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Philipp Mehne (Berlin)

Writing and Orality in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon

Writing and Orality in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon
Morrsion's novel Song of Solomon is a powerful plea for a black aesthetics founded on orality. The novel's protagonist Milkman, grown up in a family which has distanced itself from the oral heritage of the black community, travels south and in the course of this voyage discovers not only traces of his ancestors but recovers this very oral heritage. The tension of oral versus literary culture in the novel serves to illustrate the unequal relationship of the black and the white race-groups in a segregated America, the conflict of a mainly black lower class with a prosperous white society and the cultural change inside a black community under the influence of the integration into the rationalist capitalism of the north. At the same time, the text itself has a certain oral quality. The analysis explores both the thematical and the practical aspect of orality in the novel and relates the results to Morrison's poetics.

1 Introduction

In an interview with Thomas Leclair, Toni Morrison outlines some of her concerns with respect to her literary project in general and her third novel, Song of Solomon, in particular:

[...] the myths get forgotten. Or they may not have been looked at carefully. Let me give you an example: the flying myth in Song of Solomon. If it means Icarus to some readers, fine; I want to take credit for that. But my meaning is specific: It is about black people who could fly (Leclair 1993: 317–318).

The reaction of the reader to Morrison's reactivation of the cultural heritage of the black community is telling. Some interpret the motive as stemming from western literary tradition; others, presumably, acknowledge its African-American origin. The passage reveals a tension characteristic of Morrison's aesthetic concept: the tension between a black and a white literary tradition, between the oral art forms typical of the African heritage and the formal criteria of the western literary canon. This tension is omnipresent in her novel Song of Solomon, which portrays a community rooted in the oral tradition, yet already in the process of shifting to literacy.

In Song of Solomon, Morrison brings together the two traditions as she incorporates aspects and elements of the Afro-American oral heritage into the structure of a contemporary novel. In doing so, she both treats orality thematically and attempts to lend her fiction the character of an oral performance instead of a written text. The present analysis intends to trace both the thematical and the performative aspect of orality and to explore the different and sometimes contradictory connotations which orality acquires in the text. A short summary of Morrison's poetics with respect to orality and its role in black aesthetics will provide the theoretical bedrock on which a textual analysis may rest.


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2 Morrison's concept of black literature and orality

The origins of black writing are to be found in the slave narratives. Or, to be more precise, slave narratives are the origin of black literature in print. Oral literature had existed before and persists in folk tales and songs. With few exceptions, it had been strictly forbidden to blacks during slavery to learn to read or write. With his metaphorical expression of blacks having to "steal" the ability to read and write from their white masters, Frederick Douglass coined a phrase that has been quoted time and again for its meaningfulness.1 The enforced lack of literacy to blacks in turn perversely confirms the racist conviction that blacks be unable to reach such cultural heights due to lack of intelligence or humanity. Slaves who did learn to read and write did so clandestinely – or after their escape to the liberal states of the north.

As Morrison observes in her essay "The Site of Memory," the texts written by ex-slaves, in which they narrate their experiences, have a distinct functionality.2 While a racist society supposed blacks incapable of reading and writing, let alone the production of literature, learning these techniques was a means of proving their humanity. Both Morrison and Henry Louis Gates in his study The Signifying Monkey mention Immanuel Kant, Descartes and other philosophers of the enlightenment who proclaim a belief according to which blacks were incapable of any major cultural expression. Writing and even more so (written) literature, both associated with reason, were thought to be reserved to the supposedly superior western cultures. By learning to write, therefore, slaves could subvert und counteract the ideology of their oppressors. What is more, literacy for them as for any member of society meant the access to the legal rights guaranteed in the constitution. Morrison stresses this aspect of literacy in her essay, remarking that "these writers knew that literacy was power" (Morrison 1987: 108).

Usually, white abolitionists edited or published the narratives of escaped slaves, yet never without stressing the authenticity of the texts by way of a speaking title or a prologue to the publication.3 These served to persuade a white audience of the inhumanity of slavery. The black authors, in turn, met the idiosyncrasies of their white audience by striking a neutral and objective tone: "It was extremely important […] for the writers of these narratives to appear as objective as possible – not to offend the reader by being too angry, or by showing too much outrage […]" (Morrison 1987: 106). As black authors depended on their audience for support and hoped that their texts would lead to an improvement of their condition, the narratives were written to please white readers.4 As Morrison goes on to argue, the slave narratives during a considerable period of time had quite a large readership – and more so for their modesty and pseudo objectivity. As works of art, however, they were as dependent on the literary conventions of their time as they were on their audience.

It is at this point where Morrison's critique of the slave narrative as a literary genre sets in. "In shaping the experience to make it palatable to those who were in a position to alleviate it, they were silent about many things […]," she writes in "The Site of Memory". One paragraph later Morrison adds: "But most importantly – at least for me – there was no mention of their interior life" (Morrison 1987: 110). And it is this missing aspect which she means to fill in with her own writing: "My job becomes to rip that veil drawn over 'proceedings too terrible to relate'" (Morrison 1987: 110).5 Morrison intends her fiction to be a revision of the slave narratives – a revision done, of course, from an altered position within the literary discourse. Imagination and memory, her own as well as that of the community, are intended to supply what the slave narratives lacked.

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Yet reconstructing the "truth"6 about the events described in the slave narratives is not the only goal Morrison tries to achieve. She also seeks to reactivate the oral traditions in the black community which were abandoned due to the arrival of literacy. In an interview with Nellie McKay Morrison describes the oral character of her books, to conclude: "I am not experimenting. I am simply trying to recreate something out of an old art form in my books […]" (McKay 1993: 409). Morrison's approach to this 'old art form' has various facets. On the one hand, it means going back to African-American, or possibly African myths and folktales, which she intends to incorporate into her fiction.7 Other than just on the level of intertextual reference, she presents myth as a viable way of interpreting the world. In what Morrison would call 'Western' literature, the black's alleged liability to believe in magic and superstition, as developed for example in Twain's Huckleberry Finn, has, of course, become a commonplace often employed. Approximating topoi of this kind seems problematic, as it carries the risk of simply reiterating stereotypes.8

On the other hand, restituting an old art form also means trying to recover and incorporate the particular idiom of an almost entirely oral community. As Morrison remarks in the conversation with Thomas Leclair: "I wanted to restore the language that black people spoke to its original power" (Leclair 1993: 371). It is in the spoken language of the black community where Morrison discovers specifically black modes of expression. Here she traces what could be called a black aesthetics, not just in the specifically black use of vernacular English, but in a distinctly ironic and playful mode of speaking: "The way black people talk is not so much the use of non-standard grammar as it is the manipulation of metaphor" (McKay 1993: 409).9 Morrison's notion of the black aesthetic tradition can generally be understood as being based on the features of a mainly oral society. In an essay entitled "Memory, Creation and Writing," she names some of the characteristics of this black aesthetic tradition:

If my work is faithfully to reflect the aesthetic tradition of Afro-American culture, it must make conscious use of the characteristics of its art forms and translate them into print: antiphony, the group nature of art, its functionality, its improvisational nature, its relationship to audience performance, the critical voice which upholds tradition and communal values […] (Morrison 1984b: 389).

While she tries to weave the characteristically black mode of spoken language into her text, Morrison foresees and accepts that only a restricted audience will be able to fully appreciate her art: "There is a level of appreciation that might be available only to people who understand the context of the language".10 Whereas the slave narratives had been written for a predominantly white audience, and had consequently been shaped according to its expectations, Morrison writes for a black audience. As she tries to regain the discarded knowledge of the oral community and preserve its language use, she tries to root the black community of today in the recollection of its past. The political implication of this intention is obvious. Writing in opposition to the western literary discourse, she seeks to confirm the cultural identity of the black community. In "Memory, Creation and Writing" she notes: "Narrative is one of the ways in which knowledge is organized. I have always thought it was the most important way to transmit and receive knowledge" (Morrison 1984b: 388).11 As Morrison uses narrative to transport cultural values, her writing acquires a similarly distinct if differently oriented functionality as that which characterized the slave narrative.12 Orality, in this context, is both a cultural value transmitted and a technique to create an intimate, apparently unmediated text.

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An attempt at restoring "the language that black people spoke," and of preserving a certain historical stage in the development of the black vernacular tradition seems to present various problems. Language, and more so at the vernacular level, is in constant flux. With the moment of its being transformed into a written text, the vernacular gives up its characteristic aspects: its spontaneity and variability. A text, so it would seem, can document language, but it can not be spontaneous. The solution to this aspect of the problem is the paradoxical creation of a text that speaks – and produces meaning in interaction with the reader (or listener). By trying to lend her texts a specific "sound,"13 Morrison seeks to stimulate the readers' response to the work. The mode of reception intended is modeled on certain oral genres, among these sermons and folktales. Just as the listener participates in the production of these oral 'texts' by interjecting phrases or by showing his emotion while listening, Morrison seeks to draw her readers into an active response to her texts:

[The text] should try deliberately to make you stand up and make you feel something profoundly in the same way that a black preacher requires his congregation to speak, to join him in the sermon, to behave in a certain way, to stand up and to weep and to cry and to accede or to change and to modify – to expand on the sermon that is being delivered (Morrison 1984a: 341).

The technique by way of which this is to be achieved to some extend means undoing the written character of the work: making it seem spoken, not written. With as little description as possible, Morrison tries to construct dialogues so that they leave spaces for the reader to fill in. Qualifying adverbs are to be avoided. Thus, the narrative voice is to be kept in the background, in order to enable the reader to "feel" the narration instead of noticing its written character.14 Inside her narration, the responsive reader is present in the "chorus," an institution representing both the community and the reader at large, which comments on the course of the action. To diminish the literary character of her texts, Morrison claims in her essay "Memory, Creation and Writing," she avoids what she calls "literary postures," the intertextual references so common in modern and postmodern literature (Morrison 1984b: 387).15


3 Textual analysis: Song of Solomon

After this overview of Morrison's concept of literary creation in the black tradition and of orality as one of its key elements, an analysis of her third novel, Song of Solomon, will provide occasion to relate Morrison's theoretical work to her fiction. The opposition of orality and oral culture versus literacy and literary culture is one of the novel's main themes. At the same time, the text itself shows oral qualities. But are we dealing with a text that comes close to the concept of skaz or to what Gates calls the "speakerly text"? What oral qualities can be traced in Song of Solomon? And then, how does the text deal thematically with orality and its role in society? These are the questions that the analysis will have to deal with.


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3.1 Oral vs. literate culture and black vs. white race group

Song of Solomon begins with the suicide of a black insurance agent who jumps from the roof of a hospital officially called "Mercy," thinking he will be able to fly with two wings fashioned out of cloth.16 The scene introduces two of the novel's most important thematical aspects: flying, on the one hand, a metaphorical motive we will look at more closely later on, and oral culture, on the other. Some critics have interpreted the beginning of Morrison's novel as typical for oral storytelling.17 In my opinion, however, neither does the beginning seem very typical for oral narratives, nor do syntax or vocabulary of the first paragraphs show any of the rhythm or formulaic character typical for oral stories. Rather, Morrison develops the oral qualities of her novel on the background of a fairly conventional novelistic structure and narrative voice. Contrary to Morrison's poetical concept, the omniscient narrator employed throughout the novel rather accentuates the written character of the work than otherwise.

Waiting for the man on the hospital-roof to jump, a crowd of blacks has gathered in front of the building. In the confrontation of the crowd with the nurses, who are trying to get this apparently anarchic situation under control, shouting orders, we can identify two different levels of speech: the standard English spoken by the white nurses, and the vernacular spoken by the blacks. An order given by a white nurse to a black boy reveals the language barriers that separate the white from the black community: "Listen. Go around the back of the hospital to the guard's office. It will say 'Emergency Admissions' on the door. A-D-M-I-S-I-O-N-S. But the guard will be there."18 In contrast to the nurse's standard English, the black boy addressed uses black vernacular when conversing with his mother: "You reckon he'll jump?" – "A nutwagon do anything." (7). In this instance and throughout the novel, Morrison imitates spoken vernacular language in her text, representing both the lexical and grammatical structures and the phonetic aspect. The text thus acquires an oral quality.

By contrasting different levels of language, Morrison also stresses the different social situation of the two racial groups. Significantly, the conflict between the races, between a predominantly oral and a literate culture, is represented in terms of speaking and spelling. Reading and writing appear as capabilities exclusively characteristic of the racial group in power. Yet beginning social change becomes evident in the boy's challenge of the nurse's authority over reading and spelling. The nurse's ordering tone reflects the social hierarchy in a society in which racism, segregation and the oppression of blacks are characteristic features. When the white nurse addresses the black boy, she spells out for him the letters of the word he is to look for on the hospital door, presuming the boy can't read well. The boy, however, tries to call her attention to a spelling mistake she makes: "You left out a s [sic], ma'am." (7). The narrator then comments on this debate about correct spelling with the words: "The North was new to [the boy] and he had just begun to learn he could speak up to white people." (7). In the North, where racism isn't as powerful and omnipresent as in the southern states, blacks may contradict whites, they may "speak up" to them. Whereas oppression and slavery had made them objects in the discourse of white people, they can now themselves enter this discourse and become speaking subjects. This process of entering a discourse with the whites instead of being its object is reflected in the dialogue cited above. To the nurse's command to send one of the boys to the guard at the admission, the black grandmother responds by giving the boy's name:

"'That boy there can go. That one.' She pointed at a cat-eyed boy about five or six years old. – The stout woman slid her eyes down the nurse's finger and looked at the child she was pointing to. – 'Guitar, ma'am.'" (7).

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"That boy" thus becomes an actual person with a name, who in turn can manifest his identity and become a speaking subject, agreeing with or contradicting the white discourse.

But there is another layer of meaning hidden in the passage cited above. The Hospital called "Mercy," unto the day the narration sets in, has never accepted black patients, nor has the only black doctor of the town been granted the privilege to treat his patients there. Keeping this in mind, we can read the debate about the correct spelling of "Admissions" in a different, ironical way. Challenging the white nurse's authority over the spelling of the word "Admissions" anticipates further argument on the admissions-policy put into effect by the management. A black child born prematurely due to the shock caused by the suicide of the insurance agent is, in fact, admitted to the hospital that very day: it is the protagonist, later to be called Milkman.

Behind the debate about the correct spelling of the word "Admissions" lies an argument about its meaning – i.e. about civil rights and equality for all races. The word "admissions," thus, may be taken as a very prominent example of what Mikhail Bakhtin in his essay "Discourse in the Novel," calls a "dialogic" word (Bakhtin 1982: 259–422). Bakhtin's concept, even though meant to define the aesthetic value of a literary genre, the novel, is essentially based on an analysis of oral discourse. Discourse, as Bakhtin understands it, represents the social forces at work in everyday language. In the case of Song of Solomon, the conflict between mainly literate whites and a black community that clings to its oral roots is dramatized on the level of language.19

Among blacks, the town's hospital is called "No Mercy," due to the fact that it doesn't admit black patients, that is, in a wider sense, has no mercy on them. In opposition to the official naming, the other, ironical name has its roots in the oral language usage of the black community. Another such instance of a re-naming by the black community is "Not Doctor Street". Officially named "Mains Avenue," the black community, in the course of time, begins referring to it by the name of "Doctor Street," as the town's first black doctor lived in it. When the (white) city legislation attempts to stop people from using the unofficial name by posting a sign with the correct name and a prohibition of the informal one, this attempt backfires. Instead of reading the message the way the legislation intends it to be read, the community discovers and adopts its double meaning: "It was a genuinely clarifying public notice because it gave Southside residents a way to keep their memories alive and please the city legislators as well. They called it Not Doctor Street [...]." (4).

In this passage, Morrison illustrates the subversive power of oral language usage as exercised by the black community in contrast to the impotence of the official maps and notices. The re-naming of the street in disaccord with the official name can be understood in terms of Gates' concept of "signifyin(g)": it illustrates the revision of the words "Not Doctor Street" and the destabilization of the presumably unequivocal intention behind it. In the oral usage, the written words from the public notice have come to be precisely the name they were meant to prohibit, and thus the denotation of the term in the official usage has been reversed.20


3.2 Macon Dead sr. and the naming ritual

In the lives of the four generations of the Dead family portrayed in the book, we can observe and reconstruct the impact of a cultural change. We witness the development of a society on the verge of becoming predominantly literate and leaving behind orality as a cultural paradigm. The story, in fact, reaches from the 1960s back to the reconstruction period and thus spans the entire development of the black community from enslavement to (restricted) freedom.

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The change from a mainly oral culture to a more literate one is reflected in the naming ritual of the protagonist's family. While Milkman's father, Macon Dead, has adapted more or less to the white, literate culture, his own father belongs wholly to the oral culture of the former slaves. Even though illiterate, the old man, himself named Macon Dead, insists on taking his daughter's name from the bible. He does this by pointing his finger to a word that to him seems powerful. The illiterate Macon sr. interprets and makes use of a written text in a way specific for oral cultures. Ignoring the abstract meaning of the letters, he registers a certain power in their graphic shape. To his oral mode of thinking, the resemblance of the sign "Pilate" to a group of trees is obvious. He invokes the protective power of the word in the naming ritual in order to convey it to the bearer of the name.21 Macon Dead jr. much later recalls the story:

How his father, confused and melancholy over his wife's death in childbirth, had thumbed through the bible, and since he could not read a word, chose a group of letters that seemed to him strong and handsome; saw in them a large figure that looked like a tree hanging in some princely but protective way over a row of smaller trees. How he had copied the group of letters out on a piece of brown paper; copied, as illiterate people do, every curlicue, arch, and bend in the letters, and presented it to the midwife. (18)

The father's choice of a name for his daughter reveals a mode of thinking typical for the oral culture. Instead of reading the word as the phonetic sign it is, which would thus reveal its denotation and extended meaning, Macon Dead sr. interprets the word as an ideogram. The abstract meaning of the graphic sign remains hidden until the (literate) midwife lends the text her voice.22 The midwife criticizes Macon sr. for his choice, referring to the meaning of the name Pilate in the context it has been taken from. On hearing the word for the first time, Macon immediately thinks of a homophone: "'Pilate. You wrote down Pilate.' – 'Like a riverboat pilot?'" (19). In order to understand this pun, the reader, too, has to imagine the sound of the word Pilate, he has to listen to it, as it were. In other words, the passage both exemplifies oral qualities and deals with orality as a cultural phenomenon.

Chosen primarily for its pictorial qualities, the baby's name acquires a different meaning in the dialogue of Macon and the midwife. While the midwife insists that naming a child "Pilate" is blasphemy, Macon sr. interprets his "blind" choice as a meaningful sign. Giving his daughter the name of "the man that killed Jesus" (19) to Macon sr. seems a justified compensation for the loss of his wife: "I asked Jesus to save me my wife." (19). Macon sr., in this passage, calls the authority of the bible into question, and, according to his own understanding, assigns a new meaning to the text. Doing so, he doesn't entirely reject the significance of the written text. The meaning of the daughter's name, however, is the result of a negotiation between oral and written culture.23 Once copied from the bible onto a small piece of paper, the daughter's name is preserved between the pages of the book. When Pilate turns twelve, she puts it into a brass box which she has fixed to her earlobe and carries there from that moment on. Pilate and more so her father are strongly influenced by oral culture; the naming ritual is an essentially oral one, too. To preserve the name chosen, however, both Pilate and her father recur to writing. We witness the shift from oral to literate culture, in the course of which the written and the spoken word assume different and changing roles.

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In contrast to her brother Macon, Pilate clings to many of the rituals and values of oral culture. Whereas Macon only grudgingly tolerates the repetition of the naming ritual with his own daughters Magdalena and First Corinthians, Pilate uses the ritual conscious of the family bond it founds. In the last scene of the novel, when she and Milkman finally bury the bones of Pilate's father Jake, later named Macon, Pilate yanks the brass box from her ear to bury the piece of writing with him. Instead of a tombstone to commemorate her father, Pilate buries the slip of paper on which her name had been written, as it symbolizes the strong bond between her and her family. Her name, in fact, seems to acquire an even larger meaning in this scene. The burial completed, Pilate is shot. Milkman, the dying woman in his arms, witnesses a bird taking the shiny brass box away in its beak. Pilate's name, so we may understand, is taken away just as her soul leaves her. The name, represented in the materiality of writing on a piece of paper, and the meaning it denotes, that is, Pilate's identity, appear firmly linked.

Writing, in the passage quoted above, implies not only containing language in another medium, but conserving it for a long time. A few pages earlier, we find quite contradictory implications of orality and literacy in connection with naming. With respect to the misnaming of Jake as Macon Dead, an incident which blurred his past from the view of his descendants, Milkman, whose thoughts are represented as an interior monologue, comments: "Under the recorded names were other names, just as 'Macon Dead', recorded for all time in some dusty file, hiding from view the real names of people, places, and things. Names that had meaning." (329). Writing here appears as the instrument of a powerful (white) literate society which obstructs and destroys unofficial but "real" meaning and suppresses the orality and the black community built on it.24 A few lines further down, however, it becomes evident that the implication of literacy as a means of power largely depends on who controls it: "When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you do." (329). Writing thus acquires ambivalent connotations. From the viewpoint of a community on the point of crossing the border from orality to literacy, it can apparently be both, a means of repressing and of conserving identity.

The accidental re-naming of Macon's father Jake by the white legislation is another instance of a naming according to different understanding, or, in this case, a misunderstanding. In this episode, however, it isn't the oral understanding that revises the authorized meaning of a name in its context, but a member of the white literate culture who changes a name out of carelessness. Writing, in this instance, is a tool of power by means of which the legal status of a citizen can be changed. The role of writing as the key to the legal status of a free citizen, which is exemplified in this passage, is of great importance to the self-understanding of the authors of slave narratives, as Morrison (among others) points out in her essay "The Site of Memory" (Morrison 1987: 108).25 In this instance, in fact, Jake only acquires the status of a legal citizen through an act of writing. His wife's interpretation of the name and the situation then turns the racist carelessness of the white clerk into the symbol of a new beginning and the acquisition of a new identity. As Macon jr. states in the conversation with his son Milkman: "'Mama liked it. Liked the name. Said it was new and would wipe out the past. Wipe it all out.'" (54). The name "Dead" with its obvious literal meaning acquires a connotative meaning exactly opposed as it comes to symbolize the beginning of a new life.

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3.3 Macon Dead jr. and the power of the letters

Whereas his father, Macon sr., clings to the old oral culture all his life, his son, Macon jr., successfully appropriates literacy. For Macon jr., the prosperous real estate agent and landlord, it is clear that his father's loss of property and his violent death are due to his illiteracy. As he tells his son Milkman: "They tricked him. He signed something, I don't know what, and they told him they owned his property." (53). Macon Dead sr. is depicted in terms of that archetypal image of the pioneer who civilizes the wilderness, an image central to the founding myth of the United States. At the same time, the robbery and murder he suffers at the hands of white landowners again remind the reader of the fate the Native American peoples suffered. Macon jr., however, has learned the lesson. For him there can be no doubt that "the little marks" (53) mean power – which he himself uses and abuses among the black community of his town. In this respect, he has adopted the same capitalist ideology of the white landlords who extinguished his father's existence. In his conversation with Milkman, he clearly states this materialist belief: "Let me tell you right now the one important thing you'll ever need to know: Own things. And let the things you own own other things. Then you'll own yourself and other people too." (55). This extreme form of materialism depends on writing as a means of lending authority to the land claims. Macon's accounts book, in this sense, exemplifies the symbiotic coexistence of capitalism and literacy. The black community in turn, due to his reckless exploitation of his property, treats Macon as an outsider.

However, there seem to be some desires left in Macon that his material possessions can't satisfy. When one night he passes his sister Pilate's house, he feels "the outsider, the propertyless, landless wanderer" (27). In contrast to Macon, his sister renounces material possession. Instead of taking part in the money-dominated economy, Pilate, Reba and Hagar live in a self-sufficient and independent way. As becomes clear when comparing Macon with his sister and her daughters, what Macon lacks is a cultural or spiritual home: it is in this respect that he is "propertyless". As he passes their house, Macon has to surrender to the influence of the women's singing. The effect is tremendous: "Near the window, hidden by the dark, he felt the irritability of the day drain from him and relished the effortless beauty of the women singing in the candlelight." (29).26 Sound and words give rise to his longing for a cultural 'home' long lost. Macon's life in accord with the materialist ideology of the white literate society leads to an alienation from his cultural background and to a separation of his emotional ties to his community.

Whereas Macon Dead jr. can make good use of his literacy, his daughter Corinthians can't find a place in society that would correspond to her education. After years of isolation and confinement to simple household work in her parents' house, Corinthians soon discovers that in post-war America black women can only work as maids. Ironically enough, she finally finds work as the housemaid of the state poet laureate Michael-Mary Graham. In order not to disturb the hierarchy of learning established in Miss Graham's house, Corinthians refrains from revealing her college education and literary knowledge. The ironical tone of this passage makes it clear that even to a liberal mind like that of Miss Graham, there can be no doubt as to the black maid's inferior racial, and, consequently, social position. Miss Graham's Christmas present to Corinthians, the American classic Walden, appears a cynical gesture which only conceals racial inequality behind a veil of shared literacy.

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In order to maintain her social prestige among the other maids and workers with whom she rides on the bus to work, Corinthians hides her working shoes and uniform. As an outward sign of her higher social position, she carries a book. When Porter, a yard hand, begins to flirt with her, she turns him down, acting in accord with her conviction that the difference in social classes makes a relationship impossible. Literacy, reading and writing, and, what's more, the appreciation of literature, serve as the decisive argument in her defense. To emphasize the distance between them, she imitates her employer's "reading-voice" (195). When Porter hints to her lack of responsibility and emancipation from her father's authority and, in doing so, compares her to other working women, she takes refuge in her literacy as a symbol of a superior social status and, in the consequence, of a different role model. Referring to the greeting card with which Porter initiated their relationship, she says:

Why don't you drop a greeting card in one of their [sic] laps? [...] But oh, I forgot. You couldn't do that, could you, because they wouldn't be able to read it. They'd have to take it home and wait till Sunday and give it to the preacher to read it to them. (196)

In the quotation above, rather than determining the cultural difference of the black community in contrast with the white society, literacy appears as the cultural marker which separates a bourgeois middle class from the lower classes. Corinthian's consciousness of her (supposed) superiority, on the other hand, does imply a certain alienation from her own desires and emotions, to use Willis' term (Willis 1984: 265).27 Only when she gives up her claim of superiority can Corinthians relate to Porter and free the way for an emotional relationship.


3.4 Pilate as culture bearer

In contrast to Macon Dead, who feels like a landless outsider despite his property, Pilate is "at home" in the African-American folk tradition. While Macon embraces the ideology of materialism, Pilate is still deeply rooted in the oral culture. One of these roots or remnants of an oral culture is her singing. During the oral performance of Pilate, Reba and Hagar, the three women register and respond to each other's contribution as they exchange leading and background voice. The emotional impact on Macon couldn't be stronger:

They were singing some melody that Pilate was leading. A phrase that the other two were taking up and building on. Her powerful contralto, Reba's piercing soprano in counterpoint, and the soft voice of the girl, Hagar, [...] pulled him like a carpet tack under the influence of a strong magnet. (29)

The call-and-response pattern of the women's singing illustrates the participatory character Morrison tries to achieve for her own text with respect to the reader's reaction.28 When Milkman and Guitar, in disregard of Macon's explicit prohibition, first come to Pilate's house, they witness a similar oral performance. In this instance, the lyrics of the song Pilate, Reba and Hagar sing are represented in the text. The novel, thus, approaches the oral form of the song. The spontaneous character of such oral performances becomes clear in a scene in the middle of the service at Hagar's burial. Interrupting the sermon, Pilate enters the church and starts improvising a song. Reba soon joins in the song, responding to her mother's calls. The last line of a children's song comes to contain Pilate's entire relationship with the dead Hagar: "[...] she leaned a little, telling in three words the full story of the stumped life in the coffin behind her: 'My baby girl.'" (319). In various instances, Morrison portrays the role of songs as ritual performances which transport communal values and at the same time provide the possibility of an identification to the individual. The survival of these songs depends on memorization; the songs, in the consequence, become fixed rituals.29

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While the passages quoted above exemplify the participatory character of oral art forms, Morrison's novel only seldomly provides the opportunity of reader-participation. Even though puns an formal elements do approximate the text to oral forms, Morrison doesn't succeed in involving the reader into a call-and-response pattern.

In Song of Solomon, Pilate comes to represent the alternative or folk knowledge which Macon declares unworthy of remembering: "Pilate can't teach you a thing you can use in this world" (55). To the contrary, Morrison portrays this character as an almost utopian model, a figure who resists the alienation from her cultural heritage and is thus able to provide guidance to others. In a passage where Pilate is described in contrast with Ruth, we learn about the two women: "They were so different, these two women. [...] One well read but ill traveled. The other had read only a geography book, but had been from one end of the country the other." (139). Whereas Ruth obtains her knowledge from books, Pilate has drawn hers from memorized experience. Her experience and rootedness in the oral tradition make her a "culture bearer,"30 a transmitter of the cultural values which have shaped the identity of the black community.

But the novel provides us with yet a different view of the character Pilate. In order to free Milkman and Guitar, who have been caught red-handed by the police when stealing a sack of bones they mistook for gold, Pilate gives a parody of herself in front of the policemen. Slipping into a stronger vernacular and a more accented pronunciation, she appears unintelligent and naive: "Bible say what so'er the Lord hath brought together, let no man put asunder – Mathew Twenty-one: Two. We was bony fide and legal wed, suh [...]." (207). At the same time as she assumes an inferior position in relation to the police officers in this theatrical performance, she quotes the gospel as the authoritative source of western society. So convincing is her performance that Milkman actually doubts that he is watching the same Pilate he has known almost all his life: "As she stood there in the receiving room of the jail, she didn't even come up to the sergeants shoulder – and the sergeants head barely reached Milkman's own chin. But Pilate was as tall as he was." (206).31

Identity, so we may deduce from this scene, strongly depends on how an individual acts and how he or she speaks. It is a concept of identity as performance, and what's more, as oral performance, that is presented to us here. Assuming a different type of black vernacular English, Pilate enters a different discourse and thus assumes a different identity. The passage, at the same time, casts a light on the problematic aspect of black identity. Exaggerating certain elements of a black identity in her performance in order to suggest inferiority and naive innocence, Pilate ironically approximates herself to the stereotypical notion of blackness connoted in the white racist discourse with the figure of Aunt Jemima. The radical activist Guitar criticizes Pilate for what he interprets as a voluntary submission to white racism. Referring to her performance in the police office, he says: "She slipped into those Jemima shoes cause they fit." (224). At the same time, Guitar criticizes Macon for his adaptation to the white bourgeois society. Creating a black identity, as Pilate's performance and Guitar's criticism reflect, means navigating between cliché and conformity.32

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3.5 The oral culture of Southside

Whereas Macon Dead and his family live close to the quarters of the white middle class, Pilate is a resident of Southside, settled by the black lower classes. Corresponding to the opposition of the characters Pilate and Macon with respect to their belonging to a more literate culture (Macon) or a mainly oral one (Pilate), we can observe a corresponding opposition of the black and the white middle class residency. It is of some significance that the black community settles in the southern part of town – even after the movement from the rural southern states to the industrialized north, the south is still the place which connotes the history of the black community.33

The community which resides in Southside shows many of the characteristic features of oral societies. The town's newspaper refuses to give equal representation to blacks. Yet a black newspaper doesn't exist – instead, the black community recurs to an institution typical of oral societies: the town crier. The janitor Freddie unofficially fulfills this function: "Freddie was as much of a town crier as Southside had." (23). In the black community, news spread by word of mouth – carried by its town crier Freddie: "You ain't heard? People say the police is lookin for a colored man what killed that white boy in the school yard." (111). At the same time, he demonstrates the power of gossip in the black community: it is him who coins the nickname "Milkman".

The barber shop is the forum where the latest news are discussed and commented. Railroad Tommy's shop is a location half private and half public, an oral market square where news and stories are traded instead of goods. Apart from its function of providing the opportunity of debating the latest news, this institution serves another goal. In the vivid debate, each one of the participants tries to convince the others of his viewpoint, and in that way to strengthen his position in the group and to confirm his identity. Milkman, at a point prior to his voyage south, isn't yet able to participate and position himself as a speaker in the debate going on at the barber shop. While the others engage in the verbal contest, Milkman only listens: "Milkman tried to focus on the crisscrossed conversation." (80). Instead of participating, Milkman tries to "focus," to understand the conversation from without. His marginal position in the discussion corresponds to his role of an outsider to the black community: As the son of the landowner Macon Dead, he is a member of the tiny black middle class.

The circle in the barber shop represents (the male part of) the black community, it illustrates its social structure and the conflicts between its members. It corresponds to what in Morrison's poetics is called the "chorus". This chorus, she writes in "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation," represents "the community or the reader at large, commenting on the action as it goes ahead" (Morrison 1984a: 341). This notion is obviously borrowed from Greek Tragedy, where in addition to very few actors there is a chorus performing precisely the same function. In Song of Solomon, however, the "chorus" does not comment on the action of the novel, and consequently, it doesn't involve the reader in such a comment. Yet it reflects, as we will see, the development of Milkman from an individual alien to the thinking, the customs and the tradition of the black community into its full fledged member. Milkman's meditation on his own inner development at the same time is an instance of poetics immanent to the fictional text: "He felt a self inside himself emerge, a clean-lined, definite self. A self that could join the chorus at Railroad Tommy's with more than laughter." (184).


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3.6 Milkman's voyage south as a voyage into the past

Another such "chorus"-scene occurs when Milkman reaches Shalimar on his trip south. Just as the barber shop in Milkman's home town, Solomon's General Store is the place where people meet, be it to wait for an occasional job or to trade stories and news. Again, and this time to a much stronger degree, Milkman is an outsider to the group assembled. Not only his expensive suit and shoes and his immodest talk about his car betray the affluent bourgeois; it is also his accent that gives away his provenience. Due to his tactlessness and ignorance of the circumstances in which they live, Milkman delivers various insults to the group. Preceding the ensuing fight with one of the men, Milkman and his adversary engage in the verbal contest of signifying.34 With indirect, often sexual insults and implications, each of the men aims to degrade and (verbally) destroy his opponent.

'Maybe the pricks is different.' The first man spoke again. – 'Reckon?' asked the second man. – 'So I hear tell,' said the first man. – 'How different?' asked the second man. – 'Wee little,' said the first man. 'Wee, wee little.' – 'Naw!' said the second man. – 'So they tell me. That's why they pants so tight. That true?' The first man looked at Milkman for an answer. – 'I wouldn't know,' said Milkman. 'I never spent much time smacking my lips over another man's dick.' Everybody smiled, including Milkman. It was about to begin. (267)

Their verbal sparring directly leads to outright violence. With this scene, Morrison not only illustrates one of the central rhetorical practices of black vernacular English.35 The oral engagement is represented in a dialogue almost without description. Short sentences and repetitive phrases produce a rhythm which imitates the rapid aggressiveness of the contest. Due to its construction, the effect of the dialogue on the reader comes close to an oral experience.36 We may take the scene as one of the few instances in which Morrison succeeds in giving her prose a certain sound and a distinct oral quality. Milkman's development into a full member of the black community, that is into one fully conscious of its cultural traditions, advances along a series of confrontations. In accord with their migration north, Milkman's family has become estranged from the community's oral tradition. Milkman, an outsider even in some circles of his home town, is a complete stranger in the south. Gradually, as we witness Milkman's immersion into the oral culture, we witness the awakening of his consciousness for the community's tradition. A very telling episode in this respect is a scene which takes place shortly after the confrontation in Solomon's general store. When he accompanies a group of elder men on a hunt, the city creature Milkman is plunged into a situation to which he is completely unaccustomed. The close contact with nature, which he has never felt before with such intensity, is not the only challenge to Milkman. When the men, and later he alone stalk through the wilderness, they do so in almost complete darkness. His visual sense made useless, Milkman has to rely on what he smells, feels and hears.37 In order to be able to appreciate the cultural heritage of his people, Milkman has to learn ways of understanding that are suitable to the character of this heritage: he must learn how to listen. The sounds of the wilderness, the barking of the dogs, and the indefinable sounds of the other hunters slowly begin to make sense as Milkman lets go of his reservation against them: "The dogs, the men – none was just hollering, just signaling location or place. The men and the dogs were talking to each other." (277).

In the communication system of the hunters and their dogs, Milkman recognizes a basic form of language, and a distinctly oral one: "No, it was not language; it was what there was before language. Before things were written down. Language in the time when men and animals did talk to one another [...]." (278).

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The introduction of writing, so we might read this slightly paradoxical passage, coincides with the definite separation of men from nature. The oral culture (or what is left of it), must in the consequence be closer to the former, "natural" stage of men. In Milkman, the hunt provokes a feeling of unsettlement, an effect which is incremented by his near-death at the hands of Guitar. Yet the unsettling experience also marks the beginning of his immersion into the oral culture of his forebears.

In Song of Solomon, the stories told by and to the protagonists, and most importantly, to Milkman, are in fact what propels the action and develops the plot. Even though it would be farfetched to say that the novel imitated oral storytelling, we may note that the tales and stories told in the course of the events are one main structural principle of the text. At Reverend Cooper's house Milkman meets old men who actually knew both his father and his grandfather. When the men ask him for information about what has become of the boy Macon they knew, Milkman for the first time begins telling stories, and doing so, remembers the stories told to him: "His own father's words came back to him." (234). Listening and telling, in this scene, is a mutual experience. Milkman's presence stirs the old men's memories and draws forth stories about his grandfather, who in their recollection has become almost bigger than life. Inspired by their stories, Milkman in turn finally creates an image of Macon Dead of almost mythical proportions.38 In the course of his trip, Milkman reconsiders his intentions. What has begun as a search for gold turns into a search for his own and his family's past. Collecting information about his relatives and their past, Milkman begins to establish an emotional relationship to his family. He, the former outsider, begins assuming a collective heritage: "He was curious about these people. He didn't feel close to them, but he did feel connected, as though there was some cord or pulse or information they shared." (293). When Milkman reties the knots that link him to his family's past, memory is of great importance – gradually, it assumes the central role it has in oral cultures.

Part of this heritage he assumes is the oral culture in which his family is rooted. It is significant that the key information about the identity of his grandfather and his great grandparents is not conveyed through his relatives or the friends of the family, and much less in written form. It is a children's song which in the end solves the puzzle. Upon arriving in Shalimar, Milkman watches children outside Solomon's general store playing a game which involves singing and acting. The children's singing illustrates the mnemonic techniques oral cultures use to render stories and songs memorable: rhyme, rhythm and gestures. It is a "rhythmic, rhyming action game" (303).39 At this point, the song seems a "rapid shouting of nonsense words accompanied by more rapid twirling" (303) to Milkman. When he listens to other children in town sing a different stanza of this song, he recognizes a song he has grown up with. The children sing Pilate's song with different lyrics: "[...] he was surprised to hear them begin another song at this point, one he had heard off and on all his life. That old blues song Pilate sang all the time: 'O Sugarman don't leave me here,' except the children sang, 'Solomon don't leave me here.'" (301). "Sugarman" and "Solomon" – for the reader, the different spelling of the two words is what first comes to mind. Gradually, as the story advances, we notice the similar phonetic value of these two and other similar terms. "Shalimar," the town where Milkman meets his relatives, is pronounced "Shaleemone" (261), and remembered by Circe as "Charlemagne" (244). Just as Milkman has to learn to listen in order to be able to assume his heritage, so does the reader. We can associate the five terms only if we imagine their pronunciation. Morrison's wordplay in this and other instances throughout the novel not only illustrates the oral way of sound-oriented remembering and understanding, but lends the text itself a certain sound for the reader to experience.

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Supplied with some information on his ancestors by Susan Byrd and his listening capacities awakened, Milkman now realizes the significance of the children's song. As he listens to the children play and sing, he begins associating the seemingly senseless sounds with the names of his ancestors. In the end, he comes to realize that the "children were singing a story about his own people [...]." (304). Milkman's interpretation of it still reflects the rationalism of the literate culture: the line reporting that Solomon "flew away" Milkman interprets as a metaphor: "[...] Solomon was the one who left, who 'flew away' – meaning died or ran off – not Jake." (304). Trying to conserve the information gained, Milkman instinctively searches his pockets for a pencil – but as he can't find any, he has to remember the song.

The implication of this scene for the meaning of the novel and for the role of orality in it can not be overestimated. Morrison has her character discover his family roots through a piece of oral literature. In order to interpret the message correctly, Milkman has to take for serious a seemingly nonsensical children's song. He has to listen to the children's performance and then memorize the stanzas. In short, Milkman has to recover the practices and mode of thinking of oral culture. It is the guidance of the culture bearer Pilate which helps him with this recovery and leads him to mend the ties to his community. While the shift from orality to literacy implies increasing abstraction, Morrison makes her protagonist move the other way. In a series of conflicts and trials, Milkman loses the distance typical for his literate background and moves closer to the life surrounding him. Writing, Walter Ong remarks, "separates the knower from the known" (Ong 1982: 43).40 Losing the distance to his cultural heritage, Milkman can overcome this separation. It is in this sense that I would like to interpret the end of the novel. Avoiding speculation about the meaning of Milkman's realization that he is able to fly, we may say that when Milkman sings to the dying Pilate, he has finally assumed his oral heritage.41


4 Conclusion

With her treatment of the myth of the flying black man, Morrison incorporates the oral heritage of the African-American community into her work. Reviving this heritage, according to her conception, also means restoring a certain mode of speaking particular to the black community, and it means lending her texts an oral quality.

Song of Solomon certainly has oral qualities. It represents black vernacular English and the mode of speaking particular to black folk culture, or, as Morrison puts it, "the way black people talk" (McKay 1993: 409). The rhetorical practice of signifying in this respect helps to define a black aesthetic identity, while it draws on and thus reactivates tradition. Word play and a distinct rhythm make at least some passages of the text an oral experience in more than the usual measure. What drives the action forward are the stories told to and by the protagonists. As Ruth, Macon, Pilate and many others tell Milkman their story(ies), the past of his family and the roots of his community slowly unfold before his eyes – or rather, his ears. For Milkman has to learn to listen; or in other words, he has to learn to appreciate the oral culture in which the black community is rooted.

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In these instances, Morrison uses structural patterns of oral literature. At the same time, she actually does lend her text a specific "sound," as she puts it in the interview with McKay (McKay 1993: 409). It would be farfetched, however, to say that the book came close to an audience performance in the way Morrison outlines it in her essay "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation".42 Even though the use of various oral or sound-based techniques can be observed, the text doesn't conceal its literariness. Generally, the vernacular of the black community contrasts with the very distant and impersonal tone of the narrative voice. With the exception of few scenes, the novel is not the participatory or "speakerly" text Morrison envisions.

Song of Solomon describes a black community in the middle of the shift from orality to literacy. The tension of oral versus literate culture, which arises from this shift, surfaces in various conflicts in the novel. The possession or lack of literacy comes to represent the power structures between different groups within the society depicted in the novel. It illustrates the inequality of the race-groups with respect to health care, the power of a white racist society to give and undo names, or the dominance of a capitalist on a predominantly self-contained culture. The shift to literacy, and with it to capitalism, leads to alienation and the loss of cultural roots. However, the power conferred by literacy and the alienation effect provoked by it are characteristic features of both the black and the white community, even though to very different degrees. At the same time, the negative implication of writing as a tool in the hands of white racists is reversed when the black community – e.g. Milkman and Macon Dead – can in turn benefit from literacy.

When Milkman in the end discovers his family's genealogy in a nursery rhyme, he also rediscovers orality as a viable and rewarding mode of cultural expression. A return to orality, so Morrison would have us know, may reverse the process of alienation. Even though the oral quality of the novel itself, to my mind, is limited, the text is a powerful plea for a black aesthetics founded on orality. Yet the more orality and literacy come to be markers of social hierarchy and the degree of alienation in a capitalist society, the more equivocal these terms become with respect to cultural identity. At the same time, thus, Song of Solomon shows how unstable orality and writing as cultural markers are, and thus demonstrates how problematic such a definition of black writing and literary aesthetics is.



Bakhtin, Mikhail (1982) : "Discourse in the Novel", in: Michael Holquist (Ed.) The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press, 259–422.

Furman, Jan (1996) : Toni Morrison's Fiction. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Gates, Henry Louis (1984): "Criticism in the Jungle", in: Henry Louis Gates (Ed.) Black Literature and Literary Theory. New York: Methuen, 1–27.

Gates, Henry Louis (1988): The Signifying Monkey: a Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Harris, Trudier (1991): Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press.

Havelock, Eric (1986): The Muse Learns to Write. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hurston, Zora Neale (1981): "Characteristics of Negro Expression", in: The Sanctified Church. New York: Marlowe, 49–68.

Jones, Gayl (1991): Liberating Voices. Oral Traditions in African-American Literature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Leclair, Thomas (1993): "'The Language Must Not Sweat': A Conversation with Toni Morrison", in: H. L. Gates and K. A. Appiah (Ed.) Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 369–377.

Lubiano, Wahneema (1995) : "The Postmodernist Rag: Political Identity and the Vernacular in Song of Solomon", in: Emory Elliot (Ed.) New Essays on Song of Solomon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 93–116.

McKay, Nellie (1993): "An Interview With Toni Morrison," in: H. L. Gates and K. A. Appiah (Ed.) Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 396-411.

Middleton, Joyce Irene (1995): "From Orality to Literacy in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon", in: Emory Elliot (Ed.) New Essays on Song of Solomon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 19–39.

Morrison, Toni (1978): Song of Solomon. London: Chatto and Windus.

Morrison, Toni (1987): "The Site of Memory", in: William Zinsser (Ed.) Inventing the Truth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 101–124.

Morrison, Toni (1984a): "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation", in: Mari Evans (Ed.) Black Women Writers (1950 – 1980): A Cultural Evaluation. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press, 339–345.

Morrison, Toni (1984b): "Memory, Creation and Writing", in: Thought 59: 235 (December 1984): 385–390.

Ong, Walter (1996) : Orality and Literacy. The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge.

Willis, Susan (1984): "Eruptions of Funk: Historicizing Toni Morrison", in: Henry Louis Gates (Ed.) Black Literature and Literary Theory. New York: Methuen, 263–283.



1See Gates (1988: 127).

2 See Morrison (1987: 106). This is a crucial point for the understanding of Morrison's own position in the tradition of Afro-American writing, as she, too, attributes a distinct (if different) functionality to her texts.

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3 Even though Morrison doesn't mention this aspect explicitly in relation to her own literary production, we may note the importance of individuality and originality in western literary production in the age of the slave narratives. Stressing the authenticity of their texts, black writers appropriated this concept of authorship. Morrison's own concept, as we shall see later on, tends to interpret literary production as a communal act, as is characteristic of oral literature.

4 The orientation of black writers towards their audience is also stated by Gates: "To redress their image as a negation of all that was white and Western, black authors published as if their collective fate depended on how their texts would be received." (Gates 1988: 171)

5See Gates (1988: 110). With her interpretation of the slave narrative and the black literary tradition, against which she outlines her own literary project, Morrison reopens the debate about what black literature should represent and how it ought to do this. For an overview of this debate from its beginnings in the 19th century see Gates (1988: 170–180).

6 Filling in the information left out in the slave narratives, the emotional and psychological aspects of what is described, Morrison attempts to construct a possible, if not factual "truth" about the events.

7 In an interview with Thomas Leclair, Morrison speaks of "dusting off the myth" as an attempt to rework African mythology into the plot and imagery of a contemporary novel (Leclair 1993: 372).Song of Solomon is in fact an example of such a retelling of an African(-American) myth.

8 Morrison's novel reflects this problematic, as will be shown later on.

9 Morrison's theory of black literary aesthetics based on black vernacular English bears striking similarities to that developed by Gates in The Signifying Monkey. According to Gates' theory, the "manipulation" characteristic of the black vernacular tradition occurs as a revision of the relation of signifier and signified: "To revise the received sign (quotient) literally accounted for in the relation represented by signified/signifier [sic] at its most apparently denotative level is to critique the nature of (white) meaning itself . [...] Black people vacated this signifier, then – incredibly – substituted as its concept a signified that stands for the system of strategies peculiar to their own vernacular tradition." (Gates 1988: 47)

10 Leclair 1993: 375. The radical orientation towards an audience familiar with the black tradition is reflected also in Gates' conception of "signifyin(g)": "These [...] matters are addressed, in the black tradition, in the vernacular, far away from the eyes and ears of outsiders, who do not speak the language of tradition." (Gates 1988: XXI)

11 See Gates (1988: 388). The term narrative here applies to both oral and written narrative.

12 Eric Havelock identifies two purposes which written literature had at its beginnings, that of recreating the oral performance, and that of preserving the information contained in it (Havelock 1986: 58). Morrison reiterates this functionality with respect to her own literary project.

13 In the interview with McKay, Morrison says: "That oral quality is deliberate. It is not unique to my writing, but it is a sound that I try to catch." (McKay 1993: 409)

14See Morrison (1984a: 341). In the conversation with Leclair, she elaborates on this: "The part of the writing process that I fret is getting the sound without some mechanics that would direct the reader's attention to the sound." (Leclair 1993: 373) Morrison's concept of prose with oral qualities comes close to the structuralist concept of skaz, the narration of a story in a way that imitates the forms of oral everyday narration. In his definition of what he calls the "Speakerly Text," Gates, too, draws on this concept. See Gates (1988: 181).

15 See Morrison (1984b: 387). In her essay "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation," Morrison describes the narrative voice as intended to be "not the separate, isolated ivory tower voice of a very different kind of person, but an implied 'we' in narration." (Morrison 1984a: 343)

16 This scene could be read as an intertextual reference to or treatment of the Ikarus-myth. Morrison, however, insists it is taken from an African legend: "The book [Song of Solomon] comes out of a black myth about a flying man." (McKay 1993: 400) Either reading, it seems to me, can be part of a convincing interpretation of the novel. See also Harris (1991: 85) and Furman (1996: 43–45).

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17 See Gayl Jones: "One way of placing Song of Solomon is in the context of the folktale or 'tall tale', with the oral storytelling beginning and the vocabulary, rhythms and motives of the folktale." (Jones 1991: 170)

18 Song of Solomon: 7. All other references will be to this edition. Page numbers will be given in brackets.

19 According to Bakhtin, language is in any instant saturated with ideology and reflects the social or professional (or, as in this case, racial) stratification of society. Stratification in turn leads to heteroglossia. In each word, Bakhtin perceives a dialogue at work between these different layers of language, ideology and meaning. The meaning of a novel, thus, is a product of this very dialogue. See Bakhtin (1982). Based to some degree on Bakhtin's idea of the dialogic word, Henry Louis Gates develops his own concept of "signifyin(g)". While Bakhtin focuses on dialogization as a product of the heteroglossia inherent in language, Gates shifts his focus to the intended revision of previously established meaning.

20 Both Bakhtin's concept of the dialogic word and Gates' theory of signifying can lead to fruitful interpretations in the instances mentioned above. See Gates (1988: 47). In an essay entitled "The Postmodernist Rag," Wahneema Lubiano interprets black "signifyin(g)" as a practice in accordance with many of the narrative techniques of postmodernism: "The collage modality of postmodernism and the slipperiness of vernacular signifying are ways to refuse the dangerous and simplistic pleasures of authoritative coherence by demanding instead constant restructuring." (Lubiano 1995: 95)

21 Ong mentions the importance of names and the belief in a certain power they convey as essential to oral cultures (Ong 1982: 33).

22 Zora Neale Hurston, in a study of black language and folklore, analyses the increasing abstraction in language as a phenomenon analogous with the increasing literacy of the culture it belongs to. As a result, she identifies the thinking in images as a feature common to black vernacular English: "So we can say the white man thinks in written language and the Negro thinks in hieroglyphics." (Hurston 1981: 50)

23 See Middleton (1995: 26–27). "Thinking hieroglyphically, the father reveals a unique creativity that merges oral and written traditions in this cultural naming ritual."

24 The passage includes a reference to another primarily oral culture which also left its traces in place names, the Native Americans. Gayl Jones explicitly compares the oral heritage of the Native American and the African-American communities and the role it plays in their respective literature. See Jones (1991: 1–2).

25 See also Jones (1991: 2).

26 In her essay "Eruptions of funk: historicizing Toni Morrison," Susan Wills analyses the black community in Song of Solomon based on of Marxist terms. In contrast with Pilate, Macon Dead thus appears as a member of the middle class consumer society. The result of its characteristic materialism is an alienation effect: human emotions are translated into commodities. As Willis writes. "For Macon Dead [...] all human relations become fetishized by their being made equivalent to money." And a paragraph further down: "However, Macon Dead is not so totally integrated into the bourgeois class that he cannot sense the impoverishment of his life." (Willis 1984: 272–273)

27 We must not, however, mix up the definition of the term "alienation" as used in Willis' Marxist analysis with its implication in Corinthians' case. It isn't her work which estranges Corinthians from her own feeling, but the social model forced upon her by her father.

28 See Morrison (1978: 6).

29 With respect to the traditional language of oral art forms, Eric Havelock writes: "Such language has to be memorized. There is no other way of guaranteeing its survival. Ritualization becomes the means of memorization." (Havelock 1986: 70) In Song of Solomon, the most telling instance of such ritualized language is, of course, the actual "Song of Solomon" itself.

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30 Without lending closer attention to the work of Toni Morrison in his analysis of several archetypal figures in Afro-American folklore, Nigel Thomas mentions Pilate as a figure in the tradition of the African "culture bearer" or "griot" (Thomas 1988: 79). See also Furman (1996: 43–45).

31 While for my interpretation it is convenient to read the scene as an ironical performance of a stereotypical blackness, one could also read the changes in Pilate as an instance or act of magic.

32 The difficulty of avoiding a stereotypical blackness on the one hand and a complete adaptation to white models on the other has characterized black literary discourse from the slave narrative on. The problematic of creating a black literary identity, a concern central to Morrison's poetical project, without "taking the terms of one's assertion from a discourse determined by an Other," to borrow a phrase of Henry Luis Gates, is dramatized in the scenes quoted above. (Gates 1984: 7).

33 For a discussion of the significance of the south as a setting of many of the literary works in the black tradition see Gates (1988: 175).

34 According to Gates, "Signifyin(g)" is a term which includes various practices of verbal contest by way of indirect implication and/or insult. "Playing the dozens" is one of these practices, intended to completely destroy an opponent verbally. Defining these terms, however, turns out to be a very difficult and complex task, as his discussion of various examples shows (Gates 1988: 64–88).

35 Nigel Thomas gives a detailed overview of the research on signifying and other rhetorical practices. Significantly, he mentions a shared body of knowledge as a prerequisite for such a practice (Thomas 1988: 31). Typically for its oral character, signifying both relies on ritualized language and involves spontaneous creativity (see Havelock 1986: 64). Signifying thus draws on and defines a black cultural identity.

36 Another passage with equally striking oral qualities describes the scene when Milkman and Sweet share a bath. Middleton mentions this scene in her essay "From Orality to Literacy". See Middleton (1995: 22–23). Yet I disagree with her interpretation of the bathing scene as a ritual which demands ritualized, oral language as its narrative frame. To my mind, the unconventionality of the bathing scene contradicts its interpretation as a ritual.

37 For a thorough discussion of this aspect, see also (Middleton 1995: 33–34).

38 For both Jake, who "tore a farm out of a wilderness" and Macon, who made a fortune in real estate despite the unfavorable conditions for blacks, the promises of material wealth made by the "American Dream" seem to have come true. In both cases, the seemingly ideal situation is shown to be unstable and based on alienation from the community's values. While Willis sees materialism as the source of this alienation, for Middleton, literacy and the mechanisms of the literate society cause the estrangement of individuals from their community.

39 Ong mentions a "high somatic component" as an essential part of oral narrative and memory (Ong 1982: 67).

40 "Writing fosters abstractions that disengage knowledge from the arena where human beings with one another. It separates the knower from the known." (Ong 1982: 43)

41 The scene has provoked much controversy among critics. Harris, Middleton and Willis suggest various possible interpretations.

42 See Morrison (1984a: 341) and (1984b: 389).