Break It Down: Song of Solomon

“Break It Down” is a HBW Literary Blog initiative that strives to offer critical interpretations of song lyrics, excerpts from novels, and poems.

This week, an excerpt from Song of Solomon, a novel written by Toni Morrison, was analyzed by blog contributor Kenton Rambsy. The excerpt comes from Chapter 1.

*Hold cursor over underlined text to display comments

Song of Solomon Analysis–Chapter 1:

One of the nurses, hoping to bring some efficiency into the disorder, searched the faces around her until she saw a stout woman who looked as though she might move the earth if she wanted to.

“You,” she said, moving toward the stout woman. “Are these your children?” The way in which the nurse addresses the woman reveals a tense social contract of race and gender. The white nurse addresses the black woman very crass manner.

The stout woman turned her head slowly, her eyebrows lifted at the carelessness of the address. Then, seeing where the voice came from, she lowered her brows and veiled her eyes. Despite the nurse’s rude disposition, she seems unmoved by the pushy inquiries of the woman. The black woman’s actions demonstrate a level of social agency and power over the nurse. The black woman is not intimidated by the demands of the nurse.


“Send one around back to the emergency office. Tell him to tell the guard over here quick. That boy there can go. That one.” She pointed to a cat-eyed boy about five or six years old.

The stout woman slid her eyes down the nurse’s finger and looked at the child she was pointing to.

“Guitar, ma’am.”


“Guitar.” The black woman is letting the nurse know that the “cat-eyed boy” does indeed have a name. Her informing the nurse of Guitar’s name gives the boy an identity instead of just being a random black boy. The black woman is adamant about addressing him by name instead of being disrespectful and ordering him around as if he is insignificant.

The nurse gazed at the stout woman as though she spoke Welsh. Then she closed her mouth., looked again at the cat-eyed boy, and lacing her fingers, spoke her next words very slowly to him. The nurse senses that she cannot easily order Guitar’s grandmother around so she decides to address Guitar directly. Perhaps, the nurse is not used to the defiant attitude of the black woman and does not know how to properly respond.

“Listen. Go around to the back of the hospital to the guard’s office. It will say ‘Emergency Admissions’ on the door. A-D-M-I-S-I-O-N-S. But the guard will be there. Tell him to get over here—on the double. Move now. Move!” She unlaced her fingers and made scooping motions with her hands, the palms pushing against the wintry air. The nurse attempts to order the young boy, Guitar around. She has such disregard for his intellectual abilities that she spells out “Admissions” for him. In her haste, however, she spells the word wrong. This situation is telling since she underestimates the boy’s ability to comprehend and in the process makes a mistake herself.

A man in a brown suit came toward her, puffing little white clouds of breath. “Fire truck’s on its way. Get back inside. You’ll freeze to death.” In this instance, the man is more concerned with the well-being of the nurse instead of the onlookers or the man on the roof who is about to jump. The nurse takes the lead of the man in the suit and goes back into the building to protect herself from the harsh weather. This scene is telling of the social interactions between how the white nurse is valued more than the others in the scene. Perhaps, this serves as an antidote for the larger social interactions between black and white people.

The nurse nodded.

“You left out a s, ma’am,” the boy said. The North was new to him and he had just begun to learn he could speak up to white people. But she’d already gone, rubbing her arms against the cold. The young boy actually is more socially and intellectually aware than the nurse thought. He lets her know that she did not spell “Admissions” right. His hesitance about speaking up comes from his socialization that he should not speak back to white people because of the unbalanced social status between different races. Even after he tried to correct her, his words fell on deaf ears as the nurse already moved on and was no longer concerned with the situation.

“Granny, she left out a s.”
“And a ‘please.’” The little boy, Guitar, informs his grandmother that the nurse did not spell the word correctly. For Guitar, this is a big issue. His grandmother, though, lets him know that she did not show common courtesy. For Guitar’s grandmother, this is a more pressing concern because she wants the woman to show human decency to her and her grandson.