I WILL ARGUE to this day that the civil rights and the black studies movements begun a decade and a half ago have so far produced little creative writing of a lasting nature. Eldridge Cleaver, H. Rap Brown, even Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) have come and gone their separate ways, scattering their curious and now dated writings somewhere on forgotten shelves in public libraries. The poets of the Black Arts Movement - once so bitterly anti-establishment - have mostly accepted comfortable positions in university English departments. Alex Haley's Roots appears to be the only major piece of black writing from the era, and scholars are beginning to have serious doubts about the accuracy of Haley's research.
Possibly, these writers were too directly involved in the movement itself, too tied up in its rhetoric. The surprising thing is that when the black cultural explosion mingled with the subsequent feminist movement the result was much more satisfying. During the last half-dozen years a number of talented black women (Gayl Jones, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara) have begun publishing fictional works of major significance. Perhaps the most talented of the group is Toni Morrison, whose third novel, Song of Solomon, places her in the front rank of contemporary American writers. If a comparison with an earlier black novelist is necessary. I would say that Song of Solomon is the most substantial piece of fiction since Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1962).
Like the unnamed narrator of Ellison's masterpiece, the protagonist of Morrison's novel (Macon Dead Jr., known as "Milkman") makes an arduous journey into the past - the collective past of his race as well as that of his immediate family. Yet Milkman's quest follows an opposite route, instead of fleeing from the South to the North like Ellison's hero, Milkman leaves the state of his birth (Michigan) and voluntarily travels to the South. Initially, the journey is undertaken because Milkman believes that he will discover a cache of gold, hidden away in the cave where the body of his grandfather was thrown 50 years earlier - following his brutal murder by white racists who killed him for his land. What Milkman in time discovers, however, is far more valuable treasure than the literal one that initiates his journey; the origins of his hidden self before his ancestors' crippling move to the North.
The problem of Milkman's roots as Morrison initially poses it is not so much a state of physical location in the North or the South, as one that embraces the values suggested by each geographical area. When Milkman is dragged along on a midnight bobcat hunt with a number of men who have remained in the village of his ancestors, he realizes that all of his ties with the natural world have been severed. It is something much more basic than his inability to use a rifle.He doesn't know how to move in the woods without making creatures for miles around aware of his presence. He doesn't know how to merge with his environment, he has lost a basic affinity with the earth.
Milkman's father, Macon Dead Sr. - in spite of the darkness of his skin - for all practical purposes has become white. The richest, most successful black businessman in the town, he has amassed a fortune, largely by exploiting black workers as their slum landlord. So strict has he been with his children (Milkman and his two sisters, Magdalene and First Corinthians), so effectively has he managed to instill in them a reverence for the white world and an abhorrence of the black one, that their lives have been reduced to a series of submissive acts, each designed to assert the power of the father whom they loathe but are afraid to rebel against. When Milkman makes his journey South, he catches a glimpse of himself for the first time as other black people see him: "They looked at his skin and saw it was black as theirs, but they knew he had the heart of the white man who came to pick them up in the trucks when they needed anonymous, faceless laborers."
The subject matter of Song of Solomon , then, is initially suggestive of Invisible Man or Roots : the origins of black consciousness in America, and the individual's relationship to that heritage. However, skilled writer that she is, Morrison has transcended this theme so that the reader rarely feels that this is simply another novel about ethnic identity. So marvelously orchestrated is Morrison's narrative that it not only excels on all of its respective levels, not only works for all of its interlocking components, but also - in the end - says something about life (and death) for all of us. Milkman's epic journey into the past (into a world of the dead we might call it, as the names of the many characters also suggest) is a profound examination of the individual's understanding of and, perhaps, even transcendence of the inevitable fate of his life. As Milkman's aunt, Pilate Dead, tells him, "People die when they want to and if they want to. Don't nobody have to die if they don't want to."
There is much more that I could tell you about Song of Solomon, but I have kept my account of the story intentionally oblique. Morrison's novel is too good a work to be reduced to mere plot summary.She is master of the comic and the grotesque (when Milkman's mother suggests that he become a doctor, he replies, "'How would that look? M.D., M.D. If you were sick would you go see a man called Dr. Dead?"); the narrative never flags - rather it constantly surprises us with its intricate shifts in time and place. Morrison has created the wildest set of comic characters in serious fiction since William Faulkner's Snopeses. Her affinities with Faulkner are, in fact, not limited to the comic bawdy but also embrace his darker, more profound recesses; and I imagine if our greatest American novelist were alive today he would herald Toni Morrison's emergence as a kindred spirit.
So should we all. In these days when fiction by the average female (or male) writer seems obsessed with the genital urge, discovering a writer like Toni Morrison is the rarest of pleasures. She respects the craft of fiction; she knows how to tell a whopper of a story. In short, she has written a novel that will endure.