A Guitar Bains
Guitar is Milkman’s best friend. As a child, his father was killed in a terrible industrial accident, and his mother abandoned the family when she couldn’t cope. Because his mother gave him candy after his father’s death, sweets make Guitar sick. After Guitar’s grandmother took responsibility for him, Macon Dead evicted Guitar’s family from their home for nonpayment of rent. Later, Guitar befriends Milkman after defending him in a fight, and introduces him to Pilate and the community of Southside. As an adult, Guitar is the Sunday man of the Seven Days, responsible for choosing white victims at random in retaliation for white atrocities against blacks. He tries to kill Milkman because he believes that Milkman has cut him out of their plot to recover the gold from the cave. At the end of the novel, he kills Pilate after she and Milkman bury her father’s bones at Solomon’s Leap.
B Milkman Dead
Milkman Dead is the son of Ruth Foster Dead and Macon Dead. Milkman acquires his name when his father’s employee, Freddie, catches Ruth nursing him when he is four years old. Later, we find out that Ruth nurses her son in part because she has been sexually deprived after a rift between her and Macon. Macon, who has come to her as a result of his sister Pilate’s spells, tries to end Ruth’s pregnancy before Milkman is born and afterwards speaks to him only “if his words held some command or criticism.” Milkman grows up cowed by his father, and disobeys him for the first time only after he meets his aunt, Pilate, who teaches him how to make an egg and shows him the sky. In response, Macon tries to lessen Pilate’s influence on his son by putting Milkman to work in his office. While running errands for Macon, Milkman learns about Southside, the working class black area of town, and develops a relationship with Pilate and her family. When he is seventeen, he begins a sexual relationship with his cousin Hagar. At twenty-two, he hits Macon in response to Macon’s violence toward Ruth, and learns Macon’s version of the rift between his parents. At thirty-one, he breaks off his relationship with Hagar in a letter, and she tries to kill him several times as a result.
An essentially passive person, Milkman gravitates toward those who inspire fear, and until he is thirty-two, lives with his parents and works for his father. It is only after he breaks into Pilate’s house and has a confrontation with his sister Lena that he decides to leave home, traveling to Danville, Pennsylvania, and then Shalimar, Virginia, in search of stolen gold. Instead, he discovers the mythic history of his family, a history that teaches him his obligations to others and makes him an adult.
C Pilate Dead
Pilate, Macon’s sister, is a maker of home-brewed wine who lives with her daughter and granddaughter in Southside. A woman without a navel who fought her way out of her mother’s dead body at birth, Pilate is widely believed to have magical powers. She helps Ruth to restore sexual relations with her husband and to protect her unborn child from Macon’s attempts to kill it. Pilate wears her mother’s snuffbox as an earring; the box contains the only word her father ever wrote: her name, which he copied from the Bible onto a piece of paper. Pilate has traveled all over the country with her daughter Reba, finally settling in Michigan when her grandchild Hagar is two years old. She is uneducated yet intelligent, full of wisdom about human relationships and generous to all who come to her door. She also has a warm posthumous relationship with her father, the first Macon Dead. Unbeknownst to her, she has been carrying her father’s bones in her green sack, the sack which she believes contains the bones of a white man her brother Macon killed, and which Milkman and Guitar steal from her, believing it contains gold. Milkman tells her that she has been carrying her father’s bones, and together they bury those bones on Solomon’s Leap, where Pilate is fatally shot by Guitar.
D Ruth Foster Dead
Ruth Foster Dead is the daughter of the first black doctor in the city and the wife of Macon Dead. After her estrangement from her husband, Ruth undergoes a long period of sexual deprivation, broken only by the brief time when Pilate’s spells are working on Macon. Pilate also helps Ruth protect her unborn child from Macon’s violence. After her son is born, Ruth nurses him until he is four years old, when her husband’s employee Freddie discovers her. Ruth also indulges in overnight visits to her father’s grave; on one of these visits, her son Milkman follows her and she tells him her version of her behavior at her father’s deathbed. In contrast to Macon, she says that she was only kneeling at her father’s bed while she was in her slip, kissing his fingers. Though Ruth seems resigned to her fate, she does confront Hagar when she learns of Hagar’s attempts to kill Milkman, and she forces Macon to give her money for Hagar’s funeral. Morrison calls her “a pale but complicated woman given to deviousness and ultra-fine manners.”
Freddie is Macon’s employee. He is the one who broadcasts news of Robert Smith’s death to the black community, catches Ruth nursing Milkman, tells Macon that Milkman has been at Pilate’s house, and tells Milkman that Guitar has been hanging around with a dubious character, Empire State.
Hagar is Pilate’s granddaughter. Five years older than Milkman, she has a relationship with him for fourteen years. When Milkman breaks off their relationship, she tries to kill him, then sinks into a deep depression. Believing that Milkman prefers pale, white-looking women, Hagar goes on a manic shopping spree to try to acquire the dominant culture’s standards of beauty. After most of what she buys is ruined in a downpour, Hagar falls into a fever from which she never recovers, and dies soon afterward.
G Grace Long
Grace is a friend of Susan Byrd’s. Her presence prevents Susan from telling Milkman all she knows about their shared ancestry. She flirts with Milkman, then steals his watch.
H Henry Porter
Porter is one of the Seven Days. He has a nervous breakdown on the same day that Macon evicts Guitar’s grandmother from her house. Later, he becomes Corinthians’s lover.
Reba is Pilate’s daughter and Hagar’s mother. She has extraordinary luck, winning contests, lotteries, and raffles. She lives “from orgasm to orgasm” and is described as looking “as though her simplicity might also be vacuousness.”
J Robert Smith
One of the Seven Days, Robert Smith jumps to his death from Mercy Hospital at the beginning of the novel.
K Empire State
Empire State is an elective mute, and one of the Seven Days. He stopped speaking when he found his French wife in bed with another man, and he gets his name because he just stands around and sways.
L Susan Byrd
Susan Byrd is the daughter of Milkman’s great uncle, his grandmother Heddy’s brother Crowell. She lives in Shalimar and is not very helpful to Milkman the first time he sees her because she does not want her friend Grace Long to know about their shared ancestry. When he visits again, she tells him more about the history of his grandmother, including the story that Heddy’s husband Jake, who becomes the first Macon Dead, was the son of a flying African named Solomon.
M Hospital Tommy
Hospital Tommy, the other owner of the barbershop, is also one of the Seven Days. A veteran of World War I, he talks “like an encyclopedia.”
N Railroad Tommy
Railroad Tommy, also a veteran of World War I, owns the barbershop, and is one of the Seven Days. Early in the novel, he tells Guitar and Milkman all the things they will never experience when they complain about not being served a beer.
Circe is the woman who hides Pilate and Macon after their father’s murder. She works as a maid for the same family who killed the first Macon Dead, and she hides his children in the Butler mansion, in rooms the Butlers do not use. Milkman meets her when he goes to Danville. She is living in the Butler house and tending to their Weimaraners, allowing them to destroy the house for which the Butlers killed, stole, and lied. She directs Milkman to the cave and tells him that his grandfather’s body was dumped there after he floated up from his shallow grave.
P Reverend Cooper
Reverend Cooper is a childhood friend of Macon’s in Danville. His father made Pilate’s snuffbox earring. He is the first person Milkman finds on his trip to Danville, and he introduces Milkman to the old men of the community, who tell him stories about his people.
Q Corinthians Dead
Corinthians Dead is the second of the two daughters of Macon and Ruth Dead. She is raised to be a good catch for a professional man of color, but after college and a trip abroad, is a little too elegant for the few professional men of color that she meets. Instead, she stays home with her sister Lena and makes rose petals. When she wakes up one morning realizing that she is a forty-two-year-old maker of rose petals who still lives with her parents, she gets a job as a maid and begins an affair with Henry Porter. After Porter tries to break off their affair, Corinthians realizes that she will die of loneliness if he leaves her, and she hangs on to the hood of his car until he relents, taking her home with him. After Milkman discovers that Porter is a member of the Seven Days, the black terrorist organization, he tells Macon about the affair, and Macon responds punitively. Eventually, though, Corinthians moves to a small house in Southside with Porter.
R Macon Dead
Macon Dead is the father of Milkman, Lena, and Corinthians Dead. An owner of houses and apartments, Macon believes that owning things enables you to own yourself, and others too. With Pilate, he grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania called Lincoln’s Heaven. At sixteen, he sees his father killed by whites who want the family’s land, and he and Pilate are protected by Circe, a midwife and maid who shelters them in unused rooms of the Butler house. Macon and Pilate run away from the Butler place, and while hiding in a cave for the night, encounter a white man. After Macon kills the man, they find his cache of gold, which Pilate prevents Macon from taking, leading to their estrangement.
After Macon flees to Michigan, he marries Ruth Foster, having two daughters with her before her father’s death and their subsequent estrangement. Macon believes that he has seen Ruth naked in bed with her dead father, kissing him, and almost kills her as a result. They have not had sexual relations in many years when Pilate uses magic to compel Macon to have intercourse with Ruth. A pregnancy results, which Macon wants to abort. When Milkman-the product of the controversial pregnancy-is a child, Macon grows richer, buying land on Honore Island and evicting tenants who can’t pay their rent. When Milkman grows up, he works in Macon’s office with him. Milkman’s decision to leave the office results in his disclosure about Pilate owning a green sack that he has heard contains her inheritance, and Macon tells his son to steal the gold he believes the sack contains. Milkman’s subsequent journey, and discovery of the family’s mythic past, does not heal Macon’s estrangements with his sister and his wife, but Macon does enjoy hearing Milkman’s stories about Danville and the old men who still fondly remember him.
S Magdalene Dead
Lena is the elder daughter of Macon and Ruth. As a child, Milkman accidentally urinates on her, and many years later she confronts him about it, saying that he has been cruel to Corinthians and to her. Lena’s anger with Milkman spurs him to leave home for the first time.