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
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.