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Song of Solomon

In: English and Literature

Submitted By bbruemmer
Words 1344
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Great Narrative Literature
Dr. Kelso
2/10/2014
The Role of the Myth of the Flying Africans in Song of Solomon The central myth in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is that of flight. This myth ties directly into the Exodus story of the Bible, where flight is understood as escape from the oppression of slavery. The main purpose of this myth of flight in the novel is to give hope to African Americans during a time where racial tensions are very much a part of their everyday lives. In this essay, I will argue that the myth of flight plays both a positive and negative role throughout this novel. It plays a positive role in that it seems to give Milkman a sort of pride in his ancestors that he did not have before he learned of the myth of Solomon’s Leap. Milkman, after learning about his parents’ marriage from both his mother and father, seems to shun his family and lose interest in his people that came before him, but after hearing about his great grandfather, he becomes proud of his lineage and gains a sense of liberation from the life he has led up to this point. However, while this myth of flight enables Morrison’s male protagonist to thrive, there are also negative consequences that Morrison asks us to consider, namely the effects of this myth on the ones left behind, the women and children. The Exodus story tells of the Israelites, who were being held as slaves in Egypt until they were liberated from their oppression by Moses, who was sent by God. The story tells of their flight from Egypt into the wilderness and, after many years of wandering, their eventual arrival in the Promised Land. Since the days of the Atlantic Slave Trade, African American slaves have looked to this story as one of hope for their own situation, as can be seen through much of the African American literature produced in the last few centuries. From the Exodus story, the slaves drew their own myth, known as the myth of the Flying Africans. This myth told of African Americans ability to fly as a means to escape oppression, slavery specifically, which is why it was so prevalent among the slaves then and African American literature today. From the very beginning of this novel, the myth of flight, specifically the flight of a man named Solomon, dominates the culture that the protagonist, Milkman, is born into. The opening scene of the novel takes the reader to the streets of the Southside district, of a town whose name we are never given. Here, a man, named Robert Smith is standing on the roof of Mercy Hospital claiming that he will essentially jump from the roof and fly across the river to safety on the other side (Morrison 1997, p.3). Mr. Smith seems to be acting out the myth of the Flying Africans, as he claims he will physically fly across the river, escaping the oppression he feels has been put on him. We are told later that the man’s flight was unsuccessful, and this event has a profound effect on the life of Milkman, as we are told that from this point on, Milkman seems to lose his interest in life, as his desire of flight has dominated his life up to this point (Morrison 1997, p.9). For the large majority of the book, he seems to accept that he will grow up to be like his father who, while being a very successful business man, puts his business before anything else in his life, has a strained marriage to Ruth Dead, and rarely shows any affection towards his children. This reality becomes the oppression that Milkman will seek liberation from at the end of the novel, it just takes him a while to realize what it will take to “fly” away and achieve said liberation. Milkman spends a vast amount of his life seemingly wasting his time, almost as if he is wandering through the wilderness, looking for the Promised Land. He works in his father’s office during the day, spends the evenings hanging around with his best friend, Guitar Bains, and fostering a relationship with Hagar Dead, who happens to be his cousin. While this seems to be a normal life, Milkman always held on to his passion for flying and soon starts to want more out of his life. He starts to feel trapped in his life and this is when Milkman starts to embark out on his own. After hearing the story of his grandfather from Pilate, he gets the idea of going back to the land of his people and discovering who he is and who his ancestors are. Milkman finally expresses his feelings through a conversation with Guitar in which he admits that he is tired of working under his father and unless he gets away from the city and gets his own money, he fears that is all that he will do with his life (Morrison 1997, p.222). This is the time in his life when Milkman finally understands his oppression. From here on out, Milkman’s desire for flight changes from the desire for physical flight to a desire for a way to escape the oppressive reality in which he has grown up. Gay Wilentz (1990, 28) claims that,” It is through the acknowledgement of one’s African heritage and the learning of the power of the ancestors that the African American community can achieve wholeness”. Wilentz (1990, 28) goes on to say,”…that power is associated with the African ancestors’ ability to transcend slavery and fly home.” Milkman elects to follow after his dream of flight and travels to the land of “his people”, and along the way learns of the story of his family and eventually discovers that the “hero” of the myth, Solomon, is his great grandfather. This knowledge of his ancestors seems to be what Milkman has needed to “transcend slavery and fly home” (Wilentz, 1990, 28). The story ends with Milkman, in mortal danger, flying the way that his great grandfather and Mr. Smith had before him. Milkman finally understands that the only way to successfully escape his oppression is to embrace the past that he has spent so much of his life avoiding. This understanding is much the same as the Israelites reaching the Promised Land, as Milkman has finally escaped his oppression, flown away, and achieved liberation. This ending seems to wrap the story up very nicely, but there is one group of people that seem to be neglected throughout the story; the women who were left behind. Wilentz (1990, 30) states,” Morrison reminds us that the men who flew off would not be remembered had the women not remained behind to tell the tale”. We tend to focus on the triumph of the male who successfully “flew back to Africa” but as Morrison (1977, p.147) claims,” You can’t just fly on off and leave a body” which seems to have multiple meanings throughout the novel. Rebecca Kinney (2004, p.7) states,”…Morrison chooses the man to fly away and leave his wife home with their children”. Kinney goes on to say,” …she makes a statement in relation to the role of women in African culture and how it involves teaching the children cultural, moral, and spiritual values that are left behind” (Kinney 2004, p.7). Morrison chooses to leave the women behind with the task of preserving their cultural identity and ensuring that the stories of their heritage are passed down so that the future generations can experience flight and achieve liberation in much the same way as Milkman did, through the power of their ancestors.

Bibliography
Kinney, R. L. (2004). Some Glad Morning...I'll Fly Away.
Morrison, T. (1997). Song of Solomon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf .
Thomas, R. R. (2013). Claiming Exodus. Waco: Baylor University Press.
Wilentz, G. (1990). If You Surrender to the Air: Folk Legends of Flight and Resistance in African American Literature. MELUS, 21-32.

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