Defining Moments in Song of Solomon, Push, and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas
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- Length: 3596 words (10.3 double-spaced pages)
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For those who bask in the light of privilege in the dominant culture, they take for granted their right to assert themselves and to be acknowledged as "somebody who matters". For those who live in the shadowy margins (such as the American poor and/or minorities), they experience the systematic denial of the basic human rights - to live at one's fullest potential, in other words, an outright denial from living a "dignified life". Such a denial might cause one to feel "voiceless and choiceless" (Objective 1b). It has been the minority's experience, (historically and in the present day) that the right to achieve one's full potential is kept just out of reach. Minorities must first fight for survival. Then, if there is enough energy and hope remaining, they can strive to utilize vehicles of assimilation or resistance (Objective 4) in order to carve a place for themselves in the world. However, this does not mean that a full realization of the "American dream" is even possible. For every small victory, there remains a bitter aftertaste. In other words, for every step gained, there is a "personal or cultural sacrifice" (Objective 4). Meanwhile, on the journey to freedom, the individual is plagued with 'ghosts' of the past. These 'hauntings' can appear in the form of individual/family oppression: (knowledge of emotional pain, physical violence) or in the form of a historical haunting: (i.e. knowledge that your ancestor was a slave; the traditional family unit broken)(Objective 3). These disturbances continue to surface and demand to be worked through, thus a 'haunting' is another factor that holds one back from achieving their full potential.
Whether oppression comes from a large, historical institution such as slavery, or from inter-family abuse, it is the process of suppression that I am exploring in this essay. The process of oppression is where families or institutions withhold or prevent one's self-worth or self-identity to develop. I will explore the personal journeys of the following characters; 1) Frederick Douglas from The Classic Slave Narratives, 2) Milkman from Song of Solomon, 3) Precious from Push, noting how they all share a common path through the darkness of oppression towards the ability to assert their self-identity.
On this path, each character has numerous defining moments. In fact, there were so many important moments that I found it difficult to choose just one for each character. Therefore, I have isolated some significant moments and decided to group them into three "topics" listed below:
1. "Doomed Beginnings" and "First Memories"
2. "Survival" and "Hope"
3. "Last Straws" and "Conclusions"
By using these topics as a framework, it helped me to organize these important moments of character development since the plots often did not follow an incremental time frame.
Part 1- Doomed Beginnings and First Memories
Upon examining each character's beginnings, I'd like to explore the push-pull tension between being "wanted" and, yet "unwanted" at birth. In Frederick Douglas' narrative, it is unknown whether or not his birth was welcomed. However, I believe we can infer from the scant details in the text, that he was indeed loved by his mother. Douglas recalled how his mother managed to sneak back to the plantation to be with him four to five times before she died. This would have been done at considerable risk to her own safety. As for his relationship with his father, Douglas heard a rumor from other slaves on the plantation that his master was also his father, although this was never confirmed. Assuming this was true, Douglas was probably both an embarrassment and a property asset to his father. Particularly if Douglas resembled his father's features in any way; he would have served as a constant reminder of the tabooed sexual relationship between his father and mother. Additionally, Douglas received house duty early on in his life; an assignment often viewed as one of privilege. It is a known fact, that children of master-slave relationships were likely to be assigned to indoor work, rather than harsh field work, as their part-white status should have suited them for more refined work. I believe that Douglas was wanted by his father, not as a loved son, but rather to be a product of "breeding", or chattel.
Milkman, too, was both 'wanted' and 'unwanted'. Before Milkman's conception, the love between Ruth and Macon had already died. Then, Pilate and Ruth conspired to use a magical potion to entice Macon to sleep with his wife one last time. Milkman's conception was noted to be the last time his father and mother had sexual relations. Pilate and Ruth resorted to trickery as Pilate thought Ruth should give Macon a son. Pilate was depending on Milkman continue the family line; "He ought to have a son. Otherwise, this be the end of us." (Morrison, 125) Upon learning that Ruth was pregnant with Milkman, Macon wanted to kill him before he was born. Macon didn't want to strengthen his ties any further to family obligation. Considering the painful separation from his own father by murder, and the choice to separate from Pilate shortly thereafter, these were events propelled Macon to focus on self-survival. Rather than focussing on "people" he chose to focus upon an object: wealth and power.
Sapphire's character, Precious, was perhaps 'wanted' and 'unwanted'. However, her mother's "wanting" must be clarified. Precious' mother wanted her because her existence could get her "things" in life. As Macon was to his money; Precious' mother also used her as an object. For example, Precious' birth was supposed to bring her mother marriage bliss. When that plan fell through, Precious became "unwanted", so she gave Carl permission to sexually abuse her. Precious' sexuality was the collateral that kept Carl coming back. Precious also served her mother in other ways, (such as cook, for sexual gratification and as a welfare asset), but never as a loved daughter. Meanwhile, there isn't any evidence that Precious' father ever attempted to fulfill that role as a loving father figure. I think it is safe to assume that he never wanted her as a daughter.
In addition to having a precarious status, ('wanted' and 'unwanted), Precious, Douglas and Milkman also share a common theme as they recall their first memories. The common factor in each character's memory is one in which violence is normalized and routinized. These first memories of violent acts were defining moments in their lives. As each character tries to make sense of their chaotic beginnings, they return to these first memories as they serve as a root source for their troubled lives. One of Douglas' first memories was one where he remembers witnessing the whipping of his Aunt Hestor. Her master held Hestor as a "kept" woman because of her striking beauty. This lent her some special protections and privileges. However, her beauty and status did not protect her from her master's violence. Upon witnessing the whipping, Douglas was "terrified, and horror-stricken at the sight. I expected it would be my turn next". (Douglas, 259) At this moment, his world-view changes. He realizes the instability of his own safety. From this moment on, he realizes that his every move would be scrutinized and punishment could be meted out at the tiniest perceived infraction.
The routinized violence in Milkman's house stems from his and his father's relationship with Ruth. The first incident can be categorized as a 'disturbance', rather than a clear-cut case of abuse. This was the moment when Milkman discovered that he was (perhaps) too old to continue to breastfeed. The act of being caught by Freddie, in what was seemingly a taboo situation, was a moment where his mother's guilt met with Milkman's suspicions that these afternoons with his mother were "strange and wrong". (Morrison, 14) In fact, the reader is never really clear about where to situate Ruth, in terms of sexual abuse. Did she have an unnatural, sexual relationship with her father? Was breastfeeding Milkman abusive? These lines of demarcation are unclear as Morrison keeps the answers to these questions fuzzy. In the end, the truth of whether she was or wasn't/did or didn't, doesn't actually matter because Milkman and Macon use their own interpretations of Ruth's past to keep themselves at a distance from her.
However, not only does Macon use his assumptions about Ruth to emotionally distance himself from her and the family, he also uses his assumptions to justify his physical abuse against her. As a youngster, Milkman doesn't realize that his family environment is oppressive and disjointed until he visits Pilate's house for the first time. With Pilate, he feels alive for the very first time. "Milkman was five feet seven then but it was the first time in his life that he remembered being completely happy. Sitting comfortably in the notorious wine house; he was surrounded by women who seemed to enjoy him and who laughed out loud. And he was in love. No wonder his father was afraid of them." (Morrison, 47). From the first experience at Pilate's house, he understands how his father's violence and silence controls everyone's destiny in his house. Throughout the story Milkman continues to defy his father by going back to Pilate's house because she is the most important actor who will help him reconnect to the past and control his own future. Even though Precious couldn't remember any time in her life when she wasn't being sexually abused, a defining moment in her life occurred at a point when she could no longer separate the abuse that occurred at night from the 'ordinariness' of the day. The two halves of her reality became inseparable. She could not carry on with ordinary tasks such as the second grade exercises, as it all seemed absurd and pointless compared to the suffering she was enduring at home. Her suffering caused her to withdraw from children and other their activities. She felt alone and monumentally different from them. The violence had become normalized as a tragic "constant" in her life, something horrible she could count on to occur.
Part 2- "Survival and Hope"
This seems like a natural transition point to begin a discussion about each character's defining moments which can be categorized as "survival" and "hope". As I mentioned in the beginning, "survival" is often the first obstacle a minority must overcome above all pursuits. Additionally, these two concepts have a direct relationship to one another. Once each character finds a ray of hope, they grasp onto it with all their strength. However, "hope" is more than just a spirited emotion. Hope has fashioned itself into a tool, such as literacy, to be utilized for survival and to build self-confidence. For five days a week, school was a place where Precious could go to get away from her mother at least for a few hours. Home symbolized chaos while the routine of school brought order to her life. Precious knew if something was going to happen to change her situation, it would most likely happen at school; "somebody gonna (sic) break through to me-I'm gonna learn, catch up, be normal, change my seat to the front of the class."
(Sapphire, 40) Then, Precious was removed from I.S. 146, but was given a second chance to attend an alternative school. "I don't know what alternative is, but I feel I want to know" (Sapphire, 16). Precious decides to try something different by checking into this new school. Then, at the school she decides to take a seat in the front row. These two defining moments are important because rather than hoping for a change to happen to her. Precious begins to be more proactive towards changing her situation. These first two decisions might seem subtle and yet, deliberate. Even though these decisions occur in a fraction of a second, it is the ability to make these choices that are the essential keys for her success. The ability to make small choices gives her confidence to make larger choices. Hope is no longer Precious' passive wish, but rather through choice, she becomes the master of her destiny. Her first major victory follows shortly after her first subtle choice (to take a seat in the first row). Precious said: "I want to cry. I want to laugh. I want to hug kiss Miz Rain. (sic) She make me feel good. I never read nuffin' before." (sic) (Sapphire, 54-55). Hence, a pattern of empowerment began to emerge: the ability to choose leads to rewards.
Empowerment at the alternative school finally begins to deliver on her hopes for an improved mode of survival. Precious recognized the power of literacy. "Them letters make up words. Them words everything." (sic) (Sapphire, 66) This power also became equally clear to Frederick Douglas. Upon accidentally learning from Mr. Auld that literacy was believed to ruin a slave's disposition, "making him discontented and unhappy"(Douglas, 275). He immediately recognized a connection between his condition as a slave and the role that literacy played in keeping him there. The knowledge gained by knowing words separated the slave from his/her master. This was a defining moment in Douglas' career. White man's literacy (ability to think critically and to rationalize their position of power) enabled white people to oppress and enslave an entire race of people: "I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty -to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly." (ibid) He reasoned that if words had the awesome power to enslave, they must also have the awesome power to make oneself free. So, he decided right at that moment that he would secretly continue to learn how to read. Rather than hoping for kindness in his masters, he most desired to become his own master.
The desire to become one's own master was also Milkman's goal. Everyone expected something from him: as a son, as a lover, as the family's hope and future. Guitar was the one who brought this fact to Milkman's attention; "I don't mean they want your dead life; they want your living life...Look. It's the condition our condition is in. Everybody wants the life of the black man. Everybody." (Morrison, 222) However, Milkman wants to be independent from his family and not be obligated to fulfill everyone else's needs. This conversation between Guitar and Milkman was a defining moment in Milkman's career. It propelled him to begin a quest to claim his own life.
Shortly after this conversation with Guitar, he decided to go on a journey to find Pilate's gold. (At this point, he is still 'thinking like his father' in that wealth is the perfect vehicle for independence.) When his journey doesn't lead to the gold, but rather to his "people", that's when Milkman starts to realize that through reconnecting to the past this will ultimately empower him the ability to choose his own life. During Milkman's youth, he doesn't fully understand why he likes to go to Pilate's house. As time passes, it becomes clear that Pilate is Milkman's thread of hope. He needs her to help him complete the circle in order to find himself. She also holds the clues to the past that will unlock and determine his future.
Part 3- "Last Straws" and conclusion
The final section of this essay is concerned with "last straws" or, in other words, the dramatic moments that propel each character towards a point of no return. These are decisive moments as they come to an impasse in the road. They know they cannot keep going on as things currently are; there must be a change. The courage to make a change takes every ounce of emotional and physical will. Also, change means taking a risk to face an unknown future. In this context, the characters have "no choice" when facing these moments, as they are literally life or death choices. They are forced break through the impasse. By breaking through, they surpass the mode of mere "survival". Then, when they are confident enough, they can go onto the next stage of their lives which is asserting their right to be treated with decency or to gain independence.
Precious' 'last straw moment' occurs the night she brings Abdul home from the hospital. As Precious enters the house, her mother flies into a rage about getting cut off from welfare and man-stealing. Precious was probably facing another hefty beating, when suddenly, Precious decided to run away. She left her mother's house that night forever. However, on her way out the door, she finally stands up to her mother; "Nigger rape me. I not steal shit fat bitch your husband RAPE me RAPE ME!" (sic) (Sapphire, 74). This is an important moment in Precious' career because up until this point in the text, Precious' anger towards her mother was always kept to herself. She had to muster up all her self-confidence to break her silence and stand up to her mother. This was the first and last outburst where Precious was able to fight back (verbally and symbolically). On this night, Precious claimed her life back.
Similarly, Douglas was pushed to the point of no return at the hand of Mr. Covey. One day, Covey had worked Douglas so hard that he collapsed. When Douglas was unable to gather enough strength to get up, Covey began to beat him mercilessly. Douglas managed to run away for 24 hours only to return the next day to face further punishment for disobeying and running away. At that moment Douglas recalled thinking; "from whence came the spirit I don't know - I resolved to fight" (Douglas, 298). For two hours, fighting is exactly what commenced between Douglas and Covey. Douglas triumphed in the end and remembered this moment as a "turning point in his career" (ibid). The act of winning the fight lifted his spirit up and delivered it to freedom. Douglas' words in this passage describe the moment so eloquently: "I felt as I had never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I not resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact." (Douglas, 299) In other words, his body might be enslaved, but in his mind he was free; he took ownership of his life and could choose to die rather than to be whipped again. This moment also rekindled plans to escape and gave him the determination to finally succeed.
Milkman, too, didn't "own" his life until he could truly give it away. Milkman's 'last straw' moment came at the very end of the book as he faced down Guitar's shotgun. The ending of this book is not about which character winds up killing or living. Instead, it was more about Milkman's final claim to ownership of his life. At one moment, he was willing to give up his life to Guitar: "You want me? Huh? You want my life?"(Morrison, 337). Then in the next moment, his body language suggested that he changed his mind and withdrew the offer. Without speaking, he charged after Guitar (presumably to try to kill him). Milkman could only "own" his own life upon the moment when he could "choose what he wanted to die for" (Morrison 223). Those were Guitar's words earlier in the text, as they were a foreshadowing of what would be Milkman's last choice in this final scene. Milkman would rather die trying to kill Guitar rather than to run away from his own life.
As I conclude, I would like to briefly summarize each character's shared steps of self-realization; 1) the ability to make their own choices, 2) the
right to live a dignified life and, 3) ability to assert their own voices.
The starting point to personal freedom begins and (sometimes) ends with each character's spirit. As each character reached their breaking point, it forced them to put their lives at great risk in order for their spirit to be free. Freedom is defined in this context as first, "self-determination" and second, as "escape". First, a character must have self-confidence before an escape and be attempted successfully. In order build self-confidence, small decision-making must be experimented with; resulting in small victories. But before small decisions can be attempted, each character must have a relationship with hope and survival, as they are interdependent, (although survival is always the first order of business). Throughout the entire process, the past is like a 'ghost' as it always comes back to haunt each character. Since traditional family ties have been broken, the continuity of one's self-identity is also disrupted. These issues can never be fully resolved. First memories will continue to recycle through a greater self-narrative. These memories are plagued by extreme emotional and/or physical violence. Additionally, 'first starts' for each of the characters began on a shaky foundation. From birth, each character was torn between being 'wanted' and 'unwanted' by their parents. Despite the immense oppression and all these set backs, Milkman, Precious and Frederick Douglas won some major battles in the areas of self-confidence and outright courage, as they overcame enormous odds.
Douglas, Frederick. "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas" Gates, Henry Louis, ed. The Classic Slave Narratives, New York: Mentor, 1987 (245-331)
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Borzoi Books, 1996
Sapphire. Push. New York: First Vintage Contemporaries Edition, May 1997