A Part I
Song of Solomon begins with the flight of Robert Smith, an insurance agent, from the roof of Mercy Hospital. Smith appears on the roof of the hospital with two handcrafted wings on his back. A small crowd gathers to witness the impending jump. Many believe he won’t jump, but to the amazement of some and horror of others, Smith does jump. Because of Smith’s attempt to fly, Ruth Foster Dead is able to deliver her child inside the hospital instead of on its steps. Negro women during this time are not allowed to give birth inside the hospital due to segregation. Thus Macon Dead becomes the first Negro child to be born inside Mercy Hospital.
Four years later, young Macon acquires his nickname, Milkman, when his father’s tenant Freddie catches Ruth nursing Macon at age four. Milkman’s father, Macon, Sr.-who is a harsh landlord to other blacks-does not know the origins of this nickname, but he thinks it must have something to do with Ruth, of whom he can think only with disgust. The elder Macon is also estranged from his sister, Pilate, but on a night that he mercilessly evicts one of his poor tenants, Mrs. Bains, Macon stands outside Pilate’s house to hear her singing.
Time goes on and Morrison details certain events in Milkman’s growing up. As a young boy, Milkman and his family go on Sunday afternoon drives. On a particular Sunday, Milkman accidentally urinates on his sister Lena, a memory that Lena remembers years later. When Milkman is twelve, he and his friend Guitar Bains approach his Aunt Pilate. Milkman knows his father would disapprove of him approaching his aunt, but he decides to anyway. The two boys inquire as to whether or not she has a navel. She responds no, and invites them in for a snack. While inside, Pilate relates the history of the Dead family, and when her daughter, Reba, and her granddaughter, Hagar, come home, they are introduced to Milkman. Everyone has a nice time engaging in conversation that afternoon. However, when Milkman’s father hears of Milkman’s encounter with his Pilate, he is upset. He reminds Milkman that he does not want him consorting with his sister. Milkman asks his father why, and in response his father relates more of the family history. He then concludes by saying his sister is a “snake,” and that he wants Milkman to stay away from her.
Following their discussion, Macon tells Milkman that he is to start working with him. Milkman’s responsibilities include running errands in his aunt’s part of town. Thus, he has even more opportunities to visit his relatives. A couple of years later, Milkman realizes that one of his legs is shorter by about half an inch. He tries not to dwell on what he believes is a deformity.
When Milkman is twenty-two, his father hits Ruth, and Milkman throws his father against the radiator in defense of his mother. He threatens to kill his father if he ever touches his mother again. Macon never hits his wife again, but he does explain to his son the reasons behind his poor relationship with Ruth. He claims Ruth and her father had had an inappropriate relationship; he even describes an incestuous scene he witnessed between Ruth and her dead father. After this incident, Milkman finds Guitar at the barbershop, where the men are listening to a report about the murder of Emmett Till. The news about Till reminds them of the atrocities suffered by the returning black veterans of World War I and spurs Guitar to greater involvement in politics.
When Milkman is thirty-one, he ends a long-standing intimate relationship that he has had with Hagar, and she begins regular attempts on his life. Meanwhile, Freddie tells Milkman that Guitar has been hanging around another man, Empire State, who he believes has murdered a white boy found dead in a schoolyard. He tells Milkman to pay close attention to Guitar from now on.
One night, Milkman lays waiting another attack from Hagar, and he recalls the recent night he followed his mother to her father’s grave. Upon confronting his mother at the cemetery, Ruth explains her version of the rift between herself and Macon; she accuses Macon of lying about her relationship with her father. She denies any incestuous behavior, but does say that she felt her father was the only person who ever really cared about her. She also describes Pilate’s efforts to restore sexual relations between herself and Macon and to protect Ruth’s resulting pregnancy (which would result in the birth of Milkman) from Macon’s violence. After pondering his recollections of his encounter with his mother, Milkman hears Hagar trying to enter Guitar’s apartment; after she makes her way in, she is emotionally unable to kill Milkman. When Ruth finds out that Hagar has been trying to kill Milkman, she goes to confront Hagar. Pilate finds Ruth with Hagar, and to distract her she tells Ruth about her childhood and her travels across the country.
Meanwhile, Milkman finally asks Guitar about his relationship with Empire State. Guitar hesitates at first but then reveals that he has become a member of the Seven Days, an organization of seven black men who murder whites chosen at random in retaliation for lynchings and other atrocities. Milkman does not approve of Guitar’s involvement in this group and fears for his friend’s safety, but Guitar is deeply committed to the cause.
Later, while talking to his father, Milkman mentions that Pilate has a green sack hanging from her ceiling that she calls her inheritance. Macon is surprised by this news and tells Milkman that as children he and Pilate had found some gold in a cave when they were hiding from the whites who killed their father, gold he believes belonged to a white man Macon had killed in the cave. Macon believes the green sack could contain the gold from the cave. With this knowledge, Milkman, with urging from his father and help from Guitar, steals the sack. Guitar’s motives for stealing the gold include giving him the means to avenge the deaths of the four little girls in the church bombing in Birmingham.
At the beginning of chapter nine, the story shifts to Milkman’s sister Corinthians, who is secretly working as a maid and having an affair with a man named Henry Porter. She has just returned from her first night of lovemaking with him when she is startled by the sounds of male voices in her kitchen. Milkman and Guitar have been arrested after they were pulled over without cause and found to have human remains in the car with them. The green sack that they had taken from Pilate’s home had actually contained rocks and human bones, not gold. Pilate had to bail them out of jail by humbling herself to the police and saying that the bones are those of her dead husband.
Later, Milkman, who has figured out that Corinthians is having an affair with Porter, realizes that Porter is a member of the Seven Days. Worried for his sister, he decides to tell his father about the affair. His sister Lena does not understand Milkman’s actions against their sister; she confronts him, saying that he has a habit of pissing on others (which also refers back to the time he urinated on her as a child). After this confrontation, Milkman decides to leave home.
B Part II
Milkman has embarked on a solo quest for the gold, though he still intends to split the proceeds with Guitar. Milkman starts by going to Danville, Pennsylvania, the site of the cave. He asks about a mysterious woman named Circe, who sheltered Macon and Pilate after their father’s death, and is directed to the house of Reverend Cooper, who knew his father when he was a boy. Milkman learns that the Butlers, the same people Circe worked for, were responsible for his grandfather’s death and never brought to justice. While Reverend Cooper’s car is being repaired, Milkman meets the old men of the town, who tell him stories about his father’s family.
Milkman soon encounters Circe, who looks incredibly old but speaks with the voice of a twenty-year-old girl. She tells him that his grandmother’s name was Sing, his grandfather’s original name was Jake, and that his grandfather’s body floated up from its shallow grave and ended up being dumped in the cave. When Milkman gets to the cave there is no gold, and no body. Milkman decides that Pilate has taken the gold to Virginia during her travels around the country.
After Milkman arrives in his ancestral town of Shalimar, Virginia, he sees some children singing a song and playing, and remembers that he had never had friends as a child, until he met Guitar. However, Guitar’s friendship has not lasted. While on a hunting trip with the old men of the town, Milkman fights off Guitar’s first attempt to take his life. (Guitar believes Milkman has taken the gold for himself; thus he wants to kill him so he can obtain the gold.)
As the old men skin the bobcat they’ve caught on their trip, Milkman learns that his grandmother is one of the Byrds, related to a woman named Susan who lives in the town. After a magical night with a woman named Sweet, he goes to see Susan Byrd, who is evasive with him about their shared ancestry because of the presence of her gossipy friend Grace. Later, Milkman realizes that his ancestors are named in the song that the children of Shalimar sing; he then goes to see Susan Byrd again, excited by his discovery.
Chapter thirteen shifts the focus back to Hagar, who is profoundly depressed, rising from her bed only to go on a manic shopping spree. She then spikes a fever. Shortly afterwards, she dies, and Macon pays for her funeral.
When Milkman returns to Susan Byrd’s house, she tells him all she had not told him earlier: that Sing left Shalimar with Jake, and that Jake was the youngest child of a man named Solomon who flew back to Africa. The story is that Heddy, Sing’s mother, found Jake on the ground when Solomon dropped him and raised him after Ryna, Solomon’s wife, lost her mind.
Having pieced together the story, Milkman returns home and tells Pilate that she has her father’s bones, not those of the white man Macon killed. Milkman and Pilate return to Shalimar to bury her father’s bones, but after they do, Guitar-who has been hiding nearby-shoots her. The novel ends on an image of flight, as Milkman jumps in attack from the ridge “into the killing arms of his brother [Guitar].”