Mythology in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon: The motif of "flight"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2003 24 Pages

American Studies - Literature



I. Introduction

II. The Function of Mythology in Song of Solomon

III. The Motif of “Flight” in the Folktales of the “Flying Africans”
1. “Flight” as a Communal Escape in “People who could fly”
2. “Flight” as a Solitary Escape in Toni Morrison’s Updated Version

IV. The Motif of “Flight” in Song of Solomon
1. Milkman Dead`s Wish for Flight
2. Milkman’s Inauthenticity
3. Pilate, the Pilot
4. Milkman’s authentic identity

V. Different Modes of “Flight”
1. Milkman’s Flight
2. Pilate, the Sugargirl

VI. Conclusion

VII. Bibliography

I. Introduction

The novel is needed by African-Americans now in a way that it was not needed before – and it is following along the lines of the function of novels everywhere. We don‘t live in places where we can hear those stories anymore; parents don‘t sit around and tell their children those classical, mythological, archetypal stories that we heard years ago. But new information has got to get out, and there are several ways to do it. One is the novel.[1]

With this statement Toni Morrison clearly suggests the function of her novel Song of Solomon. That is, on the one hand, the preservation of traditional Afro-American folktales and on the other hand their adaptation to contemporary times. Realizing this double function, it is very challenging to make the analysis of the mythological character of the novel the topic of a seminar paper.

Song of Solomon is spiritually grounded in the folktale “People who could fly”[2], an Afro-American folktale, which depicts the escape of a community of slaves by taking flight. Therefore I will center my analysis on the motif of “flight” in the novel, presenting different ways of interpretation.

First of all, I will point out the function of myth in Song of Solomon. In the third chapter I will concentrate on the folktale “People who could fly”, comparing it with Toni Morrison’s narration about Solomon. Being the focal point of this seminar paper, the discussion of the motif of “flight” follows in the fourth part. It deals with the connection between the motif of “flight”, which turns up time and again in Milkman’s life, and Milkman’s search for his identity. Moreover I will point out Pilate’s role in Milkman’s quest for his cultural heritage. The last chapter contains a discussion of the different modes of “flight” and their significance.

II. The Function of Mythology in Song of Solomon

As I already mentioned in the Introduction, Toni Morrison wrote a novel with a mythological background to contribute to the maintenance of certain cultural norms and values. However, before I will concentrate on her motives more intensively, I want to examine the meaning of the concept of “myth”. Richard Stotkin points out the connection between “myth” and “ideology” as follows:

The terms “myth” and “ideology” describe essential attributes of every human culture. Ideology is an abstraction of the systems of beliefs, values, and institutional relationships that characterize a particular culture or society; mythology is the body of traditional narratives that exemplifies and historicizes ideology. Myths are stories, drawn from history, that have acquired through usage over many generations a symbolizing function central to the culture of the society that produces them [M]yths suggest that by understanding and imaginatively reenacting the conflict resolutions of the past, we can interpret and control the unresolved conflicts of the present.[3]

In other words, myths implicitly have an ideological character, which helps to maintain the system of beliefs and values of a culture. At the same time, the messages of myths can still be valid in the present, helping to solve the conflicts of the new generation. However, as far as her novel Song of Solomon is regarded, Toni Morrison does not merely want to combine a traditional folktale with a novel – she rather wants to renew the tale. It is her aim to infuse it with “new information”[4] and to transmit this mixture of tradition and modern age to succeeding generations. Through an adaptation of the archetypal folktale to contemporary times, the message of the tale becomes more comprehensible to Afro- American readers, who in this way will learn “how to behave in this new world.”[5]

III. The Motif of “Flight” in the Folktales of the “Flying Africans”

1. “Flight” as a Communal Escape in “People who could fly”

The folktale of the Flying African exists in various versions.

One of the traditional tales is Julius Lester‘s narration “People who could fly.“ This folktale deals with a slave who was the son of an African witch doctor and who “carried with him the secrets and powers of the generations of Africa.”[6] One day, when the slaves had to work in the fields, a young woman collapsed in the heat and was whipped by the white man. Thereupon the young witch doctor whispered something in her ear, which she, in turn, whispered to the next slave. So it went on around the whole field. When another slave fainted, the young doctor uttered a strange word and the man who had fainted rose from the ground and flew away. When the young women collapsed the second time, the witch doctor uttered the same word again, and the woman flew away as well. Finally all of the Africans stretched out their arms and flew away, back to Africa.[7]

What is striking about this version of the myth is the sense of community, which is mediated by the witch doctor’s behavior. Employing his knowledge and tribal wisdom at the appropriate moment, he makes possible a communal escape from slavery and oppression. The witch doctor deliberately passes on the liberating black word to the other slaves, in this way effecting a “group transcendence of the debilitating conditions of African oppression.”[8]

In other words, in this traditional tale the act of “flight” is a symbol of freedom, which enables an entire community to overcome mistreatment and suffering.

2. “Flight” as a Solitary Escape in Toni Morrison’s Updated Version

The mythical background of the novel Song of Solomon is the tale of Solomon, who possesses the powers of flight. His escape from slavery is described in an heroic manner in a blues song, which finally will contain the story of Milkman Dead’s ancestors.

Toni Morrison‘s new version of the Flying African in Song of Solomon sharply contrasts with the traditional folktale. Whereas “flight” in Lester’s narration has a “communally beneficial”[9] character, its nature in Song of Solomon is very individualistic. In the updated folktale Solomon escapes from slavery by flying away. But in contrast to the young witch doctor in Lester’s version, Solomon does not share his knowledge with his tribe. He flies away, leaving his mate and his twenty-one children behind. His effort to transport his son Jake with him fails.[10] In Michael Awkward’s opinion, who examines the nature of Solomon’s solitary flight in his essay “Unruly and Let Loose,” this failure “serves to emphasize the ultimately individualistic nature of the mythic figure’s flight.”[11] Herbert W. Rice characterizes Solomon’s flight as an act of “selfishness,”[12] because Solomon seeks freedom only for himself. He abandons his family, leaving the responsibility for his offspring to his mate Ryna. However, aggrieved by her loss, Ryna goes mad and is unable to care for her children.

Consequently, a comparison between the two versions of the folktale illustrates the ambiguous meanings of “flight.” In the traditional version, “flight” is a symbol of freedom and of a communal escape from mistreatment. In Song of Solomon, however, Solomon’s “flight” is an act of abandonment. It symbolizes an individualistic escape from slavery, and in particular from social responsibility. Thus, finally Milkman’s search for his ancestors will reveal that Solomon’s flight was not an heroic act, but rather an evidence of selfishness and of an “apparent absence […] of an accompanying sense of social responsibility”. 13

IV. The Motif of “Flight” in Song of Solomon

1. Milkman Dead`s Wish for Flight

In Song of Solomon the act of flying represents a crucial aspect, which accompanies the protagonist Milkman Dead throughout his life. Occurring at the beginning and at the end of the novel, this aspect forms a kind of framework, which holds together the narration.

The novel begins on the day before Milkman’s birth with the “abortive attempt”[14] at flight of the insurance agent Robert Smith, who leaps from the roof of the Mercy hospital. Milkman’s birth is predicted on this day by his aunt Pilate with the words: “A little bird’ll be here with the morning.”[15] Four years later, however, “when the little boy discovered [...] the same thing Mr. Smith had learned earlier – that only birds and airplanes could fly – he lost all interest in himself. To have to live without that single gift saddened him [...].”[16] Even the family’s ritual ride with his father’s big Packard every Sunday makes Milkman think of flying: “But riding backward made him uneasy. It was like flying blind [...].“[17] These examples clearly confirm Valerie Smith’s statement that “[t]he act of flight has always been a subliminal part of Milkman’s life.”[18] In the first part of the novel, however, Milkman is unable to understand the meaning of his wish to fly. Only in the second part, when having found his “authentic”[19] identity, he will recognize the act of flying as his destiny. As a result, the story ends with Milkman’s own leap into the air.


[1] Toni Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” in Black Woman Writers 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, ed. by Mari Evans (New York:
Doubleday, 1984), pp. 339-45, quoted in Michael Awkward, “Unruly and Let Loose,” in Toni Morrison’s ‘Song of Solomon,’ A Casebook, ed. by Jan Furman (Oxford: University Press, 2003), pp. 68.

[2] Julius Lester, “People who could fly,” in Black Folktales, ed. by Julius Lester (New York: Richard W. Baron, 1969), pp. 147-152.

[3] Richard Stotkin, “Myth and the Production of History,” in Ideology and Classic American Literature, ed. by Sacvan Bercovitch et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 70-90, quoted in Michael Awkward, “Unruly and Let Loose,” in Toni Morrison’s ‘Song of Solomon,’ A Casebook, ed. by Jan Furman (Oxford: University Press, 2003), pp. 72.

[4] Toni Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” p. 68.

[5] Ibid., p. 69.

[6] Julius Lester, “People who could fly”, p. 149.

[7] See: Julius Lester, pp. 147-152.

[8] Michael Awkward, “Unruly and Let Loose,” in Toni Morrison’s ‘Song of Solomon,’ A Casebook, ed. by Jan Furman (Oxford: University Press, 2003), p. 70.9 Michael Awkward, “Unruly and Let Loose”, p. 70.

[10] See: Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon, (London: Vintage, 1998), pp. 322-323.

[11] Michael Awkward, p. 70.

[12] Herbert W. Rice, Toni Morrison and the American Tradition, A Rhetorical Reading, American University Studies, 60 (New York: Peter Lang, 1996), p. 69.

[13] Michael Awkward, p. 69.

[14] Valerie Smith, Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative (London, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 151.

[15] Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon, p. 9.

[16] Ibid., p. 9.

[17] Ibid., p. 32.

[18] Valerie Smith, Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative, p. 151.

[19] Wilfred D. Samuels et al., Toni Morrison (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990), p. 61.


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Mythology Toni Morrison Song Solomon



Title: Mythology in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon: The motif of "flight"