Song of Solomon is the story of Milkman’s search for identity. He appears destined for a life of isolation and self-alienation. The Deads exemplify the patriarchal, nuclear family that has been a stable and critical feature of American society. The family is the institution for producing children, maintaining them, and providing individuals with the means to understand their place in the world order. But this same nuclear patriarchal structure of the family itself creates the problems it should be solving. What represses the Deads is the father, Macon: his single-minded ambition, his unscrupulous greed, his materialism, and his lack of nurturing his family.
Macon does not concentrate on being a loving and nurturing father; instead he concentrates on another aspect of paternity, the acquisition of property. Macon aspires to own property and other people too. His words to his son, “Let me tell you right now the one important thing that you’ll ever need to know: Own things. And let the things you own own other things too. Then you’ll own yourself and other people too”. The owning of things as well as other people is a rather remarkable statement, coming from a descendant of slaves.
Macon has not inherited this trait from his father, even though he mistakenly thinks so. His father had owned things that “grew” other things, not “owned” other things. Pilate Dead, Macon’s younger sister, is a marked contrast to her brother and his family. Macon has a love of property and money, and this determines the nature of his relationships with others.
Pilate has a sheer disregard for status, occupation, hygiene, and manners, and has the capability to respect, love, and trust. Her self-sufficiency and isolation prevent her from being trapped or destroyed by the decaying values that threaten her brother’s life. The first part of the novel details the birth of Macon Dead III, the first black baby to ever be born at Mercy Hospital, which has been named by the African American community as No-Mercy Hospital. He acquires the name Milkman when people learn that his mother is still nursing him long after it is considered normal to do so.
His father, Macon Dead, is a cold, insensitive man who places undue importance on material wealth and intimidates all he comes into contact with. Macon forbids Milkman to visit his Aunt Pilate because her eccentric ways, her unkempt appearance, and her stubborn insistence in making bootleg liquor embarrass him. Macon had loved his sister earlier and had looked after her – Pilate says he was a good friend to her. Macon used to carry the motherless Pilate in his arms to the neighboring farm. But Macon is now changed from a “nice boy” to a “stern, greedy and unloving” man. When Milkman lives at home in Michigan, he perceives the world in the same materialistic terms that are similar to his father’s.
In the second part of the novel, his search for gold leads him to Virginia. This is an indication that he wants to escape from his past and achieve a sense of identity only by finding material treasure. He assumes that his trip south holds the key to his liberation. But it is not the gold that saves him. Milkman’s mental development rests partly on his understanding of the ways in which his life is connected to others’ experiences, and partly on establishing an intimate connection with the land and life of his ancestors.
These understandings lead to his greater achievement of learning to complete, understand, and sing the song that contains the history of his family. The character of Milkman undergoes change over time. Initially, Milkman’s treatment of his friends and relatives is appalling, and he hurts everyone around him. This is shown in detail through Milkman’s treatment of Hagar. The sexual relationship between Milkman and his cousin Hagar is doomed at the start since it breaks this African cultural practice.
Milkman loves Hagar at first sight and wants to get to know her better. After many years in which they have sex and are very close, Milkman then drops her and goes after younger girls. It seems as though his desire was not a fulfilling relationship and one that