Women and Freedom in Song of Solomon

Women and Freedom in Song of Solomon

An Analysis of Pilate’s Pragmatic Approach to Subverting the Racial-Patriarchy

“Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly,” (Morrison, 336). As Song of Solomon comes to an indefinite “end” Milkman finally understands what made Pilate so lovable, as he stands over her dead body. As readers, we watched Pilate “fly” throughout the whole novel. Accepting flight as a symbol of freedom, Pilate is the only woman in Song of Solomon who achieves a level of freedom that is lasting. This is because Pilate simultaneously understands and rejects the patriarchal and sexist society which she was born into. Her decided abandonment of a traditional life offers her autonomy which other women in the novel are denied. However, Pilate’s freedom is most obvious in her surrender to certain patriarchal conventions. Through these instances, the novel shows that women are able to slightly diminish the effects of racism and sexism through accepting social regulations without buying into them.

Morrison highlights the ways in which post-slavery women are either further enslaved by, or overcome the patriarchy by setting up Ruth and Pilate as foils. This is done in the story of Milkman’s conception; which Ruth describes to her son saying:

“You know, I was twenty years old when your father stopped sleeping in the bed with me. That’s hard, Macon. Very hard. By the time I was thirty… I think I was just afraid that I’d die that way. Then Pilate came to town. She came into the city like she owned it…Pilate came to see Macon right away and soon as she saw me she knew what my trouble was. And she asked me one day, ‘Do you want him?’ ‘I want somebody,’ I told her. ‘He’s as good as anybody,’ she said. ‘Besides, you’ll get pregnant and your baby ought to be his. He ought to have a son. Otherwise this be the end of us’” (Morrison, 125).

In this passage we see a direct contrast between the oppressed Ruth and the free Pilate. This juxtaposition is critical to how the novel presents women’s actions and their influence on the patriarchy’s power. In the relationship Ruth describes, Macon II is the active party; he is the one who “stopped sleeping in the bed.” As the man, he is the person with the authority to determine where and with whom he sleeps. This leaves Ruth voiceless and in pain--- as a woman she cannot stand against his decision. Pilate, a woman, is given far more authority than Ruth, or even Macon II. Her actions are given powerful and assertive descriptions such as “She came into the town like she owned it”. The diction of the opening sentences of this passage depict the power dynamic for the reader. Pilate, who apparently exists outside of society and its sexism, walks into town and straight to the Dead household where Ruth is immobilized by her husband’s refusal to sleep with her. With a sense of ownership and pragmatism, Pilate intervenes in this patriarchal crisis.

Through Ruth and Pilate’s dialogue, we are able to see that Ruth recognizes, but does not understand the oppression that she is living under. She knows that she is sexually depraved and craves some form of contact or affection. However, Ruth is deluded in thinking that she can “want somebody”. As a married African American woman, Ruth’s only meagre sense of worth in society is her husband. Despite her independent wealth, Macon II is the active bread-winner for the family. If Ruth were to have an affair with “somebody” else, she would find herself socially dead. Pilate, however understands this. Her response, “He’s as good as anybody” encourages Ruth to stick with Macon II. However, the tone of her suggestion is disdainful. She implies that there is nothing special about Macon II, in fact there is nothing special about any man. Speaking of men in such a cavalier manner detracts from their power and the power of the institutions they create. However, it is important to note that her scorn towards men does not prompt her to totally overthrow their authority, just subliminally attack it.

As Pilate continues to instruct Ruth on what to do, her advice takes on a supernatural tone, invoking the power of temporal flight, and therefore freedom. Pilate tells Ruth, with certainty “…you’ll get pregnant and your baby ought to be his”. Pilate’s knowledge is not bound by time; she is free to see what will happen in the future as though it is the present. This psychic ability removes her from normal people along with the social constructs that they live under. Although, Pilate’s advice is grounded in an understanding of the patriarchy, as she continues to enforce the importance that Ruth’s baby is also Macon II’s, her knowledge of the child is found in the freedom of her mind. Pilate is also set on determining the gender of this child, saying “He [Macon II] ought to have a son.” This too calls on Pilate’s supernatural abilities, foreshadowing when she bewitches Macon II into sleeping with Ruth, but it is important to note that the product of her spell is a son. She uses her power to not only undermine Macon II while satisfying and uplifting Ruth, but also, seemingly in contradiction, to perpetuate the patriarchy in giving Macon II a son.

The final line of this passage has a tone of doom and ambiguity that shows the reader the limits of Pilate’s ability to intervene in the patriarchy. Although it is not totally clear who Pilate is referring to when she says “Otherwise this be the end of us,” it can be taken that she is referring to herself and Ruth. In this reading she is saying, the only way that Macon II will not release his wrath on Ruth and Pilate is if the baby they enchant him into creating is a son. Another way of reading this line could produce the understanding that the Dead family will end if Macon II does not have a son. In the same way, Pilate is realizing that women do not have an equal place to men in society. As African Americans, the only chance the Dead’s have at some freedom is through a son, who will at least be superior to the women of color around him. While at first it may seem that Pilate is hopeless in the face of a definite win for the patriarchy, it is important to remember that she carries out her plan with Ruth; a plan that later in the novel returns respect and even freedom to her that Macon never receive from his son.

The attraction that Milkman, Macon II’s son, has to Pilate further breaks down the power of the patriarchy. When Milkman meets Pilate “…the woman his father had forbidden him to go near--- had [him] spellbound,” (36). The specific term “spellbound” reminds readers of the circumstances through which Milkman was conceived: magic. Pilate uses her powers to not only to trick Macon II into having a son that he did not want, but also, to win that very son out from under his father’s ordered control and into her life of chaotic mystery. Although, as the plot continues, Milkman shows much more loyalty and respect towards his father, keeping Macon II’s superiority intact, the fact that Milkman ever wandered into Pilate’s home in the first place is a threat to the constructed power Macon II holds over Pilate; that men of all races hold over colored women. In helping to conceive Milkman, Pilate has claimed some power over him as a man, which shows in the final chapter in the novel.

When Milkman discovers his roots, it is not his father, the symbol of the patriarchy and the head of the family that he seeks. Milkman runs straight to Pilate because he knows that her priorities do not lie in social constructs, but in discovering the truth. Pilate is given the chance to be liberated from her past on this journey with Milkman. Although Milkman feels like he is the person in charge, the one who figured it all out, we as readers know that he found Shalimar through the stories that Pilate told him. By not challenging Milkman’s illusion of power, Pilate paves the way to her own freedom. She uses the dynamic of the patriarchy to win an opportunity that would have otherwise been inaccessible to her as an older, African American woman.

At Ryna’s Gulch, Pilate finds her true freedom, death, which is ironically granted to her by a man. As Pilate dies from Guitar’s gunshot, Milkman sings “Sugargirl don’t leave me here/Cotton balls to choke me/Sugargirl don’t leave me here/Buckra’s arms to yoke me,” (136). Throughout the novel, this song, includes a verse on flight. However, the version sung to Pilate omits this metaphor for freedom. This is because the women in the novel are never truly free. The are enslaved by their skin color and their gender. Their efforts to undermine the patriarchy do not have the force to tear it down. In the end, it seems that the only way for colored women to find true freedom is through supporting their men; perhaps their double oppression is a sacrifice made in the fight for racial equality. As the final scene of Song of Solomon shows, Pilate’s ultimate freedom in death is literally transferred to Milkman, as he finds his conditional freedom in flight…and the bravery to face his aggressor, head on.


Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Knopf, 1977. Print.

Cover Image Credit: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/73/ad/24/73ad2457af0f8cccadeb9c6b68f5b124.jpg

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