Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will surely hurt me as well. The power of words is often ignored, we claim that words will never hurt us and yet we define ourselves with labels and we have assigned names to every aspect of life. In Toni Morrison’s novel, Song of Solomon, the power of labels pushes the story forward, enforcing the belief that labels and words drive our actions much more than we think they do. Milkman is plagued by his embarrassing name for most of his life, Pilate carries her name with her religiously, and even we limit ourselves with labels.
Nicknames are a common trend throughout Song of Solomon. Milkman’s name gives him and his father much shame, and his son’s name is one of the reasons why Macon Dead II is so distant. Guitar’s name is what defines him when he first meets Pilate, it’s a first impression he cannot shake. On the topic of Pilate, she carries her name in a box on her ear, because she knows the importance of naming things. As How to Write About Toni Morrison, elaborates, Pilate has the strongest sense of self compared to all the characters because she owns her name, and therefore owns herself. Milkman however, does not begin to be “reborn” until he learns the story of his past, and how it all relates to the poem, Song of Solomon. In an essence, learning the names of his past free Milkman, symbolized by his leap at the end of the novel. Flying throughout the entire novel is a symbol of freedom. In the beginning, the Mr. Smith commits suicide by jumping off the hospital roof, planning to “fly away on his own wings.” This flight of Mr. Smith will release him from the restraints of life, freeing him from the labels his skin color have put on him.
In the same way that Milkman is negatively labeled as a mama’s boy, we pin labels on ourselves and others that define us. According to Psychology Today, researches didn’t start studying the effects of labeling until the 1930s, when Benjamin Whorf proposed the linguistic relativity hypothesis. According to Whorf, the words we use to describe what we see are not just placeholders, they actually determine what we see. In Toni Morrison’s nobel lecture in 1993, she discusses the importance of language. She mentions the dangers of language when it is misused, how it can be violent. When we begin to use language to restrict ourselves, to restrict others, it becomes very harmful. When we call others names, we are defining their limits; how much they can achieve, how greatly they will fail. Labeling others is another way to misuse language, and it occurs often in Morrison’s novel.
The labeling of blacks and whites is a recurring struggle the characters of Song of Solomon have to work through. Guitar claims that being white is enough to define all white people, and therefore any white person deserves to pay for a crime that a specific white person committed. Milkman has a skewed view of what it means to be black, and is often alienated from his own culture. In fact, in order to finally be comfortable with himself and the labels that define him, Milkman must first learn the names of his ancestors. Milkman values the names so much because they help him feel closer to his origins. In an interview with Toni Morrison, she discusses the importance of naming things, saying “Each thing is separate and different; once you have named it, you have power.” Therefore, if you can name yourself, as Pilate did, or learn the meaning of your name and ancestors, as Milkman did, you can begin to have power over your life.
As Shane Koyczan expresses in his poem To This Day, the rhyme that claims names will never hurt us is wrong, they will. Words hold so much power, they are what drive Milkman throughout his journey of rebirth, they give power to Pilate, and they also tear us down everyday. That is why it is so important to be using language effectively. In the case of Song of Solomon, language is there to connect Milkman with his family, to share the stories of his ancestors. We must do the same. In order to use language not as a tool of destruction but as a tool creation, we should use words to share experiences, to tell stories. Enough definitions, labels, and limits. From now on, words are powerful not because of how we use them to hurt one another, but instead because of how they connect us to one another.
Alter, Adam. “Why It’s Dangerous to Label People.” Psychology Today, Sussex, 17 May 2010, http://www.psychologytoday.com/experts/adam-alter. This is a good secondary source for my essay. It specifically discusses how labeling people as “black” is harmful which I can use when discussing labels in Song of Solomon. I also like how it talks about the research done by Benjamin Whorf, I plan on incorporating that in my essay as well.
Burton, Zisca Isabel, and Harold Bloom. Bloom’s How to Write about Toni Morrison. E-book, New York, Chelsea House, 2008. I already wrote this. In the chapter on Song of Solomon in Bloom’s How to Write About Toni Morrison, Bloom provides the reader with many helpful strategies on writing literary analyses. He discusses how to stay away from basic summaries, and instead think critically. He provides the reader with essay topics and strategies that directly relate to the themes he also discusses. I plan on reading the suggested text, the Tanakh, as it is a direct reference to the title of the book. He also provides in-depth descriptions of the characters that will help me further my analysis. He provides various themes explored in the Toni Morrison’s novel that will help my understanding of the book.
Morrison, Toni. “The Language Must Not Sweat.” Interview by Thomas Leclair. New Republic, 20 Mar. 1981, newrepublic.com/article/95923/the-language-must-not-sweat. Accessed 19 Apr. 2017. This will be really helpful as it is includes Toni Morrison’s own opinions and thoughts on her book. I have decided on my question and it will surround the idea of the importance of names, as shown through the novel Song of Solomon, and the interview has an entire section where Morrison talks about naming in the book. She discusses why she chose certain names which I can use to explain the importance of names in the real world. She also mentions how naming things gives you power over it, which I would like to explore in terms of labels. I think this will lead me to do further research on labels, which won’t necessarily focus on the novel itself but rather problems in the world.
—. “Nobel Lecture.” 7 Dec. 1993, Stockholm, Sweden. Lecture. In her speech, Toni Morrison directly discusses the power of language, which is what I aim to focus my paper on. The fact that it is coming from Morrison herself is beneficial to my essay because she is the most credible source when discussing her literature. I especially want to utilize her attention to how language can be violent, and use that to show how the labels in Song of Solomon are limiting.
—. Song of Solomon. New York, Vintage International, 2004. This will be my most helpful source, because I can directly cite the book and use it as a primary source. The characters Milkman, Macon Dead II, and Pilate will be most helpful as their characters struggle with identity and the importance of names. I can use their experiences and superimpose them onto the real world, where I can include outside research.