The singing woman . . . had wrapped herself up in an old quilt instead of a winter coat. Her head cocked to one side, her eyes fixed on Mr. Robert Smith, she sang in a powerful contralto.
This passage, from Chapter 1, describes Pilate’s singing about Sugarman as Robert Smith prepares to fly off the roof of Mercy Hospital. In contrast to Ruth Foster, who wears expensive clothes, Pilate wears only an old quilt. Wearing the quilt shows that Pilate belongs to the community but is alienated from it. Pilate demonstrates her pride in her culture through the quilt, a traditional, homemade item in African-American households. Unlike Ruth, Pilate is proud of being a black woman and does not need to disguise herself in the clothing of the white upper-middle class. On the other hand, Pilate’s outfit is different from the winter coats worn by the rest of the crowd, making her look like an outsider.
Although she is visibly poor, Pilate’s attitude demonstrates her strength. When Robert Smith towers over the crowd, only Pilate is brave enough to look him in the eye and respond, singing. Pilate’s song describes Robert Smith’s frustrated desire to escape. The song also foreshadows the novel’s central conflict: flying away is liberating but hurts those who are left behind.