Summary of Chapter One
In a city in Michigan, African-American Ruth Dead is pregnant with her last child, Macon Dead III. She is standing near Mercy hospital while she and her two daughters, First Corinthians and Magdalene, called Lena, are watching Robert Smith, the town's African-American insurance agent, commit suicide by jumping off the hospital roof in a pair of blue silk wings. He had posted a note on his door at home asking forgiveness and assuring the community of his love. These same townspeople are watching but making no move to stop him.
Ruth Dead is the only daughter of the late Dr. Foster who lived on Doctor Street. The street's name is really Mains Avenue, but the black community call attention to the fact they are not allowed to have proper medical attention at Mercy Hospital by naming the street after their only doctor, a light-skinned African-American. When he dies, the street is referred to as “No Doctor Street.” Standing next to Ruth watching the event is Pilate Dead, her sister-in-law, who tells her the baby is about to be born. Pilate begins to sing as Robert Smith jumps to his death.
Because of the tragedy, Ruth goes into labor and is admitted to the hospital, an unusual procedure. Her son is born, officially named Macon, after his abusive and tyrannical father, but known most of his life by his nickname, Milkman. Macon is mean to his wife, Ruth, and because she has no affection, she breast feeds her son too long, not willing to give up this intimate contact. Her husband's errand boy, Freddie, sees Ruth feeding her unwilling and large boy, giving him his name, “Milkman.” Ruth had kept this secret, but once found out, she has to give it up. The father Macon does not learn of the long breastfeeding as Freddy is afraid to tell him, but he understands the nickname implies something wrong.
The Dead family has a problem with names. Macon Dead's father had been an illiterate slave. He chose the name of his children randomly from the Bible. His daughter Pilate for instance is born as her mother dies in childbirth. When told he cannot name a child after Pilate, the killer of Christ, he is stubborn because his child had killed his beloved wife. Macon Dead's father acquired his name when a drunken Yankee soldier during Reconstruction tried to write down what he heard as a name but it referred instead to the place the man was from and the state of the man's kin. Macon Dead the ex-slave grandfather passed the name to his son who gave it to his son, Milkman.
Milkman's father has money and is obsessed with possessions. Though a black man, he is a slum landlord who mercilessly collects the rent without regard to the peoples' suffering. Mrs. Bains asks him for an extension on the due date, but he does not help her. Her grandson, Guitar, will become the best friend of Milkman, but he will not forget the greed of the Deads. Another tenant, Porter, gets drunk and threatens to kill himself, but Dead knows Porter will get paid and takes it for the rent. Macon Dead's sister Pilate, on the other hand, is his opposite. She makes and sells wine to the community. She lives in a run-down house without electricity or conveniences, growing her own food, completely independent. She appears to be a sort of wise woman or magical conjure woman, with vision of the future, knowing the properties of plants, singing, healing, and understanding the trials of others. Pilate is seen as having some sort of supernatural power since she was born without a navel. Macon Dead walks by her house one night and watches through the window as she sings with her daughter, Reba, and her granddaughter, Hagar. He is both repulsed by Pilate's lifestyle of poverty and drawn to her singing and personal radiance.
Commentary on Chapter One
The Macon Dead family is the subject of the story, and it is a story that goes back in time to the Civil War. The current family members are stuck in their several forms of suffering, not knowing the family history, or the origin of their ills. It will be the journey of Milkman Dead to find and resolve these issues. He is born in the 1940s in an unnamed large Midwestern city in Michigan. The Dead family and their friends, relatives, and their travels, symbolically encompass the larger history of African-Americans, from their forced removal from Africa to the time of the civil rights movement. Milkman comes of age in the racially violent time of the 1950s and 1960s.
Naming is a major theme of the novel, with names seeming to be random, but taking on more and more significance the more that family history is known. The strange Biblically inspired names, or casual nicknames, indicate a people out of the mainstream of American society, but also, a people in conflict with that society, insisting on their own names for things, such as “No Doctor Street.” Although Ruth is a normal Biblical name for a woman, Pilate is not, nor is First Corinthians. These names could be seen comically but also symbolically, as will become apparent.
The central conflict between brother and sister, Macon and Pilate Dead, identify two different points of view, two reactions to black suppression. Macon finds no security outside of money and property. He has pretensions to the black middle class and for that reason married the lonely Ruth, the refined light-skinned daughter of Dr. Foster. Macon does not value human relationships, not even his family's. Pilate embarrasses him with her open and honest compassion for others, her disregard for possessions or appearances, her alternative lifestyle and close female society of her daughter and granddaughter. Macon has disowned her and refuses to visit her, but is strangely drawn to her. She seems to represent some lost part of himself.