Summary and Analysis
It is the summer of 1936, and the Dead family is on their ritual Sunday drive through town in their green Packard. Although the drive affords Macon little pleasure, he enjoys the opportunity to flaunt his affluence and prosperity. Ruth enjoys showing off her family, and Lena and Corinthians like watching the men. For five-year-old Milkman, the trip is "simply a burden."
During the drive, the Dead family's strained conversation touches on numerous topics that reveal the family members' personal beliefs and values. While Corinthians is excited about Macon's plans to establish a beach community at Honoré for "high class Negroes," Ruth's comments are generally ignored. Lena is intent on keeping the peace between her parents, and Milkman fidgets and finally finds a way to escape his imprisonment — he needs to go to the bathroom. After a brief stop results in a minor family crisis, the family heads back home.
The narrative now shifts to seven years later, and twelve-year-old Milkman meets seventeen-year-old Guitar, who introduces him to Pilate — Milkman's aunt — and the mysteries of her wine house. Pilate invites the two boys into her house, offers each of them a soft-boiled egg, and tells them stories about growing up in Montour County, Pennsylvania, and about her childhood relationship with her brother, Macon, and her and Macon's escape from Montour County following their father's murder. Entranced by her stories, her brass earring, and the "piny-winy" smell that permeates her house, the boys are fascinated to learn that the rumor concerning Pilate's being born without a navel is true. Suddenly, their conversation is interrupted by Pilate's daughter, Reba, and Pilate's granddaughter, Hagar, who have returned from picking blackberries. For Milkman, meeting his cousin Hagar is love at first sight.
Returning home, Milkman learns that Freddie has told Macon about Milkman's visit to Pilate's house, which Macon strictly forbade Milkman to enter. Macon scolds Milkman for disobeying him and is stunned by his son's questions about the Dead family's history. Consequently, like Pilate earlier in the chapter, Macon reminisces about his childhood in Montour County, sharing with Milkman some of his fondest memories concerning Pilate, his father, and his father's beloved farm, Lincoln's Heaven. However, as Macon regains his autocratic composure and his anger returns, he reiterates his warning to Milkman to stay away from Pilate, whom he describes as a "snake." He also says that it is time for Milkman to learn the family business, to "learn what's real." He will teach his son the "one important thing [he'll] ever need to know: own things."
As we follow the Dead family on their Sunday drive, we realize that their being "pressed" into the Packard symbolizes their being trapped by materialism. Like the Deads' house, which is "more prison than palace," the green Packard provides no joy for its owner; like Macon's ring of keys, the car is strictly a status symbol. The Packard, which is the color of money, elicits a range of emotions among both passengers and onlookers. Lena and Corinthians fantasize that they are princesses riding in a "regal chariot driven by a powerful coachman"; Milkman views it as a cramped space that inhibits his mobility; Macon is satisfied with the Packard only because it is a symbol of success: "These rides . . . had become rituals and much too important for Macon to enjoy"; and the townspeople name the car "Macon Dead's hearse," emphasizing the link between material wealth and spiritual death.
By referring to the Packard as a "chariot," Morrison merges the elements of fairy tale and black culture, much like she did with the golden thread and "Rumpelstiltskin" in Chapter 1. Here in Chapter 2, the image of the "coachman" suggests the royal coach in "Cinderella," and the term "chariot" alludes to "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," a spiritual often sung at black funerals. Readers should also note the numerous allusions to flight, including Lena and Corinthians' perception of "the summer day flying past them," the Packard's "silver winged woman" hood ornament, and the car's "dove gray" seats. Perhaps more important is Milkman's sensation of "flying blind" — yet another reference to his dulled, unenlightened existence. However, Milkman's spirits are raised when he is later introduced to Hagar: "He seemed to be floating. More alive than he'd been, and floating." This new feeling in Milkman emphasizes the relationship between flying and living, experiencing life on one's own terms rather than on someone else's.
One of the most revealing aspects of this chapter is Corinthians' conversation with her father concerning the beach community of Honoré. Through her thoughtless comments, she reveals her racial prejudices against blacks and her psychological distance — much like her father's — from the black community. For example, although she giggles that "Negroes don't like the water," she readily admits that she would love to live at the beach — so long as it is restricted to "nice colored people" and does not allow people like Mary, the barmaid, to move there. Commenting to her mother about Mary, Corinthians says, "I don't care what she owns. I care about what she is." Corinthians accepts and internalizes stereotypes of blacks. Ironically, however, she seems unaware that she herself exemplifies the fallacy of those stereotypes. We should not be surprised when, at the chapter's end, Macon, scolding Milkman for visiting Pilate, says of his own sister, "It ain't what she did, it's what she is." Corinthians has obviously learned her prejudicial views from her father, whose comments about Pilate only confirm his narrow-minded, intolerant opinions of the black community.
The long litany of what the family's car ride is not underscores the sterility of the family's existence. Morrison emphasizes this lifelessness by repeatedly using the words "never," "no," and "no one," a stylistic device that recalls how the black community rejected the city legislators' proclamation about Mains Avenue and refers to it, instead, as Not Doctor Street. That the green Packard had "no real lived life at all" is confirmed later in the chapter when Pilate says to Milkman, "Ain't but three Deads alive" — Pilate, Reba, and Hagar.
One comment that the narrator makes about Milkman during the Dead family's ritualistic Sunday afternoon drive is especially important. Because Milkman is only five years old, he is forced to ride between his parents in the Packard's front seat. However, because he is still small, he cannot see over the front hood and therefore kneels on the front seat and looks out the back window. Coupled with this backward viewing is the short scene in which Milkman, startled by a sound behind him while he is urinating in the woods, turns around and urinates on his sister Lena. Morrison comments, "It was becoming a habit — this concentration on things behind him. Almost as though there were no future to be had." Although Milkman cannot yet know that his grandfather was shot from behind, that threats from behind — the past — affect the future, he learns this important lesson immediately following the car-ride section when he talks to Pilate. Here, Morrison suggests that our actions are somehow influenced or predetermined by our ancestors. The more we learn about our families' pasts, the more clearly we can identify our ancestors' influences in ourselves and thereby gain a better, more spiritual appreciation of our daily lives.
Milkman and Guitar's visit to Pilate's wine house provides a striking contrast to the Dead family's drive. Instead of a meaningless Sunday ritual, we are introduced to the rituals of making wine and boiling eggs, which symbolize fertility, renewed life, and a state of equilibrium: "Now, the water and the egg have to meet each other on a kind of equal standing," Pilate explains to the boys. "One can't get the upper hand over the other." Although we might think that Pilate is crazy when she discusses eggs at such length, her words have import: They exemplify a way of life in which every part is equal. Instead of stories about restricted beach communities, we hear stories of real life and a song about an imagined flight that recalls Mr. Smith's flight in Chapter 1 and foreshadows Milkman's flight at the end of the novel. Also note that the story that Pilate tells about the man who has a heart attack and feels that he is "about to fall off a cliff" foreshadows Milkman's jumping off Solomon's Leap in the novel's last chapter. Pilate's comment "I don't know if the cliff was real or not" mirrors the novel's ambiguous ending.
Unlike the Dead family's Sunday ritual, in which certain family members — namely, Ruth and Milkman — are ignored or silenced, everyone in Pilate's house participates in the conversation. Consequently, we experience firsthand the difference between the atmosphere of death that permeates Macon's household and the vibrancy that characterizes Pilate's. Again images of nature are linked to Milkman's aunt. Morrison characterizes Pilate's voice as "light but gravel-sprinkled," and Milkman thinks of it as "little round pebbles that bumped up against each other." To both Milkman and Guitar, Pilate looks like a "tall black tree," and odors of "pine and fermenting fruit" fill her house: "the piny-winy smell was narcotic." Note that the house has sun "streaming in, strong and unfettered because there were no curtains or shades at the windows that were all around the room"; this image is the opposite, the antithesis, of Macon's "big dark [urban] house."
Pilate's wine house, with its allusions to the traditional African agricultural system in which yams and palm wine play an integral part in the community's social and economic survival, functions as a recurring image in the novel. It establishes Pilate not only as the local African storyteller figure but also as an ancestor who preserves and protects the culture of her people. She is a "pilot" who charts a new course for her black community's future by incorporating both the positive and negative elements of its past.
Whereas Macon attempts to control Milkman, Pilate attempts to influence him. When Guitar, the boy who "liberate[s]" Milkman, introduces his friend to Pilate, "the woman who had as much to do with his future as she had his past," Milkman realizes that his expectations of his aunt, largely influenced by his father, are wrong. Like Macon, Milkman has internalized the white community's perspective of lower-class blacks. In doing so, he has separated himself from poor blacks, refusing to acknowledge that, to racist whites, all blacks are the same regardless of their wealth or status. Because Pilate is economically poor by Milkman's standards, he expects her to be spiritually defeated as well. Macon had led his son to equate "poor" with "worthless," but Pilate refutes this crass stereotype. Milkman recognizes of Pilate, "And while she looked as everyone said she was, something was missing from her eyes that should have confirmed it" — namely, resignation, or defeat. Milkman learns that material worth does not equal personal worth. Symbolically, even the whites of his aunt's fingernails are like "ivory."
Packard the name brand of a family-oriented automobile produced by Packard Motor, Inc., which was founded in 1900 and merged with Studebaker Corporation in 1954. In Chapter 1, Macon Dead drives a green Dodge sedan on Sunday afternoon outings.
the Blood Bank The name of Southside's notorious neighborhood alludes to Dr. Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950), a world-renowned surgeon, scientist, and educator. The pioneer of blood plasma preservation, Dr. Drew established the first successful blood plasma bank. In 1950, while on his way to a medical convention at Tuskegee Institute, Dr. Drew was fatally injured in an automobile accident. Denied treatment at a nearby white hospital because of his black skin color, he was refused the blood transfusions that might have saved his life. Here, the term for the neighborhood is used ironically, for this part of town is notorious for crime and murder — bloodletting, the opposite of blood banking.
poot slang for "lousy" or "inferior." Pilate says that Macon could not cook worth "poot" — he was a lousy cook.
hickories hickory trees, grown in the eastern United States for timber and nut production.
brambles a prickly shrub or bush, including blackberry and raspberry plants.
hoot owl According to West African legend, the owl is the king of witches. If an owl's hooting disturbs the tranquility of a campsite, it is considered a warning that one of the inhabitants is destined to die.
crock an earthenware container.
war bond promissory notes issued by a government to finance a war. When the bond reaches maturity, the person who purchased the bond receives the amount of money originally paid for the bond plus interest.
Mayflower Restaurant and Sears By juxtaposing the name of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to North America in 1620 with the name of a modern department store, Morrison alludes to the progress of white Americans in the United States. She also emphasizes that for black Americans, not much has changed, as they are still denied full participation in American society.
Four Roses a brand of blended bourbon not widely sold today.
cracklin browned, crisp rinds of roast pork, especially popular in the South.
maws stewed pig stomachs, usually served with greens or beans.
Freedmen's Bureau officially, the United States War Department's Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Established in 1865 to aid thousands of people (black and white) left displaced and homeless after the American Civil War, the bureau was discontinued in 1872 by congressional inaction.