Throughout the first half of Song of Solomon, Milkman is the epitome of an immature young man drifting aimlessly through life. Having "stretched his carefree boyhood out for thirty-one years," he is content to go "wherever the party is." Although he functions as the novel's protagonist, he is not a heroic figure — at least not for well over half of the novel. Spiritually dead and mentally enslaved by apathy and materialism, Milkman embarks on a quest for his inheritance, which he initially believes to be Pilate's gold. Instead, through a series of mishaps and coincidences, he finds himself on a spiritual quest for his identity. Eventually he learns the meaning of grace and mercy, and he inherits the gift of flight.
Although he prides himself on being nothing like his father, Milkman shares his father's materialistic values, his arrogance, his indifference, and his sexist, chauvinistic attitudes toward women. Consequently, he has no empathy for those whom he perceives as being inferior to him socially or economically, he lacks a sense of commitment to his family and community, and he is unable to sustain a loving relationship with any woman, the exception being Sweet — after he discovers his spiritual inheritance — but even then only briefly.
Due to his apathy and lack of direction, Milkman feels pulled in several directions by the people around him, all of whom vie for control of his life: His mother wants him to go to medical school; his father wants Milkman to join him in the real estate business; Hagar wants him to marry her; Guitar wants him to accept the Seven Days; and Pilate wants him to assume responsibility for his life and fulfill his role as a leader, as foretold by his miraculous birth and attested to by his charmed life. (Milkman's conception and birth were assisted by Pilate's voodoo. He was born with a caul and had visions that revealed the truths hidden behind the facade of real life.) Unwilling to commit himself to any one goal, Milkman rejects all options, choosing to continue his aimless drifting and cut himself off from the people who care for him.
With the help of Pilate and Guitar, Milkman eventually discovers the secret of Solomon's song once he recognizes the vital link between the past and the future. His mission to find Pilate's gold takes him back to his ancestral roots, enabling him to learn the origin of his name and to reconnect with the black community — his "tribe."