“A Stomach Blind as a Knee”

Toni Morrison, in her novel Song of Solomon, creates a female character named Pilate who is born without a navel. Pilate’s mother has died while giving birth to her, and Morrison describes Pilate as having a “stomach as smooth and sturdy as her back…. 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.”

Through Morrison’s choice of the name Pilate (as in Pontius), we understand that she is giving us a female character with an origin story that will not be the patriarchy’s concoction called Jesus. And we recognize as well that Morrison is savvy to the navel as our first tattoo—signaling attachment. She suggests that if we are Black, female, Other, we have been torn from our attachments, our stories have been stolen from us, so our core human work is to reconnect, because identity and wholeness flourish only when one is embedded in one’s own real narrative.

“Without a navel,” writes Morrison, Pilate had “a stomach blind as a knee … something God never made.” Morrison’s genius is that she decides not to argue us into an understanding that the navel once had originary spiritual clout; instead, she takes the navel away (something, she says, even God couldn’t do, making Morrison a more powerful God)—and in its absence, she ushers us into primordial worlds.

Since Pilate “pushed out of a dead mother all by herself,” she yearns to “connect” with her forgotten herstory. She travels backwards: from the North to the South, to Africa, to nature. On the boundary of stigmatization and mythology—she is a bootlegger and an occult practitioner, an outcast, but autonomous and unfettered—she remembers what the rest of us have forgotten. The navel-less Pilate becomes the novel’s navel.

Morrison suggests that those of us whose narratives have been disfigured or looted don’t even know that that’s the case. How can we excavate the connective tissue that will restore and unite us with our-
selves and with our “people,” if all we have is a vague sense of something’s absence?

In other words, Morrison shows us, those of us who have been “Othered” have all lost our navels.