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  • Print publication year: 1995
  • Online publication date: July 2010

3 - Call and Response: Voice, Community, and Dialogic Structures in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon

Summary

He wanted to hear the sound of his own voice.

– Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

What is realized in the novel is the process of coming to know one's own language as it is perceived in someone else's language.

– Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel”

SINCE its publication in 1977, Song of Solomon has most often been read as an initiation novel of mythic quest in which the male protagonist, Milkman Dead, must come to terms with his personal and collective history to achieve a sense of identity. Traditionally, this perspective on the novel focuses on oppositional patterns of competition and resistance between Milkman and others, the self and community. Such thematic interpretations, even when they acknowledge the black community as a metaphorical chorus and situate this chorus in the African American oral tradition, tend to view it, nonetheless, as a monologic structure with which the hero must contend. Although other interpretations view the community as a complex structure, they focus on the visual images of self and other and attribute this complexity more to definitions of self based on the perceptions of others than on the endless network of voices within the community represented in the text. Cynthia Davis argues, for example, that all of Morrison's characters suffer the consequences of internalizing the “look” of the racial other by trying to live up to an external image.