Are you tired yet of hearing about the fiscal-cliff-that-isn’t-really-a-cliff-but-some-other-less-riveting-metaphor? Last week I compared the “cliff” to the Reichbach Falls which swallows up a struggling Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. Here’s another literary cliff jump to add to the conversation.
In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, protagonist Milkman Dead is a young black man living an aimless life until he undergoes a roots quest and learns that there is more to life than his selfish desires. Then he journeys back to a cliff where (so local legend has it) his great grandmother, a slave, leapt to her death after his great grandfather left her to fly back to Africa. At the cliff he confronts his own dark double, his own Moriarty. In this instance, he takes a deliberate leap.
To explain how his leap holds out hope for us in our own prospective plunge, some background is necessary. Milkman’s dark double is a former friend, Guitar, who has become crazed by racial hatred. Although initially he kills whites—an innocent white for every innocent black who is killed—he turns against Milkman, who he thinks has betrayed him, and seeks to kill him as well. Thematically speaking, Morrison is showing the different paths that a young black man in the 1970’s might travel: politicized race hatred (Guitar’s choice), consumer selfishness (Milkman’s former life), or historical self-awareness. In Morrison’s vision, this third option—which involves learning about one’s history and connecting with a larger community—is so powerful that it is like flying. Once Milkman discovers he no longer must be shackled to a deadening reality, large vistas open up for him. These find articulation in the stories of flying slaves that he learns about.
Before he can metaphorically take flight, however, he must grapple with the specter of black rage, which is a logical outgrowth of hundreds of years of white oppression. In a sense he must become, not post-racial exactly—he can’t ignore his blackness or the history of American racism any more than Obama can—but not limited by that conflict. Morrison suggests that, if you know your past, you have a better chance at a future. Guitar, however, doesn’t want Milkman to move on.
Standing on an adjoining cliff ledge, Guitar is posed to shoot him. Rather than seek to escape, however, Milkman faces him directly. The book ends with an extraordinary paragraph. The Shalimar reference is to Milkman’s flying slave ancestor:
He leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.
I’ve written before how this novel helped shape Obama, and he can draw on its wisdom now. The GOP’s extreme conservatives are still so filled with Obama hatred that they will take him and the country down with them (once again they are threatening to play debt ceiling politics) if he doesn’t…well, anything short of self-immolation appears to be insufficient. Rather than playing their game, however, he can step fully into his vision of an equal opportunity society, whatever the consequences. Since it’s not clear which side will “give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother,” he might as well go for what he really believes.
In the past, when Obama tried to accommodate the opposition ($4 of spending cuts for $1 of new taxes in the summer of 2011), it kept moving the goalposts and almost plunged the world into financial crisis. Leaping off the cliff into a direct confrontation may be Obama’s best option this time.
If you surrender to the air, you can ride it.
Note on the photograph: The photograph can be found at www.rheged.com/best-kendal-mountain-film-festival.