Oral History and Song of Solomon

In Penny Summerfield’s chapter on “Oral History as a Research Method” in Research Methods for English Studies, she describes oral history as having become distinct from ethnography and the oral tradition in the 1960s due to “the radical social history movement” and states that “oral history can contribute to the recovery of histories that would otherwise remain hidden.” (Summerfield, 48-49) Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon seems like the perfect novel to read alongside this chapter on oral history. Though we haven’t yet read the chapter on ethnographic methods, we can see the influence of African American folklore in Song of Solomon. Many critics, including Dr. Laura Jo Dubek, who’s article “‘Pass It On!’: Legacy and the Freedom Struggle in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon,” discuss Morrison’s references the myth of the flying African. In reading Song of Solomon and the Summerfield’s chapter on oral history, it is hard, for me, to really distinguish oral history from oral tradition as a research method. The best source for oral history research would be Morrison herself. In the Dubek article, she does reference a few quotes from Morrison, but this is not an interview with Morrison or anyone. Another possible source for oral history would be individuals that lived through the civil rights movement. Dubek references allusions to the civil rights movement, suggesting that the protagonist’s nickname, “Milkman,” is a reference to “Martin Luther King: MLKman” and makes connections to his mother and Rosa Parks (Dubek 95-96). Interviews with Morrison and others that lived through the 1960s could further elucidate these connections.

Dubek’s article does not leverage an oral history method directly but the connections she makes lean on prior use of an oral history method. Dubek is an English professor at Middle Tennessee State University with expertise ins African American Literature and Civil Rights Literature. She published this article in The Southern Quarterly in 2015. The article focuses on three main themes in Song of Solomon: song and music, connections to the Civil Rights Movement, and the myth of the flying African. Dubek makes connections to oral and written history and also discusses how oral history and tradition are leveraged within the novel itself.

The importance of the spoken (or sung) word is pervasive throughout the Song of Solomon. In the novel’s opening text, we learn how the spoken word leads to legislative change. When Ruth’s father, Milkman’s grandfather, moves to Mains Avenue his patients start referring to the street as “Doctor Street” and as more and more black people move to the street, they use “Doctor Street” as their address. This drives local representatives to post notices that the road “had been and would always be known as Mains Avenue and not Doctor Street.” (Morrison, 4) Dubek refers to this in her article and makes connections to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. Dubek notes that Ruth’s father would have moved there the same year as this ruling and this, along with the “consternation of the city legislators,” provides that connection (Dubek, 93). I think this also emphasizes the importance of the spoken word. The spoken reference to “Doctor Street” was so prevalent that people began using it for official purposes, leading legislators to take action. This action is in a written form, posted notices, that allows for misinterpretation. Rather than solidifying the name “Mains Avenue,” the posters provided the means to interpret the use of “Not Doctor Street” as an official name. The misinterpreted written word emphasizes the importance and strength of the spoken word.

The strength and power of the spoken word are expressed through names in Song of Solomon as well. Our protagonist is given his nickname through the use of spoken language. His official name and the written record of his name is Macon, but we primarily see him referred to as Milkman. Milkman’s paternal grandmother’s name is not spoken, suggesting that withholding the spoken word is powerful as well.

Milkman uses an oral history method to learn about his own story and that of his ancestors. On his journey south, he meets old men that knew his grandfather and listens to the stories they share about him. As Dubek notes, the sharing of these stories provides a benefit to both Milkman and the men reminiscing and being reminded of their youth (Dubek, 98). This also emphasizes the importance of the spoken word. For Milkman these talks provide him with information to which he would otherwise not have access. For these men, these talks give them purpose and allow them to remember their youth.

Dubek opens her article with a quote from Morrison relating African-American novels to music. Morrison reflects on the fact that black music, by the time Song of Solomon was written, was no longer exclusive to black people as other people have appropriated the style. Morrison claims that the novel is a way that black people can reclaim that voice that is exclusively theirs. This idea is emphasized by the focus on song and music in Song of Solomon. The beginning of the novel alone provides evidence of the importance of song and music. First, we start with the title and the word “song.” Then, just a few paragraphs into the novel, we see Pilate singing the “Sugarman” song. At the first break in the novel, we leave Macon Dead, Milkman’s father, listening to Pilate, Reba and Hagar singing and the music soothes him. As the novel progresses, we learn more about Solomon and his song, we learn why Pilate is always singing, and we learn of a character named Sing. Song and music are strong themes in the novel and it’s through this little bit of oral history, Dubek’s quote from Morrison, that learn about some of the motivation for this.

Works Cited

Dubek, Laura. “‘Pass It On!’: Legacy and the Freedom Struggle in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” The Southern Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 2, 2015, pp. 90–109. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mlf&AN=2016380532&site=ehost-live.

Summerfield, Penny. “Oral History as a Research Method.” Griffin, Gabriele. Research Methods for English Studies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013. 48-68. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Signet, The New American Library, Inc. 1978. Print.

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