Song of Solomon explores the quest for cultural identity. Based on the African-American folktale about enslaved Africans who escape slavery by flying back to Africa, it tells the story of Macon "Milkman" Dead, a young man alienated from himself and estranged from his family, his community, and his historical and cultural roots. Milkman is mentally enslaved and spiritually dead, but with the help of his eccentric aunt, Pilate, and his best friend, Guitar Bains, he embarks on a physical and spiritual journey that enables him to reconnect with his past and realize his self-worth.
The action of Song of Solomon spans thirty-some years. The narration comprises two distinct sections. Part I (Chapters 1-9) is set in an unnamed town in Michigan — presumably Detroit. It traces Milkman's life from birth to age thirty-two and focuses on his spiritually empty, aimless life as a young man caught between his father's materialistic lifestyle and Pilate's traditional values. These chapters are interspersed with various characters' flashbacks to their pasts. We learn that Milkman's father, Macon, and Macon's sister, Pilate, ran away from home after their father was murdered for protecting his land. However, after a disagreement between them, they each went their own way. Although both Macon and Pilate eventually end up in the same unnamed Michigan town, Macon refuses to speak to his sister, whom he feels is an embarrassment to his social position in the town. This section ends with Milkman's decision to leave Michigan in search of Pilate's illusory gold — Milkman's "inheritance" — which Macon is sure his sister hid in one of the many places she lived prior to coming to Michigan.
Part II (Chapters 10-15) begins with Milkman's arrival in Danville, Pennsylvania, where his paternal grandfather had built the near-mythological Lincoln's Heaven, a prosperous farm for which he was killed. Unable to find Pilate's gold in Danville and prompted by the mysterious stories surrounding his ancestors, Milkman traces his ancestry to the fictional town of Shalimar, Virginia, where he meets his father's "people" and discovers the true spiritual meaning of his inheritance. The novel's ambiguous ending centers on Milkman's "flight" across Solomon's Leap.