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Black Experience and Black Identity Construction

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One ever feels his twoness, — 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. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost… He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American.

–W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

This quote from Du Bois describes what he termed “double consciousness,” which is the idea that blacks must understand their own unique American identity by simultaneously seeing themselves in two separate ways: first, as black, with their own unique cultural traditions and history, and second, in the manner that whites would view them. Having to experience life through a split identity produces unique tensions and challenges that must be overcome in order for a black member functioning within the larger, more dominant white society to construct his or her own self-concept. In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, the main male character, Milkman, must come to an understanding of his family’s historical and cultural past in order to truly understand himself. However, it is not just Milkman who must learn to deal with a sense of double consciousness: all of the black main characters are linked together as a part of the same cultural community. By highlighting the struggles and oppression faced by African-Americans trying to understand their own identity in relation to the broader white society, Song of Solomon is able to function as a black narrative. In this essay, I will explore the use of double consciousness along with other various elements utilized by Morrison to allow this book to function as a piece of black literature containing a distinctive historical and cultural story of the black experience in America.

Song of Solomon is representative of black literature because many of its themes, motifs, and symbols emphasize the journey of black integration into white society in America. Morrison’s book creates “an honest appraisal of both past and present [and] define[s] both an individual and collective memory that [takes] into account their rights as American citizens and their unique experience as a race of people who shared a history of oppression” (Kirschke 20). This journey from oppression and division to freedom and unity is a story and experience unique to the black racial community and is characterized within Song of Solomon, thus allowing the novel to function as a piece of black literature.

The presentation of the black characters in this book serves as a representation of the black experience in America by exemplifying a sense of double consciousness. Morrison’s main characters are all black, and whites only operate on the fringes of the story as instigators of violence responsible for the deaths of Guitar’s father and Milkman’s grandfather, the murder of Emmett Till, and the Birmingham church bombing. Because these events occur outside of the main narrative frame of the story, it becomes evident that the focalization of the entire story is from a black perspective representing the entire black racial community. Furthermore, placing the violence of the whites on the outer edge of the black narrative creates a contrast between the white and black racial communities, stressing the social and historical tension between these communities. Race then becomes a dominant theme throughout the entire novel, as the characters in the story, especially Milkman, must create an identity capable of expressing who they truly are as a black community.

The black characters are most notably representative of the black experience in America in the way they are portrayed as having a double consciousness; they are not necessarily aware of that double consciousness, but the reader is able to recognize it nonetheless. For instance, when the characters of Ruth Dead and Pilate are first introduced, obvious contrasts are created by the way they are dressed: “The singer [Pilate], standing at the back of the crowd, was as poorly dressed as the doctor’s daughter was well dressed” (Morrison 5). These differences create a gap in the social status of two women of the same race, demonstrating a theme of inequality. This inequality is able to generate a significant division within the black racial community, which allows it to mirror many of the traditional divisions between whites and blacks.

One interpretation of the contrasts and divisions found in the novel suggests that Macon Dead’s household can serve as a symbol expressing a degree of whiteness, or even that the family can serve as a symbol of the white race because of Macon Dead’s obsession with control, oppression, and material wealth. Pilate, on the other hand can be viewed as a symbol of blackness or the black race, as she is the character often portrayed singing traditional African-American songs; moreover, her household emphasizes the dynamics of a close-knit family, with three generations living together in the same house. Macon Dead and his sister, Pilate, are obvious foils for one another. This is especially apparent when Macon explains to Milkman, “Pilate can’t teach you a thing you can use in this world. Maybe the next, but not this one. Let me tell you right now the one important thing you’ll ever need to know: Own things.” (Morrison 55). These lines show the disparity between the worldview of two siblings raised under identical circumstances. Macon believes that his sister’s values and lifestyle are not desirable for his son to imitate in any way; therefore, Macon is trying to alienate Milkman from his own black race. This alienation has already occurred in Macon’s life, as evidenced by his claim about the importance of owning things. Macon’s obsession with ownership shows that he has adopted white cultural norms into his identity and has estranged himself from the link to his own historical connection with the black community (Terry 100).

The characters of Milkman and Guitar are also able to comment on the black community. These two characters serve as foils for one another, with contrasting worldviews that emphasize the historical divisions and social tensions that have traditionally existed between the white and black racial communities. Milkman’s worldview, much like his father’s, symbolizes whiteness in his inability to relate to his community and his ambivalence toward his own racial identity. Guitar, however, is able to understand his own black racial identity, taking it to the extreme of joining the Seven Days terrorist group because he is unable to construct any understanding of relating to the white community.

The setting and landscape found in Song of Solomon are able to function as a metaphor for telling the story of black Americans and their cultural and historical past. Morrison’s use of setting and landscape to comment on a black past is apparent in the very first sentence of the book, which states, “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’ clock” (Morrison 3). By using a North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent along with his flight from the top of Mercy Hospital in Michigan, the setting of this book is able to blend together aspects of the North (Michigan) and South (North Carolina), just as the black characters in the book are also tied to the North and South. The idea that Mr. Smith is planning on flying to Canada is significant with regard to the historical past of blacks, as Canada represented a place of escape from the slavery found predominantly in the South. Another example of blending the North and South occurs when discussing the mail addressed to Doctor Street: “Later, when other Negroes moved there and when the postal service became a popular means of transferring messages among them, envelopes from Louisiana, Virginia, Alabama, and Georgia began to arrive addressed to people at house numbers on Doctor Street” (Morrison 4). Here the letters sent to Michigan are able to serve as a material link to the South, where many of the blacks originally migrated from and where most of their histories are rooted (Terry 97).

Setting also plays a major role in establishing the differences between Macon Dead and his sister, Pilate, and the ways in which the communities they live in serve to represent the North and South even though they both live in the same town. Those who visited Macon Dead’s house often “envied the doctor’s big dark house of twelve rooms and the green sedan” (Morrison 9). Macon Dead is a self-made man whose lucrative investments in property allow his family to enjoy an upper-middle class lifestyle in an affluent neighborhood. This contrasts with the poor run-down setting where his sister lives in Southside, a predominantly black neighborhood. Pilate’s house is described as a “narrow single-story house” that “had no electricity” (Morrison 27). The stark differences between these two settings seem to metaphorically imply the cultural differences between the North and South, with Macon Dead symbolizing the North and Pilate signifying the South (Terry 100).

Other elements that qualify Song of Solomon as a work of black literature are the black cultural staples evident throughout the entire novel: for example, music, the motif of flight, and the use of traditional family structures. Music has a long history in the African tradition dating back to songs that told the history of a tribe. This idea seems to have carried over into American history during the time of slavery, when slaves used to sing songs to embrace their racial identity and past. Singing was also used as a literal talking cure for slaves, who would sing about what they desired to have most of all: freedom (Visvis 19). Therefore, this tradition of singing has much historical and cultural meaning to the black community. In Song of Solomon, Pilate is often singing the song “Sugarman,” which demonstrates the motif of flight, which in turn holds historical and cultural significance to the black community. During the days of slavery, blacks often created myths using the flight motif as a way of escaping slavery (Lee 64). The fact that Pilate is singing a song about flight shows the significance of myth and the motif of flight to the black community. The theme of flight is also one of the major themes of the book, as Milkman leaves the North in search of his true identity. Throughout the book, the motif of family life is also seen as being significant in conditioning the characters for how they will come to understand the world (Gilroy 191). Milkman’s privileged upper-middle class life characterizes his ambivalence to understanding his own race and himself. Likewise, Hagar’s family life without a father seems to lead to her obsession with loving Milkman. Guitar’s family life, including the death of his father as the result of a white man’s negligence, leads to his joining the Seven Days group.

The black experience found in Song of Solomon is apparent in the portrayal of characters, the use of landscape, and the use of black culture, including music, myth, and the motif of flight. These elements all convey a sense of black identity and racial community that is distinct from the white racial community. Morrison’s use of double consciousness in the novel allows the reader to understand how characters who are polar opposites of each other — such as Macon and Pilate, Ruth and Pilate, and Guitar and Milkman — are able to tell the story of black Americans. These characters, although all are black, are able to represent divisions, such as white and black and North and South, that characterize the cultural, social, and historical identity of the black racial community from a definitively black perspective.

Works Cited

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ., 2000. Print.

Kirschke, Amy Helene. Art in Crisis: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Struggle for African American Identity and Memory. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana UP, 2007. Print.

Lee, Dorothy H. “Song of Solomon: To Ride the Air.” Black American Literature Forum 16.2 (1982). JSTOR. Web. 28 Apr. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2904138>.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Print.

Terry, Jennifer. “Buried perspectives: Narratives of landscape in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” Narrative Inquiry 17.1 (2007): 93-118. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 28 April 2010.

Visvis, Vikki. “Alternatives to the ‘Talking Cure’: Black Music as Traumatic Testimony in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” African American Review 42.2 (2008): 255-268. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 28 April 2010.

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