I’m currently supervising a guided reading with an African American senior, and last week we had a fascinating discussion about Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Therm felt that Morrison really understands young men like himself.
Therm was drawn to the novel’s protagonist, Milkman, a 30-something man who is still living with his family. Among the challenges Milkman faces are finding an identity apart from his parents and not resorting to violence as a response to murderous white racism. Therm, who was stunned when the killer of Trayvon Martin was found innocent and who is trying to figure out the world he is about to enter, recognized many of the issues raised by the novel.
One is the heavy weight of expectations upon promising young black men. Among those with expectations are black women, and Morrison, trying to see the world through the eyes of a male protagonist for the first time (her earlier novels were Bluest Eye and Sula), comes down particularly hard on them. For instance, she has a scene where Milkman’s mother and his ex-girlfriend Hagar (but not “ex” in her eyes) are fighting over him. Milkman’s wise aunt chews both of them out:
Two growed-up women talking ’bout a man like he was a house or needed one. He ain’t a house, he’s a man, and whatever he need, don’t none of you got it.
Milkman’s best friend Guitar says something similar and then extends the charge to the community at large. First, here’s Milkman’s lament about being suffocated:
I just know that I want to live my own life. I don’t want to be my old man’s office boy no more. And as long as I’m in this place I will be. Unless I have my own money. I have to get out of that house and I don’t want to owe anybody when I go. My family driving me crazy. Daddy wants me to be like him and hate my mother. My mother wants me to think like her and hate my father. Corinthians [one sister] won’t speak to me; Lena [his other sister] wants me out. And Hagar wants me chained to her bed or dead. Everybody wants something from me, you know what I mean? Something they think they can’t get anywhere else. Something they think I got. I don’t know what it is—I mean what it is they really want.”
Here’s his friend’s response:
Guitar stretched his legs. “They want your life, man.”
“No. Hagar wants my life. My family…they want – “
“I don’t mean that way. I don’t mean they want your dead life; they want your living life.”
“You’re losing me,” said Milkman.
“Look. It’s the condition our condition is in. Everybody wants the life of a black man. White men want us dead or quiet – which is the same thing as dead. White women, same thing. They want us, you know, ‘universal,’ human, no ‘race consciousness.’ Tame, except in bed. They like a little racial loincloth in the bed. But outside the bed they want us to be individuals. You tell them, ‘But they lynched my papa,’ and they say, ‘Yeah, but you’re better than the lynchers are, so forget it.’ And black women, they want your whole self. Love, they call it, and understanding. ‘Why don’t you understand me?’ What they mean is, Don’t love anything on earth except me. They say, ‘Be responsible,’ but what they mean is, Don’t go anywhere where I ain’t. You try to climb Mount Everest, they’ll tie up your ropes. Tell them you want to go to the bottom of the sea – just for a look – they’ll hide your oxygen tank. Or you don’t even have to go that far. Buy a horn and say you want to play. Oh, they love the music, but only after you pull eight at the post office. Even if you make it, even if you stubborn and mean and you get to the top of Mount Everest, or you do play and you good, real good – that still ain’t enough. You blow your lungs out on the horn and they want what breath you got left to hear about how you love them. They want your full attention. Take a risk and they say you not for real. That you don’t love them. They won’t even let you risk your own life, man, your own life – unless it’s over them. You can’t even die unless it’s about them. What good is a man’s life if he can’t even choose what to die for?”
Guitar, however, doesn’t have good answers for Milkman. He bases his own life on anger and is involved in an insane revenge quest where he wreaks vengeance on innocent whites for innocent blacks who have been killed. Therm understands Guitar’s anger—after Trayvon Martin and such incidents, it’s hard not to experience it. But he also knows, as Milkman knows, that the anger must be resisted.
In the end, Milkman, like Therm, must find his own road, which in Milkman’s case involves searching for his roots. He discovers that he comes from a line of heroic black men, some of them slaves, who have made their own way in the world. But he also discovers that these men have, upon occasion, left their women high and dry, a path he himself resolves to not to follow. One must be responsible as well as independent. In short, he gets a vital life lesson.
As I said in my post about our discussion of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, it has been meaningful for me to discuss such books with a young man who is currently president of the Black Student Union and who I fully expect one day to be a community leader. Therm is using his training as an English major to engage with difficult literature, identifying and exploring themes and then applying those themes to his own life. Yesterday I wrote about how fewer people are majoring in English at elite schools. Therm reminds us of the rich conversations we lose when we slight literature.
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