African American Literature Research
"The Song of Solomon" by Toni Morrison
Naming is significant feature of Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon. The significance of naming has a number of aspects. It reflects the importance of naming in the long history of literature, including in allegorical works that, like Solomon, are in some regard morality tales. It reflects the cultural importance of naming in African American communities, specifically. Finally, it is a device being used by Morrison herself to highlight aspects of the narrative in terms of both the emotional lives of her characters and overall plotting.
Morrison has used allegory at various points in her career. Bennett noted that even in Morrison's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for literature, she employed allegory. Her choice to engage in a lengthy tradition of literature and storytelling is meaningful because it shows her intention to link her text, written "now" and linked to recent history, with the long histories of both oral narratives and written literature. Morrison chooses to embed her text in multiple literary histories both canonical and folkloric, but also in political and social American history by also calling upon the meanings of naming in African American communities.
All communities place value on naming. That value is defined by nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, class, sex, and gender. In a given culture, any name is readily identified as that of a male or female, a name that signifies dignity or respect or fun, a name that is common or undignified. Comedians get laughs and make money-delivering jokes about "stripper names", and it is easily understood which names are considered classy or sophisticated within a given culture. In African American cultures, particularly those described in the time period evoked in Solomon, naming has the added significance of delineating freedom from enslavement. While whites might have given blacks certain names, there were always other names bestowed in private by parents, aunts, uncles, lovers, and friends. The use of those names separated work life from private life, and defined intimate relationships and spaces for Black people in America.
Nicknames provide an opportunity for one's community to acknowledge distinctions in personality and to recognize individual experience as meaningful. Whether good or bad it enabled a community to identify the experiences or characteristics that define a certain individual. In Song of Solomon, among the most important renaming is that of Macon Dead III, dubbed Milkman when he is seen as an adolescent nursing at his mother's breast. His nickname identifies both his inability to achieve manhood and the impossibility of his community ever viewing him as a fully-grown man, instead he is always, at least in part, a bit of a joke to those who know his name.
The renaming also distinguishes Milkman from his father and grandfather, both named Macon. Throughout Solomon we see little that is about Macon Jr. We know that he is a mostly absent father and guilty of beating Ruth, to whom he is married. He places a great deal of stock in his physical prowess, threatening Milkman in vague ways, promising that he might not let himself be bested by Milkman in the future (Morrison 74). At no point does Macon seem aware that conversations with your child about who will beat whom "next time" are not something normal or healthy. In this way, Milkman is distinguished as, in some ways, better than his father is for being "softer."
Ruth named her daughters differently, rather than being named after their earthly family, they are named using the Bible as inspiration, Lena (Magdalene) and Corinthians. Their names distinguish them as less earthbound than Milkman, while at the same time Lena, in particular, leads a more conventional life, going to college to become a teacher (thought the career does not flourish) (Morrison 189).
That the family's last name is "Dead" is also meaningful. In part, the name reflects on how the death of Ruth's father (Doctor Foster), and what Macon believes their relationship was, shadows their marriage and their lives. Further, as some have pointed out, Macon Dead Senior's death is not a typical one, but rather a racist lynching that shadows the family (Brown). More importantly, is echoes how the life of each character is shadowed by a certain kind of internal death. Ruth's reliance on relationships with men who do support her (her father because he is dead, her husband because of his jealousy of other men, and her son because he is a child in relation to her and therefore cannot provide the support) damages her entire life and the relationships she desires. Lena's career "dies" and keeps her from the life she dreamed. Milkman, Hagar, and Guitar, are shadowed by death, the desire for others to die, to die themselves, etc.
Hagar herself is a vision of death, in Solomon she repeatedly attempts to kill Milkman, but her name echoes that Sarah's handmaid in the Bible. Her story there, one where she is first used (raped by her masters) and then shunned and abused for being useful to them, becomes her own history. Her naming is important because the reader is meant to understand that Hagar's resentment comes directly from this past, just as Macon Jr is still shadowed by his father's murder, and Milkman is shadowed by his father's resentments.
Naming in Solomon provides the reader with both a context for each character's life within their community, but also with a mythological and psychological history. As a literary device, the more widely read one is, the more aware of the Bible as literature, and the history of allegory, the more one can see in the text itself.
Bennett, Juda. "Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative." African American Review 35.2 (2001). Web.
Brown, Joseph A. "To Cheer the Weary Traveler: Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and History." The Mississippi Quarterly 49.4. Web.
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Knopf. Print.