Song of Solomon is Morrison's third novel and one of her most commercially successful. Published in 1977, the novel — tentatively titled Milkman Dead — was condensed in Redbook. It was later chosen as a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, which had not selected a novel written by a black author since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940. The same month in which it was published by Knopf, Song of Solomon was sold to New American Library, a paperback publisher, for an estimated $115,000 and quickly became a bestseller. Well over half a million copies are now in print, and translation rights have been sold in more than ten countries. The novel won fiction awards from the National Book Critics' Circle and the American Academy and Institute of Letters. It also won the National Book Award for best novel and made the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Since Morrison is known primarily for her "womanist" writings that portray the challenges of growing up black and female in a white, male-dominated culture, the phenomenal success of Song of Solomon, which features a black male protagonist, is especially remarkable. ("Womanist," according to Alice Walker, who coined the term, is the African-American equivalent of "feminist." Consequently, while feminists focus on sexism and strive for women's liberation and economic equity, womanists focus on both sexism and racism, demanding respect for the achievements and contributions of black women and recognition of the black woman as an integral part of the male-dominated black community.)
Morrison, asked why she chose a male protagonist for Song of Solomon, responded, "Because I thought he had more to learn than a woman would have." She also confessed to intentionally "trying to feel things that are of no interest to me but I think are of interest to men, like winning, like kicking somebody, like running toward a confrontation; that level of excitement when they are in danger." Drawing on a variety of stories, myths, and legends, the novel centers on two key stories: the Yoruba folktale of the flying Africans and Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, the twenty-second book of the Old Testament.
Song of Solomon is often classified as an impressionistic coming-of-age novel, or bildungsroman, that merges elements of fantasy and reality. According to Morrison, the novel is about a man who "learns to fly and all that that means. But it's also about the ways in which we discover, all of us, who and what we are. And how important and truly exciting that journey is." In part, Song is a wakeup call for young black males struggling to survive in white America. Given Morrison's insistence that a strong family and community are the means to black survival, we can surmise that the novel's abbreviated title — SOS — is no accident.
Although Morrison dedicated this novel to her father, we can also read it as a love song to young black men who, as Morrison illustrates through the character of Milkman, are doomed to spiritual death and self-alienation unless they read and understand their history.
Historically, Song of Solomon was published in the wake of the Black Arts/Black Power movements. Advocates of the Black Arts movement — including Larry Neal, Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni — believed that the primary objective of all black artistic expression was to achieve social change and moral and political revolution. Consequently, if art fails to make a political statement, it is irrelevant. The movement's philosophy — which countered the "protest literature" movement of the 1940s and 1950s led by such writers as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright — is best summarized by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), who believes that art should be "fists and daggers and pistols to clean out the world for virtue and love."
Although the Black Arts movement drew a strong following, some black artists objected to its violent imagery and its rejection of traditional forms of black art, such as the blues and dialect poetry. Although Song of Solomon is a tribute to the movement — Morrison agrees that "the best art is political" — it also challenges some of the movement's basic tenets, including the role of black women in the largely black male-oriented movement, and reaffirms the place of black vernacular and the blues as an integral part of African-American art and culture. Through numerous conversations between Milkman and Guitar, Morrison explores some of the underlying principles of the Black Arts movement; through the friends' problematic relationships with women, she questions the validity and viability of the movement as the "spiritual sister" of the Black Power movement.
Song of Solomon demonstrates Morrison's commitment to black life and culture and examines the role of African Americans in relation to white mainstream society and the legacy of slavery on the history and experience of blacks in America. "I simply wanted to write literature that was irrevocably, indisputably Black," Morrison has said, "not because its characters were or because I was, but because it took as its creative task and sought as its credentials those recognized and verifiable principles of Black art." Although her work explores many of the major themes in African-American literature — for example, alienation versus identification, the search for roots/the journey home, and freedom and liberation — she repeatedly returns to what has become the overriding theme in her novels: the search for love and identity.