- The Long Strut: Song of Solomon and the Emancipatory Limits of Black Patriarchy
These events worked against the emergence of a strong (black) father figure. The very essence of the male animal, from the bantam rooster to the four star general is to strut. 1—The Negro Family: The Case for National Action
. . . the peacock which was strutting around a powder blue buick. It closed its tail and let the tips trail in the gravel. The two men stood watching.
“How come it can’t fly no better than a chicken?” Milkman asked.
“Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” 2—Song of Solomon
The scenes of male flight in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon suggest a yearning to flee the concerns of the material world, but they also embody desires for emancipatory politics on the ground. Shalimar’s winged emancipation from slavery, Robert Smith’s suicidal take-off from a rooftop, and Milkman’s final leap into the killing arms of his brother are instances in which liberation from social tyranny is represented through flight. Given Morrison’s deft use of flying as a trope for political emancipation, one character’s claim that masculine “strutting” impedes flight can be understood as the text’s recognition that masculinity can potentially foil emancipatory politics. I want to suggest that the novel’s reference to the debilitating effects of “strutting” masculinity are part of its intricately contextualized critique of black patriarchy.
Morrison’s novel challenges the valorization of patriarchy as cast in the public discourse of the 1960s and offers critical purchase on the recent resurgence of patriarchal politics in our own time. From the “Million Man March” on Washington to the Promise Keepers there has been a contemporary surge in political strategies centered around black patriarchy. 3 Morrison’s novel mounts a formidable critical response to such a rehabilitation by suggesting that, historically, African-American investment in patriarchy has been the wobbly crutch of a disenfranchised, segregated polity and not a tool for liberation. Granted one has to acknowledge pressing concerns like black males’ alarmingly high presence amid American prison populations and [End Page 121] murder statistics, but if, as Morrison’s novel suggests, patriarchy has contributed little to black liberation historically, what is to be gained by continued faith in its redemptive power?
In the decade before the 1977 publication of Song of Solomon the recuperation of black patriarchy figured as prominently in American public discourse as in our own time. 4 Advocates of Black Power argued that black males had to reclaim their rightful roles as paternal rulers in the domestic and political sphere in order for black liberation to become a reality. One Pan-Africanist claimed “it is and has been traditional that the man is the leader of the house/nation because his knowledge of the world is broader,” and Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammed asserted that “the woman is man’s field to produce his nation.” 5 While these Black Power advocates certainly helped reinvent black patriarchy for a generation, the era’s patriarchal ideology was most coherently articulated in a social engineering tract crafted by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. 6 Debated and examined in any number of public mediums, “the Moynihan Report” quickly became one the era’s most controversial attempts to influence policies on black urban poverty. 7
It was the report’s attempt to transform the problem of structurally entrenched poverty into an examination of black familial dysfunction that incensed many commentators. 8 The document operated under the premise that “At the heart of the deterioration of the Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the negro community. . .” 9 Within a discourse on black poverty Moynihan privileges the analysis of familial dysfunction over more salient structural problems like the de-industrialization of American cities, disenfranchisement, discriminatory hiring practices, and segregation. 10 Consequently, Moynihan perpetuates what one commentator calls a “straw man logic” that blames “the roots of poverty and violence upon Negroes...