The twentieth century provided a great deal of change for Black people worldwide. The first years of the century were characterized by the influx and sudden increase of white people in Africa, while the middle of the century brought the era of civil rights struggles for black Americans. Literature does as it tends to do and captured elements of these changing times, and examination of novels by and about Black people in these times can help to cultivate an awareness of the similarities and differences for Black people in these two times and places. Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart about the course of events in one fictionalized Black African’s life up to and during the arrival and proliferation of white people in the land. The story line follows Okonkwo, a strong self-made man who wields a great deal of power and influence in the tribe, who ultimately ends up killing himself when it seems to him as though the way of life that he treasured was no longer possible. Toni Morrison, on the other hand, wrote Song of Solomon about one Black American man’s life and the black community around him. The life of this man, Milkman Dead, is similar in many ways to the life of Nwoye, the son of Achebe’s protagonist in Things Fall Apart, and their respective reactions to the community around them and the changing times are vastly different but uniquely paralleled.
Nwoye emerges in Things Fall Apart as a foil to the main character, Okonkwo, who rose to a position of status within his village as a result of hard work and intensity. Nwoye is characterized as he is introduced in the novel as someone who suffers from “incipient laziness,” unlike his father who must nag and beat him in order to teach him to work (Achebe 13). Okonkwo’s attitude toward his son Nwoye is very similar to his attitude toward his father, who he believed was a complete failure and an embarrassment, because he owned no property and had no titles of distinction among the tribe. One of the most significant situations in Nwoye’s early life is the introduction of Ikemefuna, an orphan of sorts who must be cared for by Okonkwo’s family. Ikemefuna is close in age to Nwoye and becomes like a brother to him in the years that he spends with the family, and he comes also to regard Okonkwo as a father figure (Achebe 28). In their affection towards Ikemefuna, Nwoye and Okonkwo are very similar, but their difference is displayed in their reactions to their feelings. Ikemefuna cannot be allowed to live indefinitely, as he is a prisoner of war, and Okonkwo overcompensates for his tender feelings about the boy by wrongfully taking place in the execution that was inevitable (Achebe 61). Nwoye is deeply hurt at the loss of Ikemefuna and the situation adds to a sense of indignation building in him toward tribal customs that began when he bore witness to “twinfanticide” (Achebe 62). And while Okonkwo seems to make a half-hearted effort to mourn with his son, Nwoye has no interest or sympathy for his father’s plight or point of view, and escapes from his father’s hut when his father passes out from drinking palm wine (Achebe 63).
Milkman Dead is the son of Macon Dead, a man known in the black community for being a shrewd and unforgiving businessman. Macon is characterized as being not only a cold, calculating businessman, but also as an unaffectionate and difficult husband. His wife, Ruth, as a result was a woman who was starving for affection, so much so that she continued to breastfeed her son well beyond the appropriate age, yielding him the nickname Milkman (Morrison 15). Milkman is very different from his father in the sense that he is generous and personable, and yet he is very similar to his father in that he is good with the property and rents business and he assumes that he will continue doing the work his father does indefinitely (Morrison 107). Milkman is intrigued by his father’s sister, Pilate, and her family, Reba and Hagar, and more importantly, he falls in love with Hagar, his cousin. Macon Dead insists that his son should have no contact with these women because of his ill feelings toward Pilate, and yet they become a regular part of his life, like his best friend Guitar. Guitar and Milkman begin to go separate ways as they grow older, and yet, once they acknowledge and accept each other’s differences, they seem to be able to support each other as best they can in spite of them (Morrison 114). Milkman’s choice to end his relationship with Hagar, with whom he has grown bored, prompts her to periodically threaten his life, and Guitar responds by helping Milkman to subvert Hagar’s efforts. Among the most important aspects of Milkman as a character, though, is his sense of separation or distance from members of his own race and class. He grows up the only son of one of the most affluent Black families in the neighborhood, and his feeling of difference from the rest of his peers is symbolically represented by legs that are not equal in size (Morrison 62).
Nwoye and Milkman Dead are characters whose lives are shaped by similar circumstances. To begin with, they share a great deal of common ground in their roles as sons of aggressive, influential men in their respective communities. Both Okonkwo and Macon Dead II are exceptionally strong, determined, and self-assured men, so much so that it would be foolish to expect even an unusually masculine son to live up to the precedent. Nevertheless, both young men struggle with the pressure to emulate their fathers and to make them proud. Then there is the issue of cultural influence. With Nwoye, we see early on that he has difficulty accepting the practices of his society, particularly where the abandonment of twins and the murder of Ikemefuna are concerned. The problems that Nwoye experiences with the customs of his people could illustrate a general tendency toward decay among the society, a part of an already-unweaving social fabric, or they could represent the types of struggles that many generations experienced in abiding by particular traditions, traditions that had been preserved, perhaps not always without closer inspection, up to the time that Nwoye lived. With Milkman, on the other hand, we see the difficulties that he experiences as the result of many social stigma attached to his particular character by way of race, class, and gender in already turbulent social settings. Milkman does not take issue with specific and relatively stable cultural practices, but rather is under a great deal of pressure to respond to a number of changing social and cultural values, including his role as a businessman, his role as a member of a family and as the potential head of his own family, and his role as a citizen and a human being in a time of chaotic race relations. So, while these young men come from similar situations, those situations are anything but the same.
In Nwoye’s lifetime, an alternative way of life impresses itself upon the people of his tribe by way of Christian missionaries and the beginnings of colonial government. During a period of time that was particularly difficult for Nwoye’s father, Okonkwo, missionaries began to attempt to bring the message of Christianity to Africans who were unfamiliar with white people in general. Okonkwo and Nwoye, along with the rest of their family, were spending time in the land of Okonkwo’s mother’s family, exiled from their home as a result of an accidental killing. While the message of Christianity is dismissed immediately by some as nonsense, it appeals to the sensibilities and needs of others. Those in the tribe who see no sense in the new religion disregard it as harmless, but it is because of the new religions subtle appeal to others that it gains strength. Nwoye, in particular, finds a great deal of relief in the new religion, relief in the form of an affirmation of his feelings about the twins that had been killed (Achebe 147). Nwoye chooses to convert to the new faith and is disowned by his father, who ultimately realizes that Christianity has forever changed the face of his homeland and he will neverbe able to have the sort
of life that he yearned for. Nwoye illustrates an important point through his role in this story, which is that it was through the introduction of an invasive worldview that native cultures were subverted. It is because Nwoye has an alternative religion to which he can convert that he does convert, whereas he would have likely had to suffer quietly as a part of a silent majority if Christianity had never been introduced to the region. It is possible, and even likely, that many people in generations before Nwoye’s lifetime felt similarly with respect to some of the more callous tribal customs, and yet the dissenting voices were silenced by the needs of the group. Nwoye represents just one segment of the Igbo population that was dissatisfied with tradition and leapt on the opportunity to try something new.
Milkman lives in a time when race relations between Black and White Americans are in major upheaval. And while his best friend Guitar is secretly a member of a pro-Black movement that believes in killing whites for revenge, Milkman is more concerned with finding his role as an individual in society and in his interpersonal relationships than he is with the issues of race. Each young man has his own motivations when they rob Pilate, stealing a bag of bones thinking that they are getting away with gold. And when they are stopped by a police officer as a result of racial profiling, they are taken to jail until the police find a satisfying, if untrue, story about the bones. In the wake of their catch and release, Milkman begins to undergo significant change. In his preoccupation with money as a means to his own independence and in his being subject to racial prejudice, Milkman has begun to experience feelings that make him feel more like a member of the Black community. He notices that his legs seem to be, for the first time in a long time, the same size as each other. This marks his newfound ability to feel like a normal person, and to feel a sense of compassion not just for members of his own race, but for people of any race. This solidifies his disagreements with Guitar, and when Milkman embarks on his journey to learn more about his family history, Guitar begins to suspect him of further self-centeredness. Ultimately, Milkman’s journey to become a part of his own family, his race, and of humanity in general leads him to the point where he is unafraid to sacrifice himself for the sake of others, in his final stand against the hate that Guitar condones.
Both of these men are living in times of serious cultural upheaval, and their corresponding reactions to the changing times are at once very similar and very different. Nwoye is a member of a culture that, for all intensive purposes, has remained relatively unchanged for a significant period of time. The drawbacks to the way of life to which he was accustomed troubled him deeply, as they likely troubled others who went before him, but the way of life also provided many favorable conditions and approaches to the environment and human relations. The drawbacks to their way of life, however, weighed heavily on Nwoye’s mind when he was presented with an opportunity to choose another way to live, and he chose, as many did, to give up the religion and lifestyle of his ancestors. It was the result of this type of choice being made by many among the native tribes of Africa that Christianity and colonial occupation was made possible. The harsh reality of the situation is that Okonkwo was right in believing that any hopes for a life of tradition had been dashed with the onset of Christian settlement. In Song of Solomon, though, Milkman dead is inspired through his course of life events to respond in a constructive, tradition-affirming way to the serious social changes that are occurring. Where Okonkwo disowned his son for turning his back on African tradition, Macon Dead insisted that his son embrace the spirit of capitalism, and “own things…own yourself and other people too” (Morrison 55). Both sons ultimately turn their backs on their fathers, but while Milkman does it in a way that connects him more deeply to the world of his story, Nwoye does so in a way that take him out of the world of his story and links him to another, remote world.
Both of these novels help to illustrate the plight of Black men, and Black people in general, in the twentieth century. Where Achebe was able to write a story that focused on the collapse of a way of life and the imposition of western culture on African tribes, Morrison detailed the struggle of Black Americans struggling to overcome the affects of uprooted family trees and second-class citizenship. And while these stories seem to have a different trajectory, and capture the sadness of changing times and some of the joy of life-affirming interpersonal relationships, both seem illustrate the general principle through these young man’s lives that things change, but life goes on.