Summary of Chapter Fourteen
Milkman is unaware of Hagar's decline and death. He visits Susan Byrd's house in Shalimar, Virginia, continuing his quest to get his family history. This time she tells him what he needs to know. His grandfather Jake (Macon Dead I) was one of the flying Africans who were legendary for their ability to fly. The children's song that they sing at play in the town of Shalimar speaks of this legend of Solomon or Shalimar, the story of Milkman's great-grandfather. Milkman's grandfather Macon Dead I was really named Jake and was the youngest of Solomon's twenty-one children. When the enslaved Solomon took off, flying back to Africa, he picked up little Jake and took him for a way up in the air before he dropped him back to earth. Solomon's wife Ryna and their children saw him leave, and Ryna lost her mind from grief. You can still hear her scream in Ryna's Gulch. Jake was taken in by Heddy Byrd, an Indian woman, whose daughter, Sing Byrd, grew up with Jake. Sing and Jake left Virginia together on a wagon of ex-slaves going north after the Civil War. They ended up in Pennsylvania where they married, had a farm and children.
Commentary on Chapter Fourteen
Milkman has found a physical place of origin, at least within the United States, a family history, and a legendary ancestor from Africa with supernatural power. This changes his whole idea of who he is. The story he hears also comments on the present, though he does not know it. Susan Byrd tells him that Solomon's wife lost her mind when her husband left: “You don't hear about women like that anymore . . . the kind of woman who couldn't live without a particular man” (p. 323). Hagar, also a descendent of Solomon and Ryna, is such a woman who dies of grief.
If Solomon had twenty-one children, where are the rest of his kin, Milkman wants to know. Susan Byrd tells him they are part of at least forty local families, but what became of whom is hard to tell, because there were no records of such things: “It's a wonder anybody knows who anybody is” (p. 324). Enslaved Africans lost knowledge of their lineage and roots, with relatives born and sold, and no records except for oral history. Milkman is fortunate to have found these traces, Morrison seems to say. Stories of individuals, families, and of a people are essential to one's own identity and place in the world.