Summary of Chapter Two
Macon Dead takes his family out in their expensive car on Sundays to display his status to the world. He looks at property and imagines building resort homes for the rising black middle class. While on an outing, the little boy Milkman has to urinate, so Macon stops the car and orders his oldest daughter, Magdalene, called Lena, to take him to the bushes. Milkman accidentally pees on her, a symbolic moment that she never forgets and that marks their relationship.
Macon cannot prevent the teenage Milkman from finding his aunt Pilate, about whom he has heard. His only high school friend, Guitar, knows Pilate and her family and takes him there. Pilate gives the two boys soft-boiled eggs, explaining in detail how they have to be cooked in a certain way. She also tells Milkman the story of his grandfather, Macon Dead I, who was her and her brother's father. After fleeing the south and slavery, Macon Dead bought a farm in Pennsylvania and became a successful farmer. Pilate has paradisal memories of growing up on their farm called Lincoln's Heaven. Her father was murdered by white people who wanted his land. They blew off his head with a shotgun as he sat on his fence stubbornly protecting his property. The seventeen-year-old Macon Jr. and twelve-year-old Pilate saw the murder and were left as orphans wandering in the woods trying to survive. Pilate is visited frequently by the ghost of her father who gives her messages.
At Pilate's house, Milkman meets his cousin Hagar and begins an affair with her that lasts for years. Hagar's mother is Reba, Pilate's daughter, who partially keeps the family alive with her luck. She wins every contest she enters, and even if she does not try, she wins things, especially a large diamond. The women frequently sing together, but though Reba and Pilate seemed perfectly attuned to one another, Hagar seems to be unfulfilled and ashamed of the way they live.
When Macon finds out that Milkman has met Pilate, he is not happy but feels forced to tell his son part of the family history. The farm was in Montour County. His parents met on a wagon that went north after the Civil War. Macon decides he must pass on his business and wealth to his son and begins to teach Milkman how to follow in his footsteps. He warns Milkman to stay away from Pilate, for she is like a snake that will sting him.
Commentary on Chapter Two
Pilate and her family are mysteriously fascinating, and Milkman is taken in, yet he seems to get drawn into his father's camp at the same time. Pilate and Macon are symbolically the two halves of Milkman competing for domination.
The family history is forced out into the open as Milkman grows up and becomes curious. He finds out about his ex-slave grandparents and how they fled north to become successful farmers. Racial violence, however, follows them north, and they are not allowed to enjoy the fruits of their labor. One begins to understand that the brother and sister have begun their lives in a great trauma, each taking a different path after they witness the unpunished killing of their beloved father. Pilate is the more sensitive and spiritual sibling, seeming to have supernatural powers and able to speak to the ghost of her dead father. It is unclear at this point why Macon believes she is a snake, capable of betrayal.
The young Milkman is presented as somewhat self-centered and unaware about life and about others. He is raised in a sheltered environment with no friends or outside influence. His father tries to maintain class consciousness, not willing to identify with the needs and sorrows of lower-class black people. The Deads are socially dead and living in isolation. The wife and daughters are nonentities. By contrast, Pilate and her daughter and granddaughter seem very much alive, and that is why Milkman is attracted to them. At the same time he is trained by his father and begins to imbibe his point of view.