Personal freedom is the ability to look past the inhibitions, prejudices, and restrictions of the community to discover who you really are, and who you want to be. Humans can only be free when they can think, act, and believe what they want, but this sometimes requires isolating yourself from the community as a whole. No novelist has shown this better than Toni Morrison in Song of Solomon. The protagonist, Milkman, achieves personal growth and freedom for himself by learning about his family’s history, and casting off the prejudices and arrogance that society gave him.
In order to know who you are, you have to know where you came from, and you have to be knowledgeable enough to understand your history. For Milkman, as well as his entire race, that means understanding slavery, and what that meant. To be enslaved is to be robbed of freedom, not just physical, but mental. Frederick Douglass wrote, “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.
Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.
As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. (Chapter 6, page 3)” Milkman has a high school education which he takes for granted, education that Douglass had to work for, day and night. He had to slowly learn how to spell from other white children he knew, and he had to steal books to read from. For African-Americans, literacy represents freedom to pass on and understand their history, a critical factor in understanding the self.
Milkman has to understand his roots in order to become free. Milkman’s father, Macon, denies this to Milkman, because he is ashamed of his family’s past as poor farmers and wishes to erase his memories of it. But Milkman has to learn, because he has to understand his past in order to understand himself. Milkman’s past is the past of all African-Americans: theft, oppression, and bondage becoming scars on their collective psyche. Macon’s ‘scar’ manifests in his eternal pursuit of wealth. He tells Milkman: “Own things. And let the things you own own other things.
Then you’ll own yourself and other people too (Morrison 55).” Macon leads Milkman to believe that “You’ll be free. Money is freedom Macon. The only real freedom there is (163).” Milkman believes his father to be correct as he searches for Pilate’s gold, which he thinks will be his ticket to self-emancipation. Up to this point, Milkman has lived a carefree life of sex, drinking, and partying. After a meaningful conversation with Guitar Bains, Milkman realizes that something is missing in his life, and this provides the impetus to begin his quest for the gold. Milkman gets on plane to the Deep South, determined to not only find the gold, but to finally discover who he is.
Even though slavery had ended by the time Milkman is born, he still experiences repression by his family. Milkman’s parents love him, but they don’t raise him, as in they don’t leave room him to mature or find his own way. Milkman’s mother, Ruth, is extremely possessive of Milkman in that she continues to breast-feed him at the age of 13, even as “his legs were dangling almost to the floor” (Morrison 13). This act is emblematic of how Milkman is not allowed to grow up.
When Freddie caught them, Milkman “had been rechristened with a name he was never able to shake …
” (15). On the other side, Macon Dead, Jr. wants to dye his son in his own colors, and have him run the family business of owning property. Milkman feels trapped. His relationship with Hagar is a way of rebelling, of trying to become closer to Pilate’s free-spirited way of life. But this backfires, and Milkman becomes bored.
As his youth slips past him and he closes in on the age of thirty, Milkman is no closer to enlightenment than he was at age fourteen. He becomes tired of Hagar and his life.”Boredom, which had begun as a mild infection, now took him over completely (90).” It is at this point that Milkman decides to escape. His travels to Danville and Shalimar, he finds the story of his grandfather Solomon, who he relates to more than his father. It’s through this process of searching and discovery that Milkman is able to form a coherent idea of who he is.