by Hagarís voice which "scooped up what little pieces of heart he had left to call his own." Guitar smiles in recognition.

When Milkman gets home, Freddie the janitor has already told Macon that he has been at Pilateís house drinking. Milkman assures his father that he didnít drink but Macon isnít satisfied. He says Pilate is a snake and that Milkman should not trust her because she will hurt him. Milkman reminds his father that he used to carry Pilate out to the fields with him where he would work. This memory makes Macon begin a long and loving description of the farm his father built called Lincolnís Heaven. He begins by saying "I worked right alongside my father." He says his mother died when Pilate was born and that Pilate stayed on another farm in the daytime.

His fatherís work horse was named President Lincoln. They had one hundred and fifty acres, eighty of which was woods. Macon wonders if thatís why the men wanted his fatherís land. He describes the lay of the farm in great detail. He remembers telling Ruth about the farm when they were first married. He also used to tell about it when he was first starting out his business to other men in the barber shop. Now he doesnít have the time. He tells Milkman President Lincoln had a foal named Mary Todd. Then they also had a cow named Ulysses S. Grant and hog named General Lee. When he went to school later he already had a personality to go with the names of these historical figures. He tells of a woman named Circe who worked at a big farm in Danville, Pennsylvania. The white people she worked for had a dog run. Macon marvels at the love white people would invest in their dogs. They could see an African American killed and "comb their hair at the same time," but they cried when their dogs died.

Milkman notices his fatherís voice has taken on a softer accent. Macon says it took his father sixteen years to get his farm to the state that it would pay and then they shot him. He doesnít know who it was who shot his father, but he knows his fatherís illiteracy played a part in it. He says every bad thing that happened to his father happened because he couldnít read. Even his name came from that inability. When freedom came, the Freedmanís Bureau came around to register all people of African descent. His father was registered by a drunken man who mistakenly put his county, Macon, in the space where his name went. The "Dead" came from the question, "Whoís your father." His father never changed his name because when he met Maconís mother, she liked the name because it was new and would wipe away the past. Macon remembers his mother looked almost white, but his father looked like an African, just as Pilate does today. He says his father could close his face up like a door and Milkman remembers seeing Pilate do the same. Macon stops the story and reiterates the warning that Milkman stay away from Pilate. He tells him to start coming to the office and working two hours every day.


The story of Pilate and Maconís past begins to unfold here. Itís a story that centers on the loss of property for Macon and one that centers on love and solidarity for Pilate. Pilate tells the story of her time with Macon after their father was killed. It was a time which confirmed her brotherís love for her. The disparity between this early Macon and the present mean-spirited one creates a sense of curiosity in the reader and suspense in the novel. Maconís memory of those early childhood days are centered around the loss of property. He remembers every part of the farm he and his father worked to build. He relishes every image he recalls.

The property his father owned differs sharply from the property Macon owns. His fatherís farm, Lincolnís Heaven, was lovingly created. Even the farm animals are named with the care of historical re-appropriation, turning presidents and generals into loyal and hard-working friends. Maconís own relation to property is purely exploitative, as evidenced by his behavior in the previous chapter with Mrs. Baines (Guitarís grandmother) and Porter.

This is the second time weíve heard Pilate sing the song about Sugarman. As the novel proceeds, this song will be a clue to a larger mystery about Milkmanís origins. For now, it provides a sense of the history behind these people, the history of slavery. The voice is a womanís voice, and she sings of the particular oppression of being a woman in slavery where "Buckraís arms" yoke her against her will, Buckra being the white oppressor.

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