Racism has plagued America throughout the centuries. It continues even today. Toni Morrison was one of the few authors to describe the effects of racism on African Americans. Her honesty in her novels is an outcry against the damage that racism causes in the life of African Americans. One major theme throughout Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon is racism. Racism being present is no surprise as the book primarily takes place in the 20th century in the South. Morrison shows racism through how it affects the characters of Milkman and Guitar, showing that racism can drive a man to extremism in the case of Guitar or apathy, in the case of Milkman.
Milkman, the protagonist of the story, does little to concern himself with many of the events of the novel or the lives of others. He is self-absorbed, putting his needs and concerns above others. Milkman finds himself “bored. Everybody bored him. The city was boring. The racial problems that consumed Guitar were the most boring of all. He wondered what they would do if they didn’t have the black and white problems to talk about. were made up of?” (Morrison 107-108). Racism has dulled Milkman and now he finds himself “bored”. The use of the word bored being applied to people, the city, and racism shows how racism has, in a way, killed Milkman’s soul for it has numbed him to the point of apathy.
Milkman wonders if “Maybe Guitar was right-partly. His life was pointless, aimless, and it was true that he didn’t concern himself an awful lot about other people. There was nothing he wanted bad enough to risk anything for, inconvenience himself for”(Morrison 107). The words “pointless” and “aimless” show that Milkman has no sense of purpose at all. Racism has taken that away. He does though ask one important question. He asks “Why don’t you just hunt down the ones who did the killing? Why kill innocent people? Why not just those who did it?” (Morrison 155). Yet, it was innocent African Americans who were killed.
Guitar is affected differently from Milkman. Instead of being forced into docility, he is motivated to kill those who oppress African Americans. He is filled with anger for he sees Whites as “unnatural, telling them they are depraved. They call it tragedy. In the movies they call it adventure. It’s just depravity that they try to make glorious, natural. But it ain’t. The disease they have is in their blood, in the structure of their chromosomes.” (Morrison 157). This unnaturalness is what Guitar believes allows Whites to kill young boys.
Guitar is referring to the unnatural killing of Emmit Till, who died only because he was Black. He was fourteen years old when killed. Life is unfair when a person is African American and Guitar rails against it for ‘White people are unnatural. As a race they are unnatural’ (Morrison 156). The oppression never lets up for Guitar hates that “Each man in that room knew he was subject to being picked up as he walked the street and whatever his proof of who he was and where he was at the time of the murder, he’d have a very uncomfortable time being questioned” (Morrison 107). The anger that consumes Guitar comes from racism. It is rooted in the unnatural killing of young Black boys and girls. Morrison is showing the reader that the anger of many African Americans rooted in their history of oppression.
Throughout the novel, Morrison paints the picture of racism in America as alive and dangerous. Racism is socially acceptable to many White people, as Mrs. Bain shows when she says in irony that “A nigger in business is a terrible thing to see. A terrible, terrible thing to see.” (Morrison 22). An African American working hard and building a good life is seen as a threat.
The different ways that racism destroys is shown when Milkman searches for the name of a White man who supports Blacks and mentions “Schweitzer. Albert Schweitzer. Would he do it?” (Morrison 156). This shows that the support of Whites is so exceptional that no one person comes immediately to mind. Guitar claims that Schweitzer would also kill African Americans “In a minute. He didn’t care anything about those Africans. They could have been rats.” (Morrison 156). Racism has given Guitar an all-encompassing hate for Whites. The actions of White people have built an animosity in Guitar that had reached a breaking point. He is part of the Seven Days organization that kills Whites–and not only those who kill African Americans. His soul has been twisted by racism as has Milkman’s.
Yet Milkman offers his life up to Guitar, “Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees-he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up his ghost in the killing arms of his brother” (Morrison 337). Milkman and Guitar both are trapped by racism, but Milkman is willing to be Guitar’s “Lodestar”.
What Morrisons shows is that both men are undoubtedly affected by racism and are driven to opposite extremes. Those extremes negatively affect Guitar and Milkman in irraverisble ways. Guitar, being driven to extreme violence from racism and Milkman being driven to apathy from the same.