“That’s where my finger went down at.” “Well, your brain ain’t got to follow it. You don’t want to give this motherless child the name of the man that killed Jesus, do you?”
The midwife who delivered Pilate scolds Macon for the name that he’s chosen for his daughter—Pilate. His name-choosing method includes opening the Bible, pointing to a word, and then copying that word onto a piece of paper. Readers soon learn that Macon’s wife died in childbirth and that Pilate was born without a navel, another example of the mysterious and surreal quality of these characters and events.
Now she was odd, murky, and worst of all, unkempt. A regular source of embarrassment, if he would allow it. But he would not allow it.
Although Pilate was once dear to her brother, Macon, she no longer remains so. Here, readers get a glimpse of how Macon feels about her and her effect on the family. Macon and Pilate separated when he was only sixteen years old, and when she reappears in his city, she has slid into being a social misfit, a raggedy bootlegger who makes and sells wine to whomever has money to buy some. Pilate lives with her daughter and granddaughter. Macon spies on them one night through the window.
It was the absence of a navel that convinced people that she had not come into this world through normal channels; had never lain, floated, or grown in some warm and liquid place connected by a tissue-thin tube to a reliable source of human nourishment.
Macon witnessed his sister, Pilate’s, birth, so he knew that she was born from his mother, but he acknowledges that this strange physical trait of hers—a lack of a belly button— contributes to Pilate’s otherworldliness. She lives, by choice, with her daughter and granddaughter in a place with no electricity or running water, generally rejecting materialism and social norms.
They had accepted him without question and with all the ease in the world. They took him seriously, too. Asked him questions and thought all his responses to things were important enough to laugh at or quarrel with him about.
The narrator reveals how Pilate and Reba view Milkman. In contrast to his immediate family, the two women accept and support Milkman as an individual. They listen to his words and give him credit for his thoughts. At home, his mother and sisters treat Milkman with indifference and his father treats him with hostility. Pilate’s home exists as a safe haven for Milkman, and he appreciates his aunt’s attentions.
I’d hate to pull this knife out and have you try some other time to act mean to my little girl.
Pilate doesn’t take any grief from anyone, and she stands up for her own. When a man hits her daughter, Reba, she attacks him from behind and sticks a kitchen knife into his chest just enough to draw a little blood. Then she proceeds to explain to him that she is protecting her only child and that he needs to leave her alone. Pilate makes her message clear and dramatic. And she is heard.
There was really nothing to see. Her defect, frightening and exotic as it was, was also a theatrical failure. It needed intimacy, gossip, and the time it took for curiosity to become drama.
When Reba was a young child, Pilate continued to travel but stopped trying to hide her navel-less stomach. She begins to allow her isolation to inform and strengthen her rather than letting the truth bring her down. Pilate becomes private and wise, balanced and almost magical in her fearlessness. She looked people straight in the eye, generously gave away everything she had, and became a skillful and wily bootlegger.
Pilate had been shorter. As she stood there in the receiving room of the jail, she didn’t even come up to the sergeant’s shoulder—and the sergeant’s head barely reached Milkman’s own chin.
At the jail, Pilate changes her entire persona, even her physical height. She talks like an Aunt Jemima to the police and convinces them that the bones belong to her late husband whom she could not afford to bury. She gets Milkman and Guitar out of jail by supporting their claim that the theft served as an innocent prank. Again, she unnerves Milkman by seeming to change her actual stature to suit the situation.
Suddenly, like an elephant who has just found his anger and lifts his trunk over the heads of the little men who want his teeth or his hide or his flesh or her amazing strength, Pilate trumpeted for the sky itself to hear, “And she was loved!”
At Hagar’s funeral, Pilate allows herself to express the fullness of her grief and disappointment. After she finishes singing a song, she places her hand on the coffin and then repeats the lyrics “My baby girl” to each and every person in the church. She tosses her words like stones into silence, and finally, she bellows out a final crescendo.
What, he wondered, did she plan to do with him? Then he knew that too. Knew what Pilate’s version of punishment was when somebody took another person’s life. Hagar. Something of Hagar’s must be nearby.
When Milkman returns to Michigan, he goes to Pilate to tell her the news of the family history. She greets him by knocking him unconscious with a bottle and tying him up in the basement. Here, the narrator reveals Milkman’s thoughts as he comes to. He understands that Pilate blames him for Hagar’s death. She does forgive him, but she sends him away with a box of Hagar’s hair to remind him that he must now carry her with him forever.
Milkman did not speak; he watched her long fingers travel up her dress, to rest like the wing of a starling on her face. “I’ve been carrying Papa?” Pilate moved toward Milkman, stopped and looked at him for a while.
After Pilate learns the truth about the bundle she has been carrying around for so many years, everything changes for her. Based on this new knowledge, she agrees to return to Virginia to bury her father’s bones at Solomon’s Leap. Together, she and Milkman lay the bones in a small grave topped with the little box that contained her name written in her father, Jake’s, handwriting.