Summary and Analysis
Part 2: Chapter 14
Milkman returns to Susan Byrd's house to ask her about Jake, and Susan tells him the story of Jake's father, Solomon, the Flying African. She also tells Milkman that although the townspeople were led to believe that Sing Byrd (whose real name was Singing Bird) left Shalimar to attend a private Quaker school in Boston, she actually ran off with Jake and a wagonload of ex-slaves, supposedly headed for Boston. Since Jake couldn't read, perhaps he mistakenly took a wrong turn and ended up in Pennsylvania.
Susan also tells Milkman the story of Solomon's wife, Ryna, who went mad when Solomon flew off, leaving her behind. As a result, Heddy, an old Indian woman, raised Jake, the youngest of Solomon's twenty-one children and the only one whom Solomon tried to take with him when he flew away. Heddy was devastated when Sing and Jake ran away, leaving her alone with her youngest son, Crowell Byrd (originally named Crow Bird), Susan's father.
When Milkman returns to Susan Byrd's house, he notices that it looks "different": The white picket fence is flaked, peeling, and in need of repair, and the blue steps leading to the porch are faded into a "watery gray." Whereas on his first visit he focused on the house with its white picket fence, this time he focuses on the cedar tree standing in the yard and notices that it looks like "the leg of an ancient elephant"; in the previous chapter, Pilate was referred to as being "like an elephant." The little house, which had initially impressed Milkman with its trappings of success, now appears to him as gray and faded, indicating that he is more aware and critical of the mythological American Dream and is prepared to begin his search for more spiritually substantial values. For example, Milkman's final disinterest in recovering his gold watch from Grace Long indicates not only that he is willing to give up his material possessions but that he is moving closer to Pilate, who tells time by the sun and, as Guitar notes, is "not a clock person."
As Susan tells Milkman the story of her grandmother, Heddy, her father, Crowell Byrd, and her aunt, Singing Bird, she reveals her contempt for Jake, whom she refers to as "Jake. Black Jake. Black as coal." She makes no attempts to hide her color prejudice. Consequently, when Milkman realizes that he is related to Susan through Heddy, he doesn't reveal his newfound knowledge and lets Susan believe that he is just a stranger and not a "new-found relative who was as black as Jake." As revealed in Chapter 12, Susan is ashamed of her black and Indian blood and takes pride in the fact that her "people" can "pass" for white. But although she has tried her best to erase her past, her efforts have been in vain: Grace knows the truth, Milkman has discovered her secret, and the cedar tree — symbolic of Pilate — bears witness to her true roots.
The stories of the Flying African and Ryna's Gulch are two more examples of Morrison's genius in combining disparate elements of myth and oral tradition to create contemporary fiction. Also, by contrasting the fantastic events that took place in Shalimar, which have not been documented but exist in the memories of the people who learned about them through stories from those who witnessed them, Morrison again contrasts oral tradition — "re-memory" — with recorded "history." The book-length study Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes contains numerous accounts of flying Africans told by various inhabitants of the Georgia coastal regions, and Morrison herself recalls hearing these stories from her grandmother. One of the stories in Drums and Shadows focuses on a woman named Ryna, whose mother flew back to Africa, leaving her daughter behind. The book also includes a story about a slave ship about to be caught by a revenue boat. To avoid paying taxes on their cargo of about fifty slaves, the slave runners tied rocks around the slaves' necks and threw them overboard. According to local legend, the cries of the drowned slaves, like the weeping sounds echoing in Ryna's Gulch, can still be heard today.
As we observe Milkman listening to Susan Byrd's "gossip, stories, legends, [and] speculations," eventually piecing together a story that makes sense to him, we realize that he is participating in the storytelling process and contributing to the legacy of oral tradition by adding his story to those created by his ancestors. But Susan Byrd has become so disconnected from her roots and so adept at hiding her family's secrets by inventing her own stories that she is completely oblivious to the rich heritage inherent in the stories she tells Milkman. What's more, having consistently devalued and discounted her family's history, she is unaware of the vital role she herself is playing in continuing the tradition of creating a master tale — composed of collective experiences, including songs, poems, and personal stories — by repeating the stories handed down to her by her ancestors. Consequently, after telling Milkman the magical stories of Solomon and Ryna, she demonstrates her disinterest and detachment by commenting that Shalimar is a "dull place": "There's absolutely nothing in the world going on here. Not a thing." Ironically, she's completely wrong: Life is going on.