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Historical Context of Song of Solomon

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"First Vote," engraving by A.R. Waud, 1866.  After the Civil War, the abolitionist press shared the hopes of ex slaves in the full promise of emancipation. (Wikimedia Commons)"First Vote," engraving by A.R. Waud, 1866. After the Civil War, the abolitionist press shared the hopes of ex slaves in the full promise of emancipation. (Wikimedia Commons) The majority of Toni Morrison’s novels deal with black life in the 20th Century, as always configured and haunted by history.  An emblematic example is Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved, in which an Ohio family is literally haunted by the “baby ghost” of a child the main character kills rather than deliver over to the worse fate of re-enslavement.  Adapting the true story of a woman named Margaret Garner, Morrison weaves fact and fiction to interrogate the present condition and experience of black life.  From the Middle Passage through Jim Crow era segregation and beyond, Morrison’s novels explore the impact of world history, particularly that of the slave trade, but also the sedimentary nature of black history itself.  Her 1977 novel Song of Solomon engages deeply with the trouble, the beauty, the love and the complexity of black life in the wake of that “peculiar institution” so integral to the histories and cultures of the Americas.  In keeping with what feels like a general philosophical principle, Morrison’s Song of Solomon doesn’t take place on an active plantation, on a slave ship or even within the temporal boundaries of American slavery’s legal existence.  Rather, like most of Morrison’s novels, Song of Solomon survey's the aftermath of formal emancipation in 1865.

Immediately following the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, the South experienced a period of rebuilding from the ruins of the old order.  This period, called Reconstruction, saw black people assuming political power for the first time in American history.  It saw the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau, black primary schools and historically black colleges and universities. During the war, many enslaved people left their plantations, in what W.E.B. Du Bois called a “general strike,” seeking protection from the Union Army.  In this fashion, they became “contraband” of war. Once the Union claimed victory over the Confederacy, however, the former slaves believed they would have a chance to become citizens, or at least be guaranteed the formal rights outlined in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. 

These hopes were not realized. Aided by the political power and protection of state governments in the former Confederacy, white supremacists – whether in terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan or as regular citizens – responded to Reconstruction with extreme state-sanctioned and vigilante violence. Historian Rayford Logan has dubbed this period, which began in 1877 with the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, as the “nadir of race relations.”

While Logan dates the end of this nadir to 1901, other scholars have argued for later dates, such as 1923.  And more contemporary scholars have extended that period even further to include the “post-slavery” society of today.  Regardless of periodization, between 1880 and 1930, thousands of black people were lynched.  Morrison’s own father, George Wofford, witnessed a man lynched in his home state of Georgia, and shortly thereafter fled the South for the integrated town of Lorain, Ohio, where Morrison was born.  In addition to lynching and other acts of terror, black southerners experienced a multitude of obstacles as they strove to claim the civil rights, financial security and everyday freedoms promised in the emancipation.  In addition to state-sponsored and private violence and intimidation, a wide variety of legal techniques – including poll taxes, residency rules, literacy tests and grandfather clauses – were instituted throughout the South to ensure that African Americans would never again possess the political power they had briefly wielded in the Civil War's immediate wake. 

 Panel No. 1 in Jacob Lawrence's Great Migration Series, 1941. (Wikimedia Commons) Panel No. 1 in Jacob Lawrence's Great Migration Series, 1941. (Wikimedia Commons) Song of Solomon is set in an unnamed town in Michigan referred to only as “Southside,” a gesture towards the many black urban communities that formed during and after the Great Migration in cities all over America but predominately in the Northeast, Midwest and California. Between 1916 and 1970, more than six million black Americans fled the South.  Often referred to as the Great Migration, this mass exodus indelibly shaped the geographies and demographics of blackness in America.  It was one of the central themes of cultural production during the Harlem Renaissance, perhaps best reflected in Jacob Lawrence’s landmark Migration Series.   More recently, the Great Migration has inspired scholarly works, including Farah Jasmine Griffin’s Who Set You Flowin’: The African American Migration Narrative (1995) and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (2010).

But as with the promise of emancipation, so with that of migration. Wherever they moved, black people continued to face discrimination, though they often experienced it in new forms in the "free" north.  Here, black people encountered red-lining, housing covenants and other informal segregation tactics, which created new hardships even as it ushered forth new cultural and political formations for black communities across the country.  In Song of Solomon, for example, the main character Macon “Milkman” Dead, is the first black person born in the local hospital despite coming from an upstanding middle class family.  Similarly, several characters in the novel react to ongoing white supremacist terror, by forming a black terror group to enact harsh reciprocity on whites.  At the heart of Song of Solomon is a constant negotiation between the mire of African Americans' haunted history and the possibility of flight. 

Though we certainly get glimpses of the Dead family before emancipation, the primary setting of the novel is the Great Migration and its aftermath. Yet the history of the Middle Passage and slavery deeply inform the lives of characters and events in the novel.  The biblical reference to the “Song of Solomon” suggests an even more expansive history, while also illuminating the relationship of African American history to biblical referents such as the story of Exodus, which is so deeply embedded in black American culture.  Along these same lines, Song of Solomon is concerned with themes of flight, in a multitude of senses, with gestures both to the flight of runaway slaves and the later the flight of black Americans during migration.  Much of what Milkman experiences in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia, is the residues of these histories, the communities that form within, and resist, the conditions of slavery and its aftermath. Geography is perhaps as significant as history to the novel, for it is by way of Milkman’s “reverse” migration to the South that he encounters ancestral histories, not only of slavery and the Middle Passage, but also of Africa. 

At the time of Song of Solomon's writing, many black intellectuals and artists were turning back to examine the impact of slavery on contemporary black life in the wake of political unrest across the country. The Civil Rights and Black Power movements had coalesced from the 1950s through the 1970s in response to ongoing inequity, oppression and racial violence. Many artists, such as those in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, were beginning to question the role of writing, visual art, music and performance in revolutionary movements and liberation struggles.  The black historical novel was one answer to this question.  Song of Solomon and other African American novels of the era delved into the past in order to contend with pressing issues of the present.  They also aspired to critically reinterpret the history of African Americans from an African American perspective and to address the gaps and silences that continue to haunt its archive.  

 

Written by Elleza Kelley, Ph.D. candidate in English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

 

Further Reading:

Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt). Black Reconstruction. Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus-Thomson Organization Ltd, 1976.

Glaude, Eddie S. Exodus! Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Griffin, Farah Jasmine. “Who Set You Flowin’’?": The African-American Migration Narrative.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Logan, Rayford Whittingham. The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877-1901. New York: Dial Press, 1954.

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. Place of publication not identified: Project Gutenberg, 2005.