The importance of names and naming in Song of Solomon is directly related to the legacy of the slave trade. African men, women and children were uprooted from their native land, their native language and the ancestral ties and essentially reconstructed as fictional representations. The names given to the slaves and by extension every part of the line down through the decades is a reflection to this removal from their geographic identity. Essentially, then, the names given to African-Americans that reflect any culture not specifically tied back to their native homeland is not an icon of identity as it for most people, but an icon of misidentity.
The odd and often bizarre names that Morrison gives her characters are likely to strike the typical reader as disconnected from their sense of reality. Not many people in real life likely have a last name like Dead, nor do you find many people—much less woman—named after Pontius Pilate. This disconnected quality is purposeful on the part of the author: it reflects the disconnected quality that non-African names given the slaves had. That startling last name also carries literary qualities as well as indication that the members of its lineage all metaphorically dead in a sense. Macon Dead II has essentially killed his own sense of history by assuming full assimilation into a culture utterly disconnected from his homeland. Ruth Dead’s spirit has been killed by her husband’s dominance. And, of course, Milkman is dead in Part I, but thanks to Pilate having washed her hands of what killed her brother, she becomes an agent of Milkman’s resurrection in
The title of the book lends the names much of their power as a force of allusion. Taken from the name of a book in the Bible, the title refers to an odd and bizarre chapters in that book of scripture. “Song of Solomon” reads like a passionate love story between a man and a woman, but metaphorically it can also be read as a passionate love letter to Israel. Israel thus becomes the metaphorical stand-in for the African homeland of the bloodline of slaves.
For most people their name is an essential part of their identity because that name reflects a long record of historical culture and personal history. For the descendants of the slave trade, that record is unreal. Their names do not reflect any historical event that ties directly to their ancestors back in Africa even their own personal historical is corrupted by their enforced immigration from the actual historical record.
In this sense, the names that those descendants carry with them act as the reverse of normality; they became an agent of misappropriated identity. Morrison names the family central to her narrative Dead because their identities have been killed. She then makes Milkman’s person journey a discovery of identity that must be traversed through a geography of misappropriate identity such as the Blood Bank and Not Doctor Street. Milkman must decode this pattern of misidentification in order to figure out his own identity. Significantly, he must make a spiritual flight back to Africa in order to establish his identity.
Significantly, it is Pilate who helps guide him toward this spiritual resurrection of self. She is the only member of the Dead bloodline who is not dead in any way. Although her name alludes to the Bible, Pilate also serves as an essential element in the construction of Song of Solomon as a heroic quest for self-identity. The relatively unformed and shapeless identity of Milkman does not begin to come into sharp focus until he leaves the city which is representative of his father’s deadened acceptance of material culture and treks into the wasteland of Pilate’s insistence upon living in the natural world that is far more reflective of the African homeland where the golden treasure of discovering his identity awaits Milkman.
Ultimately, in an ironic quest for heavy gold whose weight would surely anchor him securely to the material bonds that have killed his father’s sense of self, Milkman discovers the ability to spiritually take flight and discover his own sense of identity.
- Morrison, Toni (1977) “Song of Solomon.” New York: Knopf.