Summary and Analysis
Part 1: Chapter 6
During a Sunday afternoon conversation with Milkman at Mary's bar, Guitar tells Milkman that he took Hagar home after he found her at his place following her aborted attempt on Milkman's life. Milkman is uncomfortable talking about Hagar, especially after Guitar asks him what he did to hurt her so badly. To avoid further discussion of Hagar, Milkman asks Guitar about his recent strange, secretive behavior. Initially, Guitar denies Milkman's charge that he has been acting strangely, but finally he tells him about his involvement with the Seven Days, a black vigilante group that avenges the murders of blacks by methodically killing whites: Whenever a black man, woman, or child is killed by whites, the man assigned to the day on which the murder occurred is charged with killing a white man, woman, or child in the same manner as the black victim was killed.
Appalled by Guitar's revelation, Milkman tries to convince his friend that the Seven Days' actions are just as heinous as the unconscionable crimes committed by racist whites. Guitar counters that the Seven Days is a group of seven brave men dedicated to restoring justice and order to a corrupt, unjust society. Consequently, these men's actions are motivated by their love for black people, not by their hatred for whites. Milkman points out that there is no justification for murder and argues that if Guitar can arbitrarily kill innocent whites, he is equally capable of killing blacks. Guitar dismisses Milkman's concerns and accuses him of being worried only about himself. The conversation ends in a stalemate, with the friends expressing concern for each other's welfare.
Although perceived as a gang of vigilantes by outsiders, the Seven Days is patterned after the secret societies that fulfilled an important role in traditional African societies, such as that of the Ibo people, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. Among the Ibos, secret societies played a vital part in the community's traditional social and political structures: They were often called upon to settle community disputes. In important judicial matters, masked "ancestors" might appear and pronounce a verdict. Also, the Seven Days' practice of naming their members for the days of the week is an ironic reversal of a Jamaican custom in which the name that a child is given at birth depends on the day of the week on which it is born. Based on this premise, we can begin to see how the entire chapter turns on a series of reversals that attempt to establish a sequence of truths.
In debating the mission of the Seven Days, Guitar and Milkman focus on a critical issue that lies at the heart of the ongoing struggle for black civil and human rights: What tactics should African Americans use to secure their rights? In exploring this issue, the two men wrestle with the two opposing views of politics versus economics. Guitar, who has never enjoyed the luxury of a comfortable middle-class life, believes that blacks can win freedom and equality only through aggressive, revolutionary political tactics aimed at dismantling the racist white power structure. Milkman, whose outlook on life has been influenced by his father's prosperity and materialistic values, thinks that economics is the means necessary for blacks to gain rights: If they can make enough money, they can buy their way into white society. However, in Guitar and Milkman's debate, which examines some of the key arguments that have been raging among black leaders for decades, each man has only part of the answer. Attempting to resolve the "race problem" requires attention to both politics and economics, as well as to such issues as personal choice, moral responsibility, and respect — including self-respect, respect for black women, and a dedication and commitment to the black community.
The heated discussion between Milkman and Guitar also demonstrates Morrison's ability to combine disparate elements of form, content, and style to create a new narrative structure. By skillfully combining the rhetorical elements of reason and logic with conflicting views on race, religion, politics, and economics, she crafts an argument that, although riddled with logical fallacies, seems perfectly logical.
Guitar begins by establishing a syllogism — a form of argument used in deductive reasoning — in which he argues that because killing innocent people is murder, and because whites are killing innocent people, therefore all whites are murderers. When Milkman exposes Guitar's logic as flawed because the Seven Days' members are emulating the behavior of white racists by killing innocent people, Guitar changes his tactics. He argues that there are no innocent white people: Because all white people belong to a violent, "unnatural" race, they are all potential murderers. Therefore, they are all guilty and must be stopped before they have a chance to inflict more damage. Here, Guitar's argument reflects the philosophy of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, which holds that the ultimate goal of whites is the annihilation of the black race, a philosophy designed to counter the ignorant white supremacist philosophy that blacks are a genetically inferior people who, even if exposed to the advantages of white society, will eventually revert to their uncivilized ways.
Milkman again points out the flaws in Guitar's argument. The Seven Days is no better than politically motivated vigilante groups such as the Mafia or hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Guitar argues that the Mafia "kills for money" and the Klan "kills for fun"; the Seven Days, however, kills for love.
Sensing that he cannot make Guitar understand the fallacy of his argument by appealing to his sense of morality, Milkman appeals to his sense of self-preservation. At this point, the debate takes an interesting turn as Guitar, who has thus far espoused the philosophy Malcolm X held prior to the black leader's renunciation of the Black Muslims, begins to advocate the philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When Guitar asserts, "And how I die or when doesn't interest me. What I die for does," he is essentially paraphrasing Dr. King: "The quality, not the longevity, of one's life is what is important. . . . For if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live."
Although Guitar advocates his — and Malcolm's — philosophy of retribution and armed resistance, he espouses Dr. King's philosophy of nonviolence and passive resistance. However, when Milkman accuses Guitar of sounding like Malcolm X, Guitar responds that the Seven Days isn't determined to change "slave names" but to change "slave status," a response that reveals his misunderstanding of the true mission of both Malcolm X and Dr. King. Although these two black leaders' tactics were radically different, both fought for the social, political, and economic equality of black people; both advocated self-help as a major step toward black empowerment; and both struggled to promote awareness of the global dimensions of poverty and racism. (Ironically, each man was assassinated at age thirty-nine.) Finally, when Milkman tries to convince Guitar that violence isn't the answer, Guitar resorts to the logical fallacies of circular reasoning — "The Days are the Days" — and of a priori reasoning, or reasoning based on the assumption that the longer a belief is held, the more valid that belief must be — "It's been that way a long time."
Although Guitar displays a brilliant gift for debate and fiery rhetoric, his fatally flawed argument is based not on reason and logic but on ignorance and emotion, accentuated by youthful arrogance. Relying on his own limited life experiences and supported by superficial research, he has gleaned just enough information to substantiate his own biased views. Consequently, he is just as guilty of distorting the truth as are the whites he despises and condemns for their racist, narrow-minded views. Additionally, he reveals that his thinking concerning whites is based on the same flawed premise as Hagar's thinking concerning Milkman: If he can't get the respect he wants from whites, he'll settle for their fear.
The number seven has numerous symbolic connotations. For example, the Seven Days is a reversal of the Creation story in the book of Genesis, in which God creates the world in seven days: Instead of seven days of creation, we have seven days of destruction. And because Guitar's day — Sunday — is the seventh day, traditionally considered a holy day of rest and reflection, arguably his position in the group is the most radical.
Within the context of African-American history, the number seven designates the conflicting predicament of the black race, especially in America. For example, in his book of collected essays, The Souls of Black Folk, the renowned scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois describes the Negro as the "seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world." Du Bois contends that the black man in white America, forced to come to terms with this limiting vision of himself, is "always looking at [himself] through the eyes of others, measuring [his] soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." He concludes that in order to survive, black Americans must reconcile themselves to a dual existence as "an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
Within the context of the 1960's Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the number seven assumes yet another dimension. A case in point is the riot at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. The riot, which resulted in over a thousand injured people and more than six hundred arrests, culminated in the indictment of eight people — known as the Chicago Eight — on charges of conspiracy to incite. Later, the case of Bobby Seale, cofounder with Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a black nationalist group that came to be known simply as the Black Panthers, was separated from that of the others; Seale was singled out for special punishment. Consequently, the Chicago Eight became the Chicago Seven. From this perspective, Guitar's tirade on self-defense and retribution also incorporates the philosophy of the Black Panthers, best summarized by Newton's explanation of why the group chose the black panther as its symbol: "The nature of the panther is that he never attacks. But if anyone attacks him or backs him into a corner, the panther comes up to wipe that aggressor or attacker out, absolutely, resolutely, wholly, thoroughly, and completely."
Note that we learn more information concerning Mr. Smith and his ill-fated flight, and Porter's drunken tirade. Both men were members of the Seven Days, but the pressure of killing got to both of them — Mr. Smith permanently, Porter only temporarily. Guitar suggests that if a member no longer can psychologically or emotionally handle killing, his only recourse is to kill himself: "And if it ever gets to be too much, like it was for Robert Smith, we do that rather than crack and tell somebody."
a white robe Milkman's reference to a white robe can be interpreted two ways: an angel's robe, or a Klansman's.
potbellied stove popular in the 1930s, a cast-iron stove having a round chamber — a "pot belly" — in which wood or coal is burned.
Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) French philosopher and theologian; awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She was known for her outspoken advocacy and support of the struggle for equality and race relations.
chromosomes strands of DNA that carry hereditary genes. Guitar reverses the white-supremacist argument that characteristics such as intelligence are race-based and genetically determined.
that red-headed Negro named X refers to Malcolm X (1925–65), formerly Malcolm Little (the letter X designates a rejection of his slave name). Malcolm X was a Black Nationalist leader during the 1960s. As a member of the Black Muslims (Nation of Islam), he supported the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, which held that all whites are "devils." In 1964, Malcolm made a pilgrimage to Mecca; upon his return to the United States, he changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, renounced the Black Muslims, and founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was assassinated on February 21, 1965, in Harlem, New York.