Song of Solomon is a story about Macon “Milkman” Dead, a young man alienated from himself and estranged from his family, his community and his cultural and historical roots. (Wesley, 2015) Milkman is looking for his true self while being mentally enslaved by his family and his own history. He goes on a journey to reconnect with his inner self and his own conception of his history and culture. While reading this coming of age novel you may find that the novel contains rather eccentric names. Names that rarely occur in this day and age. Those names also have a strong connection to the different characters. For instance Milkman himself and his journey to find his true self. This essay will discuss the meaning behind those names and the influence and power of names throughout the novel.
In Song of Solomon Toni Morrison writes about how the names of different people are chosen. Male characters typically get their fathers name, For instance Macon “Milkman” Dead, Macon is his fathers name while Dead is the family name. The names of female characters are chosen by sticking a pin in a bible. The name closest to the pin gets chosen an example of this is Pilate, her name comes from Pontius Pilate, the responsible person who managed the execution of Jesus. (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica) This results in a large portion of biblical names, even those who are not necessary from biblical figures, for instance the name of Ruth and Macon Dead’s I second daughter who is named after the first letter sent to the Corinthians written by Paul the Apostle: First Corinthians. (Swindoll) Even before their lives truly began they are already branded with the history of someone else, their own fathers or a randomly chosen biblical figure or even letters. These names all carry a different story which during the novel distorts the lives of the owners of said names.
The concept of naming in the novel starts with “Not Doctor street” a street which is originally called Mains Street by the township. But when the first African-American person becomes a doctor, and he also happens to live on Main Street, the African-American community start calling it Doctor Street to celebrate this historical achievement in a time in which racial injustice still largely occurs. However the white community is appalled by this and tries to enforce, by placing different signs with the original name on it, that the community uses the name Main Street. The African-American community lets their dissatisfaction be known by calling it “Not Doctor Street”. A simple example of the power a name can have on an entire community and the influence and effect the name has.
The way the names are chosen seem to have a historical origin. The method of randomly putting a pin in a bible appears to be in a way similar to the way slave owners chose the names. Slaves, taken from Africa and brought to America were given new names when they’ve arrived in America. The slave-owners just ‘used’ other people’s names or their own last name and randomly put them on the ‘selling-tickets’ of their purchased human beings. (Dunlap, 2011) By continuing with randomly picking other people’s names the cycle is not truly broken. In the novel the effects it has on the Dead family are still present in their lives and their way of thinking.
The stories these names carry are often not a blessing for the different characters in the novel. For instance Macon “Milkman” Dead who is, like al the other male characters, named after his father Macon Dead I. Because of that he feels trapped by the family name and believes he should live a similar life to that of his father, by taking on the same work trade and living in the same town in the same state. He feels that his life has already been planned out for him. Stuck in an ongoing cycle. His last name ‘Dead’ also puts a great weight on Milkman, as he tells Guitar in the novel. He sometimes even feels dead because his own last name is Dead. His nickname also has a great meaning as it comes from Ruth trying to break free from her loveless marriage by indulging in for instance breast-feeding her son long past infancy which resulted in the janitor, of the building she lived in, dubbing her son ‘Milkman’. A name which sticks with him for the rest of his life. Milkman is branded with so many different names, all with different meanings and burdens which have a great effect. The nicknames cause his perception of self to falter, which results in the struggle to find his own identity.
The origin of the name ‘Dead’ lies in a unlike story which also results in a different outcome. A drunken Yankee soldier incorrectly enters Macon Dead, Sr. details after the Civil War. This directly means that the name of the family Dead was changed in the eyes of the law. But also means that the entire family tree has been erased. In this day and age it is common knowledge that thanks to Napoleon and his bureaucratic requirement for names to be registered as part of the Code Napoleon we are able to track down our family tree trough last names going back for hundreds of years. Finding excessive information about our own family trees. As a result of the mistake, Milkman and Pilate no longer have any means to track down their ancestors. Which results in them no longer having a family history. After Macon Sr. wife’s dead he no longer wants to say her name out loud ever again. This decision also has a direct result on Milkman and Pilate by eliminating the means connect to their mother’s family tree. They seem to be alone and this has great influence in their further lives.
The loss of family history directly involves Milkman wanting to find his own identity. During his journey to find his true self Milkman also accidentally stumbles upon the truth and history about his own family and the name Solomon that his grandfather carried. He learns that a name can also have an enormous and quite positive effect. As did the name of his grandfather which is all around him, as even people and places are named after him. This brings a great deal of pride to Milkman. He learns about his own family history and indirectly liberates him from some of the pressures that he felt. It turned out to be an experience which makes him proud and gave him renewed strength to change his life.
Toni Morrison also complicates the idea of the power in names. For instance Pilate, Who has spent her entire life singing and entertaining others. She believed her father’s ghost commanded her to sing, while his true intentions were to tell her the name of his late wife, Pilate’s mother. Something which he first denied his children. Pilate misinterpreted her father’s words. However in contrast to her brother it did not result in her imprisonment, but rather encouraged her to make the most out of her life. This is a direct opposite of what the effect of a name had on her brother. But also of the power of other names in the novel. (Jackson, 2015)
Names have great meaning to people and are extremely personal and have deep roots in a variety of cultures. In Song of Solomon this is the similar. They establish an identity, positive and negative, for the different characters and have great power to them. This power in names is not always necessarily a good entity. While some of the characters find a meaning in their life through their given name, like Pilate, while others find it a burden. The book also shows that the way we inherit names can have truly detrimental effects on our own image and perception of self. It sets an entire story, for different characters, in motion. We meet Macon Dead as Milkman, but in the end he find his true heritage, he finds out about Solomon which gives him new purpose. In a way the shackles of his life up until that point are taken from him, giving him the freedom he yearned for. The Dead name carried the weight he felt and being freed of that burden, he can finally blossom into someone new and reach his full potential. No longer feeling compelled to follow in his families footsteps. He can now become his own man. This all is because of the power of names. In conclusion through the use of names Toni Morrison gives power to characters and lays down a path for them to follow.