Pilate Dead

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Toni Morrison (b. 1931) American novelist

Song of Solomon


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Is the aunt of Milkman Dead, the protagonist in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (1977). Represented in the novel as the eccentric sister of Macon Dead II, who like her daughter Reba and her granddaughter Hagar has no navel, Pilate wears an earring made of a little box that contains her name and makes bootleg wine for a living. For these reasons and because he believes she tricked him out of the family inheritance of gold, Macon forbids Milkman to have any dealings with Pilate. Yet she is a part of his life from the beginning. The novel opens with her singing the song of her grandfather's flight back to Africa to escape from slavery on the day before Milkman's birth. The fact that his mother even conceives him is supposedly attributed to a green potion Pilate, described as a “natural healer” and a “root worker,” gives her. Described as her own person, Pilate is a woman who “threw away every assumption she had learned and began at zero.” When Milkman starts to have questions about his identity and where he fits in, he ignores his father's command and consults Pilate about his family history. As the family griot and ancestor who knows the past, Pilate becomes the key to Milkman's quest to understand himself and his heritage. On his trip from Michigan to the South, he learns that the sack she keeps is really a sack of her father's bones. He escorts her back to the South to give her father a proper burial, and as she dies in his arms, he sings to her the song of his ancestors, the song he learned from her and that he had once regarded as a nonsense rhyme. Pilate is representative of the ancestor figure and griot in many of Morrison's novels, that member of the African American community who is both a link to the past and a key to the future.

Marilyn Sanders Mobley, Folk Roots and Mythic Wings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison, 1992.

Marilyn Sanders Mobley

Subjects: Literature.

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