Milkman Dead, cut off from his roots and scattered family members, is on a quest for self-knowledge. This quest to know who one is in oneself, one's own unique value, apart from social conditioning, family upbringing, gender, or race is a constant theme in modern literature, though it is as old as the Odyssey, the Bible, and other myths that Morrison evokes in this story. Milkman has been raised in a protected environment with material security, with a refined and indulgent mother and successful father, and two older sisters. The family name, Dead, however, suggests the lack of warmth and life in the family. Beyond Milkman's long breastfeeding, there is little contact between family members, and no love. He does not know anything about his family history until he becomes a teen and stumbles on to the forbidden house of his Aunt Pilate.
Pilate's family gives him not only some family roots but also an experience of nurturing women. Pilate is secure in herself and who she is, even if she is a nonconformist. She creates her own world, a counterculture to the one Milkman knows. It is not the black middle-class life of his family, nor the tough life of the street that Guitar knows. This formative taste of inner freedom and independence leads Milkman to desire more from his life than he might have. He accepts what his father teaches him about business, going along with the idea he should inherit that life of privilege, but Pilate's world is always a touchstone of deeper and more significant things. Yet Pilate's gifts and the love that his cousin Hagar gives him are unappreciated until he learns more about the world and himself.
Greater self-knowledge becomes more urgent for him as he matures, for he begins to make mistakes and stumble around, causing trouble for himself and others. He accepts without question the male macho image of having women fall for him but remaining cool and uninvolved himself. This empty role comes into question with Hagar's derangement upon being rejected in such a heartless manner. He finally leaves the family house when Lena points out his selfish ignorance. As he travels, he learns to value his father's accomplishment, Hagar's tragedy, and his mother's pain, taking in their stories as part of himself. He becomes a man in Shalimar when he has to develop self-reliance in the hunt. He goes even further and becomes a real human being when his love can embrace with compassion both his aunt's large spirit and Guitar's need for revenge. When he knows himself, Milkman has something to offer, and his last gesture is one of giving and forgiving.
Milkman's quest for himself cannot be separated from his growing knowledge of family and racial history. The Dead family is part of the African Diaspora or scattering of the black race during the centuries of European colonization and use of slavery to create wealth for themselves. His father wants to forget this background and become rich and accepted in American society. Milkman becomes an adult, however, during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s when African-American history is a topic no one can avoid. Many black authors have expressed that the young were particularly affected, reevaluating all they had been taught about being inferior to whites. Segregation was open to question, and the lack of black protection under the law became an obvious injustice. White Americans were not comfortable with this new interest in the past, for the terrible crimes of lynching, exploitation, and slavery were not in keeping with American values.
Every feeling or thinking black person during this time had to find a new sense of identity and a moral ground to stand on. Toni Morrison's work is valued for the way she illuminates the issues and soul-searching of characters. She may not endorse the terrorism of the Seven Days, but she understands the fear and despair behind it, as Milkman finally does. The call to action is noble, but Guitar and his street friends do not possess the means to pursue justice except through violence.
Milkman does not respond to his father's way of ignoring black history nor to Guitar's desire for vengeance. Fortunately, he is led to further knowledge of his family history and can take pride in his grandfather's farm and independence, in his aunt's strength, and in the legend of his great-grandfather, Solomon, and the flying Africans. This means he does not have to be a victim or choose violence. He has found a positive racial identity.
Rebirth and Resurrection
Although there are many tragic and untimely deaths in this novel, death is not the measure of success or failure. The white family of the Butlers who killed Macon Dead I were successful in the world but lost everything, and the family name and legacy died out. The suicide at the beginning of the novel shows the harsh life of the Seven Days vigilantes, with Robert Smith unable to continue his lonely life of secret killings. On the other hand, the strong characters of the Dead family—Macon Dead I, Pilate, and Milkman, find a way to lift death to a platform of love, unity, and resurrection of the spirit.
Pilate's father loses his wife Sing in childbirth, but still, he fights for the life of the farm for his children, Pilate and Macon. Pilate remembers that her father made the farm into a little paradise, with the animals and produce and freedom of the outdoors. He even guides his children after his death as a ghost. His example affects each child differently, but Pilate and Macon survive and reinvent themselves. The cave they hide in is a womb-like symbol. They reemerge as different people.
Pilate creates a little paradise in her city home without electricity or amenities. She has a garden and takes care of others. At Hagar's funeral she sends the girl to heaven with song and the assurance that she has been loved on earth, turning her own self-hate into a narrative of light. Pilate takes in her nephew Milkman and gives him a rebirth as a young teen and again on her death at Solomon's Leap in Virginia. He sees she too is a flier like the family partriarch, Solomon. Her example allows him to offer his life up without fear. He leaps off the cliff toward Guitar. Death is incidental, but these heroes create meaning with their lives that goes beyond death. Morrison thus affirms the life of the spirit as more powerful than the life of the body.