Summary and Analysis
Part 2: Chapter 12
Milkman visits Susan Byrd, who tells him only that her father, Crowell Byrd, had a sister named Sing. On his way back to town, Milkman runs into Guitar, who accuses him of trying to cheat him out of the gold. Guitar warns Milkman that he still intends to kill him, but on his own time, and only after Milkman has received the gold, which Guitar believes Milkman shipped from Danville to Shalimar. Milkman is unable to convince Guitar otherwise. He returns to Shalimar, spends the night with Sweet, and dreams of flying.
The next morning, Milkman goes back to Solomon's store to see if his car has been repaired. As he waits, he listens to the town's children singing Solomon's song, which includes the names Solomon, Jay (Jake), Heddy, and Ryna; the song begins to make sense to him — these are the names of his ancestors. Excited, he decides to revisit Susan Byrd for more information.
Susan Byrd's house, with its brick front, white picket fence, and "four little steps painted blue," evokes the all-American red, white, and blue imagery introduced in Chapter 1. But here again, the American Dream has fallen short of its promise. Susan Byrd's "people" have all left Shalimar and are "passing" as white because of their light skin. Like Macon, Susan has only the empty trappings of success. Despite the illusions of flight associated with her — suggested by the gray velvet wing-back chair in which Milkman sits — this Byrd is unable to fly. Although Susan is a direct descendant of people who could fly, she has lost those magical powers.
Morrison delights in systematically setting up and demolishing readers' expectations. We are met with the smell of gingerbread baking, but the "witch" who lives in this gingerbread house prefers pale butter cookies and coffee with both cream and sugar — symbolic of Susan's relatives passing as white. The smell of ginger recalls the same smell earlier at Circe's mansion and, at night, in Southside. And although the child's swing hanging from the cedar tree suggests the presence of children, all children are long gone.
As Milkman learns compassion, he becomes whole. Although he leaves Susan's house feeling "tired and off center," for the first time in his life he feels a genuine, positive connection to his black heritage and to the people of Shalimar. Morrison writes of him, "He didn't feel close to them, but he did feel connected, as though there was some cord or pulse or information they shared." And when he sees Guitar waiting for him, he is calm and surprised at the "complete absence of fear" in himself. Milkman is now an adult who faces conflicts rationally rather than emotionally — and rather than running away.
Back in Shalimar, as Milkman listens to the children singing Solomon's song, he thinks about his past. He sympathizes with his mother and her forced twenty-year celibacy; he understands more fully his father, whose materialism Milkman now sees as "homage" to Macon's own father, the founder of Lincoln's Heaven; and he becomes ashamed of his treatment of Pilate and Hagar. He also realizes that he has no reason to hate his sisters. When he catches a glimpse of himself in the plate-glass window of Solomon's store, he sees a reflection of himself that is not distorted or fragmented: "He was grinning. His eyes were shining. He was as eager and happy as he had ever been in his life."
ridge here, a chain of hills.
wing-back chair a high-backed chair from which enclosing side pieces are attached.
normal school a school that trains teachers for the elementary grades.
Quakers the Society of Friends, a religious denomination. Quakers were instrumental in helping runaway slaves reach freedom in the North.
okra a pod-shaped vegetable, commonly grown in the South.
fluted plates plates whose edges are grooved, like the outer crust of a pie.
stove eye slang for a stove's opening.