This will not be my typical post. I generally post for two reasons. Either the Orange One has done something ridiculous again, and I’m mad as hell, or (more often, I hope) something has inspired me. Right now I’m not inspired, and I am trying to discover why.

This weekend I read Toni Morrison’s book, Song of Solomon. I’d never read anything by the woman many consider our greatest living author, so I thought it was about time.

Song of Solomon tells the story of Macon (Milkman) Dead III, an African American (he would say negro) born in 1931 in an unnamed town in Michigan. The story traces Milkman’s life through his childhood and into his adult years. Milkman is forever trying to find out who he is, where he came from, the circumstances that led he and his eccentric family to their current situation. In the end he travels deep into the South and deep into his family’s past to find himself.

The book is well-written and it kept my interest throughout. Unlike The Sound and the Fury or Heart of Darkness, this book was anything but unreadable. It just didn’t speak to me. And I’m sorry about that. This entire post will be an extended apology for not loving a book I probably should love.

I think the problem is this, and it’s a terrible admission. I’m not really interested in where I come from. I don’t believe where I come from makes me who I am. I think I decide that myself.

There’s a great line in Joe Vs. the Volcano that sums it up. I know, I know. How dare I insert a goofy Tom Hanks movie into a discussion of our greatest living writer! Like I said, I apologize.

Near the end of the movie, when the Chief (played by a wonderfully bored Abe Vigoda) looks for a hero to jump into the Volcano and save his people, Joe says, “I don’t have any people of my own, Chief. I’m my only hope for a hero.” Joe is on a journey to find himself. This is his discovery. He is his only hope for a hero. By contrast, Milkman discovers that his identity, his very being, is tied up in where he comes from, who his “people” are. For Milkman, discovering who he is means finding out who his people are.

It was a good feeling to come into a strange town and find a stranger who knew your people. All his life he’d heard the tremor in the word: “I live here, but my people . . .” or “She acts like she ain’t got no people,” or: “Do any of your people live there?” But he hadn’t known what it meant: links.

Now it’s important to understand: I’m not saying Toni Morrison is wrong here. She’s probably right. For most people (and, I suspect, for African Americans, who’ve had their history purposely and viciously erased, even more than for most whites) who their people are is probably a critical part of their identity. I’m saying that I’m missing that piece. I’m missing the need for those links. I’m not entirely sure why.

Huck Finn has a moment similar to Joe’s (and in contrast to Milkman’s).

COL. GRANGERFORD was a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family. He was well born, as the saying is, and that’s worth as much in a man as it is in a horse, so the Widow Douglas said, and nobody ever denied that she was of the first aristocracy in our town; and Pap he always said it, too, though he warn’t no more quality than a mudcat himself.

Now Pap is Huck’s father, so here Huck is admitting that he himself is far from “well born.” Of course, we know better. We love Huck, with his self-effacing goodness and his true heart that will lead him to (as he believes) throw away his own immortal soul rather than betray his friend Jim. “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell!” We don’t believe that Huck’s past condemns him. We believe that Huck himself, finding his own way in the world, is wonderful.

By contrast, Morrison presents characters I really can’t like very much, characters whose flaws don’t make me long for redemption but rather just push them away from me. I don’t think it’s Morrison’s fault, I really don’t, and Song of Solomon may very well be the great book Barack Obama and others believe it to be. I suspect there’s something missing in me that keeps me from loving Song of Solomon. In my heart of hearts, I just don’t believe that I am shaped by where I come from. I shape myself by the choices I make. I’m probably wrong. But I think this flaw is what caused Song of Solomon to not speak to me. I don’t have any people of my own. I’m my only hope for a hero.

Advertisements