Critical Essays Song of Songs and Flying Africans


Song of Songs

In addition to its overriding theme of music — blues, jazz, spirituals, and gospel songs — as an integral force in the creation and survival of African-American culture, Song of Solomon draws on a wide variety of myths, stories, and legends from a diverse range of cultures. These narratives include the Bible (Song of Songs, the Prodigal Son); African folklore and oral tradition (Flying Africans, Anansi the Spider, the Signifying Monkey); black folk tales and trickster tales (Stagolee, High John the Conqueror); epic narrative (the Odyssey, the quest for the Golden Fleece); European fairy tales ("Rumpelstiltskin," "Sleeping Beauty"); and contemporary American myths (the American Dream, Feminine Beauty, Romantic Love). Within this broad context, Song of Solomon focuses on two key stories: Song of Songs and the myth of the flying Africans.

Morrison's third novel takes its title from Song of Songs, the twenty-second book of the Old Testament, comprised of a collection of love songs presented in the form of a dialogue between two lovers. The lovers are generally identified as King Solomon, the third king of Israel, renowned for his wisdom and gift of self-expression, and a Shulamite woman, possibly the legendary queen of Sheba, also known as the queen of the South, the Black Minerva, and Makeda, the Beautiful.

Song of Songs explores two people's love relationship and defines love as a powerful life-giving and life-sustaining force that begins with the mother/child relationship and branches out to encompass not only the lovers' families and society but plants, animals, and geography. The lovers are two individual people, but the eight songs, taken together, that comprise Song of Songs create a single, unified personality to which both lovers contribute.

Song of Songs is renowned for its sensual — and sometimes explicitly sexual — language, its lyricism, its surreal images, and its seemingly incongruous metaphors, which often merge images of the human body with nature imagery. For example, the bride describes her beloved as "an apple tree among the trees of the forest" and like a gazelle or a young stag. She describes herself as a "rose of Sharon, a lily growing in the valley" (Sharon refers to a fertile plain along the coast of ancient Palestine; it is also the name of a flowering bush). The bridegroom depicts his lover as a rare "lily among thorns." He praises the beauty of his beloved, who, he contends, rivals the beauty of nature. Her teeth are like a flock of ewes "newly shorn"; her breasts are like "twin fawns of a gazelle grazing among the lilies." She is an orchard "full of choice fruits" that he longs to enter. And her fragrance is like that of precious spices, including saffron, cinnamon, frankincense, and myrrh. The smell of such spices permeates Song of Solomon.

Song of Songs is also known for its ambiguous language, which has earned it a reputation as one of the most problematic biblical texts. Originally written in Hebrew, it presents a continuing challenge for biblical scholars seeking to translate the ancient text for modern readers. For example, one of its most controversial passages in many translations concerns a statement by the Shulamite woman, who describes herself as "black, but comely" (beautiful). Black scholars point out that instead of the subordinate conjunction "but," the original Hebrew text uses the coordinate conjunction "and," which profoundly changes the meaning of the phrase. "I am black, but beautiful" essentially means "Even though I am black, still I am beautiful," which implies that the speaker is defending her "inferior" racial status. Conversely, "I am black and beautiful" is an assertive statement that reflects positive human traits and values.

Over the years, scholars have offered various intriguing interpretations of these love songs. While some believe that the relationship between the two lovers signifies the relationship between God and humans, others believe it symbolizes the relationship between Christ and the church. Consequently, we can speculate that in Morrison's Song of Solomon, "Song" signifies the relationship between African Americans and their African ancestors. We can also speculate that the character of Pilate, repeatedly referred to as the "singing woman," is based on the biblical character of the Shulamite woman.

Scholars also argue that the term "lovers" can be translated as "friends" or "companions." Citing a passage in one edition in which the bride expresses a desire that her lover were "as my brother," they point out that the lovers, figuratively, are siblings. They also note that Song of Songs fulfills two functions: It conveys the lovers' emotions and critiques these emotions' meaning and value. Thus we can begin to draw significant parallels between the lovers in the Bible and the friends — Guitar and Milkman — in Morrison's novel.

Readers especially familiar with 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles, which focus on the history of King Solomon and his relationship with the queen of Sheba, will discover numerous other connections between the novel and these biblical texts. For example, in the novel, Pilate is depicted as a sheltering cedar tree, the same type of tree used to build Solomon's temples. Both Sheba, the "queen of the South," and Pilate, the "queen" of Southside, challenge the wisdom of the men — Solomon and Macon, respectively — who have established themselves as rulers of their respective kingdoms. Solomon and Macon suffer from a loss of spiritual faith: Both place excessive emphasis on property and material wealth, and both are noted for their sexual philandering. In fact, although sections of the Bible and Song of Solomon focus on the exploits and accomplishments of these two men, it is the two women — Sheba and Pilate — who wield the true power. Historians note that Sheba's material wealth and power far surpassed Solomon's, just as Pilate's spiritual wealth and power exceed Macon's.

The Myth of the Flying Africans

The myth of Solomon/Sugarman, "the Flying African," is based on a Yoruba folktale that originated among African storytellers and was brought to the United States by free Africans sold as slaves. The story, which centers on a witch doctor or conjure man who empowers enslaved Africans to fly back to Africa, became popular among slaves on the isolated Sea Islands off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina; for them, the story symbolized a means of escaping the cruelties of slavery.

Originally titled "All God's Chillun Had Wings," the story was first recorded in Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes, a book produced in the early 1900s by the Federal Writers' Project, an organization committed to, among its other projects, documenting the stories of African Americans that had been passed down to them by their ancestors, many of whom had been slaves. The story also appeared in The Book of Negro Folklore, a collection of folktales compiled by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, two African-American writers best known for their works published during New York's famous Harlem Renaissance (1915-35). A revised, contemporary version of the story, "People Who Could Fly," appears in Julius Lester's Black Folktales, published in 1969.

With its powerful imagery of overcoming and transcending the societal limits of race, sex, and class, flying is a central, symbolic element that reverberates throughout the novel. Song of Solomon alludes to numerous flights that highlight historical events or symbolize pivotal points in the characters' development. In feminist literature, flight is also a major theme that often includes images of broken-winged birds and crashing planes, symbolizing women's thwarted attempts to transcend their limited boundaries. In most cases, their efforts are thwarted by men and by their own lack of faith in their abilities. Although Song of Solomon features a male protagonist, it also focuses on the experiences of its female characters. Thus it is decidedly a "womanist" — the African-American equivalent of "feminist" — novel.