The symbol of flight has been present in literature throughout many cultures. Often it is used in literature as a symbol of freedom in a sense that it appeals to a sensory-stimulated bliss that defies traditional weight pressure. The history of flight as a symbol in African American Literature is readapted in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon by categorizing her characters into different flyers that represent different outcomes of taking the leap.
Traditionally, the use of the symbol represents the liberation of being grounded to Earth but released into tranquility and nirvana; by escaping your worldly self, you can fly to a point past humanity.
Morrsion explores other ideas through her characters, for example, it is also represented in the multiple men that abandon women throughout the duration of the novel. By exploring different situations in the text where flight is demonstrated, the reader can determine how the theme applies to the characters of the text and how Morrison intended for the theme to be adapted.
Though Morrison intricately develops other themes in her novel, such as abandoned women, misogyny, the alienating effects of oppression, and marginalization, the theme of flight is thoroughly layered throughout multiple examples in the text.
Flight has been a prevalent symbol in African American Literature in the past. Gay Wilentz explains in his journal “If You Surrender to the Air: Folk Legends of Flight and Resistance in African American Literature” that theme of flight is present throughout the African diaspora of slaves. Both written and oral accounts suggest the theme was originally adapted from slaves who jump the side of the slave vessel, committing suicide in fear of what is ahead of them.
However, folk lore said instead of falling to their doom they instead flew away back to Africa. Wilentz quotes Michele Cliff in her novel Abeng regarding her detailed history of Jamaica: “The old women and men believed, before they had to eat salt during the sweated labor in the cane fields, Africans could fly. They were the only people on this Earth to whom God had given this power. Those who refused to be slaves and did not eat salt flew back to Africa”.
The Southern United States hold many versions of the legend as well. A very popular legend describes Africans who turn back around and fly over the ocean upon seeing their fate. This legend likely dates back to Igbos from Eastern Nigeria. The other describes an African that teaches slaves who are bound to the Earth how to fly, and then they soar back to Africa. However, the theme carried over into contemporary literature and is demonstrated in Morrison’s other novels. Morrison deviates from common themes of flight as she sheds light on the woman’s position of behind left behind, as well as the flights that don’t always land well. It is important to consider the history of the symbol as it lays the foundation for which Morrison builds her intended message.
Grace Ann Hovet and Barbara Lounsberry explore in their journal “Flying as a Symbol and Legend in Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye, Sula” and “Song of Solomon” that Morrison tends to divide her characters into three different types of fliers. The first type are “nesting birds”. Nesting birds generally never dare to fly and place too much importance on the draw of home. The surviving members of the “Dead Clan” are nesters. Morrison’s opinion on nesters are evident in how she represents her characters in her novel. Nesters are scorned for their stagnancy, and Morrison incorporates a peacock into her symbols and imagery to emphasize this.
Peacocks are representative of everlasting life and the resurrection of Christ in traditional Christian symbolism and imagery. Morrison, however, reverses the meaning of the traditional symbolism and crosses it over with the symbol of flight. She initially links the peacock to the bad of worldly treasure that Milkman’s father, Macon Dead, first discovers when he is 16. The peacock is not representative of immortality, however, it is representative of the unhealthy attachments and obsession created between the family and their pursuit of wealth. This is reflected when Dead attempts to seize the bag of money he encountered upon murdering a man in Georgia. Hovet and Lounsberry mention, however, he is taken aback by the sight of it, “Life, safety, and luxury fanned out before him like a peacock, as he stood there trying to distinguish each delicious color, he saw the dusty boots of his father standing just on the other side of the shallow pit.” He then promises to protect and uphold that treasure by investing it and marrying a wealthy woman. Milkman tells his father of the gold bag Pilate discovered, and recruits Milkman to steal it for him. It’s mentioned that Milkman and Guitar also view gold from the nester’s standpoint of “prosperity and fulfillment”.
The second type of flyer is the “falling flyer”, who is a daring and dangerous character that take a step of bravery that inevitably leads to their death. Mr. Smith is a falling flyer as he jumps off the hospital roof in the opening scene and dies. This sets a tone that Morrison carries in the novel: that the theme of flight can be linked to death. Though the second are not as well represented in “Song of Solomon” as it is in Morrison’s other novels, the third type of flyers are very consistent throughout the text.
The third type of flyers are “soarers”. Soarers are confident and closely drawn to their community. They represent actualization and self-fulfillment, and although Milkman caused great heartbreak to Hagar when he left, he could be considered a character identified as a “soarer”.We don’t really know the outcome of Milkman’s flight; pessimistic readers that assume he plummeted to his death may identify him as a falling flyer; but readers that believe Milkman truly learned to fly and conquered his demons would have faith that he is a soarer. Pilate could also be identified as a soarer as well, as the novel states on page 510, “Now he knew why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly”. The strength and mobility of Pilate makes her a better-grounded character. She ultimately embodies every aspect of a soaring character.
While flight has represented many themes of liberation throughout the history of African American Literature, Morrison’s adaptation of the theme highlights the outlying effects of flying characters. Morrison re examines the context of flight in previous cultures and re models it to reflect a contemporary grasp of the theme. Without the theme of flight present in the novel, Morrison would not have been able to develop her other symbols and imagery.