Historical Perspective

A Post-World War I America

Though Song of Solomon is set during the 1950s and 60s, much of its action results from events that happened at the turn of the century, including the Great Migration and World War I and its aftermath. The Great Migration involved the movement of millions of southern blacks to the urban North in search of jobs and freedom in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. In her novel, Morrison gives voice to one of those families, the Deads, showing their progression from Virginia to Pennsylvania to Michigan. Likewise, Guitar has left the South with his family after his father’s death, and no doubt many of the other inhabitants of Southside are relatively recent migrants from the rural South. The Great Migration, though it represented marginal material progress, is also portrayed by Morrison, among others, as representing the loss of a traditional rural culture. Certainly her characterization of Macon Dead, whose loss of his father and his rural lifestyle makes him emotionally stingy and materially greedy, represents this loss.

In addition to heading north, many blacks enlisted in the armed forces during World War I as a way to improve their status in society. They were subject to discrimination even during their time in the armed forces, but they hoped that the war’s end would bring new opportunities in economic life and in civil rights. After all, the war had been waged ostensibly to protect and extend democracy. Instead, the war’s end marked a renewal of Ku Klux Klan activities; some black soldiers were lynched while still in their uniforms. The summer of 1919, after the end of the war, marked the greatest period of interracial strife in the nation’s history. In part, the violence escalated because blacks were more willing to defend themselves from racist attacks. Morrison echoes this in her treatment of the Seven Days, the older members of which are World War I veterans who speak bitterly of their mistreatment on their return. Other blacks fought back against racism by increasing their level of activism; some historians credit the period immediately following World War I with the birth of the modern-day civil rights movement.

B Civil Rights Movement

One of the important moments in Song of Solomon is the moment when Milkman finds Guitar in the barbershop listening to a report about the murder of Emmett Till. Till was a fourteen-year-old from Chicago visiting Mississippi in 1955. He allegedly whistled at a white woman and was murdered by whites. No one was ever convicted for his murder, but it was one of the catalysts for a renewal of the civil rights movement. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had been arguing against the legality of segregation in the courts, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and others began using nonviolent direct action to desegregate facilities in the South. In 1963, King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, which inspired many Americans. Shortly thereafter, though, whites bombed a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls. This would later be described as a pivotal moment in the struggle, a moment when many blacks began to despair that freedom would never be attained. Some civil rights workers became radicalized, no longer believers in nonviolent action. This is echoed in the character of Guitar, whose violence becomes more acute-and misdirected-after the little girls are killed.

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