“When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you die.”
And the scribbled no-name “Macon Dead,” given to a newly freed black man by a drunken Union Army officer, has stained out a family’s real name for three generations, and then we meet the third “Macon Dead,” called “Milkman.”
Raised among the sour hatreds of the richest black family in a Michigan town, Milkman learns not to love or make commitments, learns to turn away from his father’s hard, tight greed, his mother’s unloved passivity, his sisters’ sterile virginity.
He stands apart from his outcast aunt Pilate (a figure reminiscent of Sula, living beyond all reason), a “raggedy bootlegger” who keeps her name in a box threaded to one ear. And he stands above the wild untidy adoration of his cousin Hagar, above the atrocities against blacks in the 1950s, even while his friend organizes a black execution squad.
However, when Milkman’s father opens the door to a family past of murder and flight, Milkman—in order to steal what he believes is gold—begins the cleansing Odyssean journey. His wanderings will take him through a wilderness of rich and wonderful landscapes murmuring with old tales, those real names becoming closer and more familiar.
He beholds eerie appearances (an ancient Circe ringed with fight-eyed dogs)—and hears the electric singing of children, which holds within it the pulse of truth. Like other black Americans, Milkman’s retrieval of identity from obliteration helps him to shake off the “Dead” no-name state of his forebears.
And, like all people, his examination of the past gives him a perspective that liberates the capacity for love. Morrison’s narration, accomplished with such patient delicacy, is both darkly tense and exuberant; fantastic events and symbolic embellishments simply extend and deepen the validity and grace of speech and character.
The gut-soul of Roots, with which this will be recklessly, inevitably linked, and a handsome display of a major talent.
Publish Date: September 1, 1977
Verdict: Thumbs Up, Buy It
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