Pilate is the ancestor who, as the critic Stelamaris Coser notes, represents "the only sign of a vital black tradition surviving in the urban industrial environment." Milkman's "pilot" on his "flight" home, she defies virtually every stereotype of a black woman and exemplifies Morrison's rejection of binary thinking.
Just as Milkman fails to recognize Pilate's innate beauty and dignity until he sees it reflected in the women of Shalimar, we may fail to recognize her courage and power until we place it within the context of African history and classical mythology. Viewed from these perspectives, we find that Pilate is both griot — a storyteller — and village elder, charged with preserving the cultural memory of her people, and a wise, moral teacher who offers a new vision of the future. A conjurer and root woman skilled in the art of voodoo, she is a healer and peacemaker who has no qualms about resorting to any means necessary to protect those she loves.
Pilate values family and community and reveres her African and American heritage, as symbolized by her quilt. Driven by an unselfish desire to care for others, Pilate gives up her wandering lifestyle to provide a stable home for her granddaughter, Hagar, and to watch over Ruth, her sister-in-law, who is "dying of lovelessness." Exhibiting both male and female characteristics, Pilate is associated with images of snakes and serpents. Thus, she is both Adam and Eve, both Christ and Satan. When Milkman first sees her, she is seated with "one foot pointed east and one pointed west," a posture that indicates that she embraces both Eastern and Western (African and American) traditions and values. Pilate's aggressive, masculine stance and her reverence for her fourth-grade geography book allude to the angel in Revelation who holds a little book and sets his right foot upon the sea and his left foot on the land.
Even according to conventional Eurocentric standards, Pilate is the true hero: Odysseus wanders for ten years; Pilate wanders for twenty years and experiences a series of adventures that shape her character and free her to make hard choices concerning her role in society. From the moment she emerges from her mother's womb, she creates herself, improving her situation by working her way up from washerwoman to entrepreneur. Unlike her brother, Macon, who inherits his wealth from Ruth, Pilate creates her own way. And unlike Odysseus, whose journey is aided by gods and goddesses with supernatural powers, Pilate herself is endowed with supernatural powers; she completes her journey without the help of others' magic or divine intervention. She is a courageous woman who assumes full responsibility for her life and meets life head on, but because she is neither white and male nor young and beautiful, her accomplishments are discounted and her wisdom discredited — even by the black community.
Like her father, who rejected the biblical meaning of Pilate as "Christ killer" and chose it because the shape of the word itself reminded him of a tree "hanging in some princely but protective way over a row of smaller trees," Pilate refuses to be defined by the limiting perceptions of others and insists on creating her own reality. She delivers Milkman from his spiritually dead existence; the biblical Pontius Pilate delivered Jesus to his enemies. By creating herself, Pilate has crafted her own metaphorical wings that — as Milkman observes — enable her to "fly" while remaining grounded.