On a snowy February afternoon, a North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent by the name of Robert Smith jumps to his death from the rooftop of No Mercy Hospital to the pavement of Not Doctor Street. Although Mr. Smith posts a note two days in advance informing everyone of his plans to "fly away," only those who happened to be there witness the suicide. Not Doctor Street, previously called Doctor Street and originally known as Mains Avenue, was a tribute to the only colored doctor the city ever had. In the doctor's living days, the street was known as Doctor Street, and upon his death it became called Not Doctor Street. No Mercy Hospital, so termed because of its' refusal to admit blacks, actually admitted a Negro expectant mother on the day of Mr. Smith's fateful flight.
Ruth Dead, the dead doctor's daughter and the first colored woman to be admitted into No Mercy Hospital, happens to be walking by the hospital with her two teenage daughters on her way to deliver red velvet roses to Gerhardt's Department Store. Upon seeing Robert Smith jump, with blue silk wings flailing about him, Ruth experiences labor pains while her daughters, Magdalena Dead and First Corinthians Dead, drop their basket of red velvet roses. To add to the commotion, a poorly dressed woman named Pilate begins to sing, "O Sugarman done fly away, Sugarman done gone..." The day after Mr. Smith's jump, Ruth Dead gives birth to a son who is named Macon Dead III, after his father.
Ruth, along with her husband and three children, lives in an old, twelve-room house. She is hated and abused by her husband, Macon Dead II, a tyrannical man who inspires fear in all of the house's inhabitants. As the result of sexual deprivation in her marriage, Ruth engages in daily little pleasures, one being the act of rubbing down a water mark on her mahogany table, the other of nursing her son until he was four and too old for it. One day, as she sits in the dead Doctor's study, nursing her son, a flunky and tenant named Freddie glimpses them through a window. His look of surprise confirms that the act of nursing her son at that age may be wrong and strange. And, although she tries to quickly regain her composure, Freddie runs to town and informs everyone of what he saw. Thus, Macon Dead III comes to be given the nickname "Milkman," and it sticks for life.
At the age of four, Milkman discovers that only planes and birds are able to physically fly. This particular discovery depresses him so much so that he even loses his imagination. He soon becomes dull and peculiar. His father does not bestow any attention on him, except when to offer a negative reprimand. Milkman's father, Macon, never approves of his son's nickname and associates it with something dirty and hot. However no one dares tell him the circumstances behind the nickname. Macon Dead II's only concern being money, he is quick to reject anyone's excuses for not being able to pay rent, including Guitar Bain's grandmother, who as a result will end up in the street with a band of grandchildren. Macon also shows no remorse for a tenant by the name of Porter, who one day gets drunk, and while hanging out his attic window with a shotgun in his hand, screams obscenities out to the crowds. Instead of helping the man, Macon's one concern is to get the drunk man's money before he spends it all on alcohol.
During the day, Macon reflects on his family history, particularly thinking of names. Macon was given his name by his father, who in turn received his name from a drunken Yankee in the Union Army. The women in his family, however, followed an old tradition of blindly selecting a name at random out of the bible. And so, Macon's sister, came to be named "Pilate" while his two daughters were called Magdalena and First Corinthians, respectively Lena and Corinthians. Pilate, whom Macon was disgusted by and ashamed of, lived in a slum with her daughter, Rebecca, and granddaughter. Neither Pilate nor Rebecca, called Reba, had husbands and all women were content to live in a slum as bootleggers, and sing in the street for change.
One day, tired after his experience with the drunken Mr. Porter, Macon decides to take a shortcut home that will take him past Pilate's dark single-story house on Darling Street. As he studies Pilate's home, Macon recalls how his own mother died after giving birth to her. In his mind, Macon recounts the story of her birth, which people claimed was abnormal, since she never had a belly button. Inching closer to the electricity-deprived home, Macon hears singing, and looks through the window to find Pilate stirring what was possibly wine, Hagar braiding her hair, and Reba cutting her toenails. Even as their singing voices come to a slow halt, Macon Dead finds himself emotionally mesmerized by the candlelit sight of the three women.
Chapter One begins with Mr. Smith's flight, or in other words, death. The themes of both death and flight represent the possibility of escape. Unfortunately, as Mr. Smith plummets to his death, his blue wings failing to carry him, he is only able to escape his life through death. His flight, therefore, was unsuccessful. As a young child, Macon also discovers that he cannot fly. His realization of being suffocated by his mother's needs and wants, and by feeling the oppression his father forces onto his family, Milkman feels trapped with no possibility of escape. The ongoing idea of flight also relates to the overall theme of freedom in African American tradition and literature. The concept of being free, a legally free man or woman, or searching for a way to acquire that freedom is oftentimes expressed through flight.
The fact that Mr. Smith's flight had a negative outcome reflects on the current situation of the novel's characters. Ruth is practically confined to her dark and lonely home, and as she is submissively stuck in a loveless marriage. Macon Dead III, although he is the most powerful black man in his town, is actually trapped by his wealth. His pursuit of money controls his thoughts and feelings, leaving him emotionally unresponsive to nearly everyone. He only becomes positively emotionally aroused when he spies on his sister and her family. Ironically, he has to observe them in hiding. Many of the other characters, such as Porter or Mrs. Bains, are trapped by poverty and unfortunately show no motivation to try to escape their confines.
The emphasis on names represents Macon's lack of identity. He himself feels disconnected with his past, as he cannot himself trace his ancestry. Macon himself remarks upon the fact that there has to be at least one person in his family with a real name, a name "given to him at birth with love and seriousness." Then, he realizes that even if such a person existed, he would never be able to find him or her. Also, just as names are meaningful as part of the story plot, they also carry with them a hidden meaning many times in reference to the bible. For example, Ruth's biblical counterpart, Ruth the Moabite, seeks acceptance from the Hebrews after being estranged by her native peoples. Ruth Foster Dead has also been rejected by the black community for her finer mannerisms but is not accepted in the white community because of her skin color. Interestingly, Ruth has a light yellow skin tone in contrast to her son, Milkman, who is very dark.
The act of the black townspeople renaming the streets signifies an attempt to create their own identity within a community. As the first black woman to give birth in Mercy Hospital, specifically called No Mercy by the black population, Ruth crosses an important racial barrier. Race and racism plays an important theme in the entire novel. Already on the second page we find a white woman carelessly addressing a black woman, ignoring a young boy's correction of her own spelling mistake. Guitar Bains' future hatred and mistrust for whites and Milkman himself may be rooted in his experience with the ignorant white nurse and with the painstakingly cold manner in which Macon evicted him and his grandmother.
Over the centuries, themes of flight and escape have been prevalent in many societies. We have the Greek myth of Icarus whose fax wings failed to carry him, causing his death. We have the children's tale of Peter Pan whose storyline revolves around a young boy escaping to Neverland. Similarly, Song of Solomon is based on an African American folktale about slaves being able to fly back to Africa whenever they want to.