Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
Names hold a great amount of significance in people’s lives, symbolizing familial influence and heritage. Names never disappear—each has a background, a history of influences that surrounds the selection of that very name. Because a parent knows virtually nothing about an infant when its name is chosen—appearance, personality, and intelligence all remain unknowns—a name functions more as a facilitation of a bond to a family’s past than as a direct description of a person himself. Due to these unknowns, families must choose a name that both embodies their baby’s past and represents their hopes for the future. Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel Song of Solomon examines the familial history that names hold and the role that names play in the understanding of personal history.
The historical baggage a name carries is first exemplified by a street. This street, termed “Mains Avenue” by the white law-makers of Detroit, is inhabited by a predominantly black population. As the street housing the only black doctor in all of Detroit, the name “Doctor Street” was coined for the area. The white population, outraged by the street’s departure from their original vision, sneakily rebels: they refuse to deliver mail addressed to “Doctor Street” and post a notice informing Doctor Street’s inhabitants that “the avenue…had always been and would always be known as Mains Avenue and Not Doctor Street. (4)” The name Mains Avenue displays the idea that while a name may be chosen with a purpose in mind, a name itself cannot control the future. The black neighborhood’s insistence on calling the street Not Doctor Street is a form of defiance against the history that had given (Not) Doctor Street its official name. Macon Dead I is another example of a change in name interfering with its history. Upon Macon Dead I’s freedom from slavery, his name is registered incorrectly with a white officer, effectively created by “a literal slip of the pen” (18). While Sing, Macon Dead I’s wife, urges him to take advantage of this opportunity to “wipe out the past” (18), their decision to do so proves difficult for their descendants—the two had effectively concealed the lineage that Macon Dead I’s grandson, Milkman, would one day search for. The role of names as a historical pull is also exemplified by the ritual of naming each first born male in the Dead family the name of his father—Macon Dead. Despite Macon Dead II’s insistence that “the giving of names in his family was always surrounded by what he believed to be monumental foolishness” (15), his want for a familial tie wins out: he names his son Macon Dead III. When Macon Dead III is effectively renamed Milkman, due to Freddie the Janitor’s awkward encounter with Ruth breastfeeding Macon Dead III at the inappropriately old age of four, Macon Dead II harbors resentment. Macon Dead II is repulsed by the connotation of the name Milkman, proclaiming that it has “some filthy connection” (17). To Macon Dead the II, the loss of this familial name symbolizes his loss of Milkman’s connection to the Dead family heritage. While (Not) Doctor Street, Macon Dead I, and Milkman had all lost their given names, loyalty to a familial name, and its history, is also important. Macon Dead I, with his tradition of picking “blind names from the Bible for the daughters, (18)” selects for his daughter a name that he feels is “stronglooking,” a character feature he seeks in his daughter: he imagines the name with the appearance of “a tree hanging in some princely but protective way over a row of small trees. (19)” Despite the midwife’s objections due to the negative biblical connotations of the name Pilate, Macon Dead I remained stubbornly sure of his decision. Sure enough, Pilate grew to be a strong female figure and the only truly free character, from her childhood as “a pretty woods-wild girl ‘that couldn’t nobody put shoes on’” (234) to the day of her death, when a bird symbolizing her eternal freedom “dived into the new grave and scooped something shiny in its beak before it flew away” (336). His devotion while selecting her name facilitated a bond that lasted even beyond Macon Dead I’s death, shown by the snuffbox containing her name “Pilate,” worn on her ear until the very day of her death.
A given name and the history that it holds will relay significant effects upon a person. Milkman feels these effects most profoundly, exemplified by his search for his past. Before his search for his familial roots, Milkman feels that he lacks “coherence, a coming together of the features into a total self” (26). He is so crippled by his lack of history that he cannot act as an independent man, instead relying on his father to house and employ him. Milkman struggles, attempting “to figure what was true and what part of what was true had anything to do with him” (26). The catalyst for Milkman’s subconscious journey to his roots is the conscious desire for freedom from the binds of dependence on his father, for “New people. New places. Command” (180). This quest manifests through the search for fabled gold that could facilitate independence. Giddy with excitement, Milkman feels that searching for the gold is “an important, real, and daring thing to do” (184). As Milkman embarks on his journey, his first great discovery is his paternal grandmother’s name, Sing, through the knowledge of Circe, a black maid who had taken Pilate and Macon Dead II in after Macon Dead I was murdered. Soon after, Milkman learns the true name of Macon Dead I, Jake. Along with new found inspiration from the further uncovering of his great-grandparents’ past, Milkman is armed with the knowledge that “’both of them lived in Virginia, her people and his’” (244). Still pulled by a deep desire for wealth coupled with an underlying search for identity, Milkman journeys to Virginia. Milkman is so desperate for information that he feels real hunger for the first time in his life. Milkman has always been wealthy, so his search for gold has no implicit meaning—ordering six hamburgers in a symbol for Milkman’s subconscious hunger for the past. Just as hunger is an uncontrollable function of the body, Milkman’s search for his past is a need, not an excessive want, like the riches he hopes to accrue. Milkman is so consumed with the search for gold that he does not consciously recognize his search for identity until a dissatisfying meeting with distant relative, Susan Byrd: “his interest in his own people, not just the ones he met, had been growing. Macon Dead, also known as Jake somebody. Sing. Who were they, and what were they like” (293)? With the same desires that had triggered his recent ravenous hunger, the significance of Milkman’s familial names is evident. Milkman had known of his grandparent’s existence, but it is the discovery of their names that leads to his quest to link them with a story. He is satisfied soon after when he discovers that a song he had witnessed children singing, the “Song of Solomon,” actually tells the story of his family’s history. Most importantly, it incorporates the names of each of his ancestors, finally elucidating the connection between their names and their stories: “Jake the only son of Solomon/Left that baby in a white man’s house/Black lady fell down on the ground/O Solomon don’t leave me here/Cotton balls to choke me/Solomon done fly, Solomon done gone/Solomon cut across the sky, Solomon gone home” (303). Finding the true name of his family finally puts to rest the dissonance of Milkman’s unfulfilling childhood, starts setting him free from the binds of his history. Milkman memorizes the song, putting the pieces of his history together: “Of course! Sing was an Indian and her name was Sing Byrd or, more likely, Sing Bird. No—Singing Bird! And her brother, Crowell Byrd, was probably Crow Bird…They had mixed their Indian names with American sounding names” (306). Milkman, confronted with a mass of information to decipher, “was getting confused, but he was as excited as a child confronted with boxes and boxes under the skirt of a Christmas tree” (304). As Milkman gathers more and more information, further clarifying “The Song of Solomon,” Milkman is so profoundly affected by the final accumulation of his family’s lost names that he races back to Michigan, bringing his aunt, Pilate, back to Virginia with him. Ironically, the gold Milkman had sought to obtain his freedom was never found, the bag he thought had contained it instead held the bones of his grandfather. Milkman’s search was never for gold, but was instead something much more important, his family history, which had the power to finally set him free from his dependent, directionless life.
Finally armed with the knowledge of his family history, Milkman is free. He wants to swim, proclaiming, “’I’m dirty and I want waaaater” (326). This baptismal swim is cleansing, a new beginning—Milkman no longer carries the weight of his family’s history as an attachment to his given name, but instead uses it to enlighten himself.