For Further Study
Gloria Naylor's first novel, The Women of Brewster Place (1982), made her an overnight success, but her third novel, Mama Day (1988), solidified her reputation as one of the foremost authors of the African-American women's fiction renaissance, along with Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, and others. Although reviewers were initially confused by the novel's mixture of realism and the supernatural, most readers consider Mama Day a powerful and richly-layered depiction of how the past and the present, the real and the unreal, the living and the dead, the natural and the supernatural converge in the lives of African-Americans.
The novel juxtaposes the story of a successful African-American businessman, George, who has grown up in New York City, cut off from any sense of where he or his people came from, with that of a young African-American woman, Cocoa, who must come to terms with her powerful ancestral legacy. Their clash and uneasy union is brought to a head when they visit Cocoa's home, Willow Springs, a magical place that holds the secrets of Cocoa's past and the key to her future.
Born in 1950, Gloria Naylor was raised in New York by working-class parents. Her mother encouraged her to write when she began to exhibit creative ability at the age of seven. But when she graduated from high school, instead of attending college, as her parents wished, she became a Jehovah's Witness, traveling through New York and the South from 1968 to 1975. After she returned to New York, she earned her degree in English from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York in 1981.
It was in college that she first learned about the rich tradition of African-American literature. She told Allison Gloch in 1993, "I was 27 years old before I knew Black women even wrote books." Her reading of Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and others, inspired her to begin writing herself. Her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, chronicled the lives of seven very different women living in an African-American community. The success of the novel immediately made her a prominent figure in the renaissance of African-American women writers. The following year, the novel won an American Book Award, and she received her M.A. in African-American Studies from Yale University. Her master's thesis became her second novel, Linden Hills (1985), which used Dante's Inferno as a thematic and structural guide for her explication of the moral downfall of well-to-do blacks who lose touch with their racial heritage.
Naylor's third novel, Mama Day, was her first to explore the experiences of African-Americans in the South. To write the novel, she drew on her parents' stories about living there and her own experiences as a Jehovah's Witness traveling the region. This novel was a culmination of her concern with the loss of identity and heritage suffered by contemporary urban African-Americans. The novel emanated, she told Michelle C. Loris in 1996, from her "belief in love and magic…. I know that love can heal."
Naylor connects her writings by having the same characters appear in more than one novel. Mama Day first appeared in Linden Hills, and George's mother became a central character in Bailey's Cafe (1992). The Day family will reappear in a future novel, Sapphira Wade, she told Loris. In this book, "Cocoa comes back as an old woman. It's 2023." Naylor will also tell the stories of Bascombe and Sapphira Wade from 1817 to 1823. "Always in my head Sapphira Wade would be the cornerstone because she has been the guiding spirit for now close to twenty years, and now it's time to grapple with her," Naylor said. For Naylor, writing about the present and future African-American community means grappling with its past as well as the rich folklore, language, and tradition that have sustained it.
Though Mama Day is told from three perspectives, the story itself is a simple one; it presents the courtship and marriage of Cocoa and George, and finally George's death in Cocoa's ancestral home, Willow Springs. Cocoa first sees George in New York, where they both live, and then meets him formally at a job interview, which does not go well because Cocoa must spend August in Willow Springs with her grandmother, Abigail, and her great aunt Miranda, known as Mama Day. Cocoa does not get the job with George's engineering firm, but on her return from Willow Springs, she sends George a note. He in turn sends her application to a client, and asks her to dinner. Their first date is disastrous, but George decides to show Cocoa what he loves about New York City. Meanwhile, in Willow Springs, Mama Day helps Bernice to conceive a child, and Junior Lee leaves his common-law wife, Frances, for another woman, Ruby.
Cocoa loves seeing New York with George, although their regular outings don't seem romantic to her. After George tells her about his girlfriend Shawn, Cocoa tells him she doesn't have to see him again. Later he comes to Cocoa's apartment and they make love for the first time. The two have fallen in love, but there are still conflicts between them. Cocoa feels that George doesn't open up about his feelings. When she sees his old girlfriend in his building, she fights with him, calling him a "son of a bitch," then accepts a date with an old boyfriend. George waits outside the old boyfriend's apartment all night, then tells her he doesn't like being called a son of a bitch because his mother was a prostitute and his father a john. Then he asks Cocoa to marry him, and they elope.
George and Cocoa settle into their married life, but Cocoa returns to Willow Springs without him in their first August together. While there she experiences Ruby's jealousy when she makes plans to see a concert with Junior Lee and some other friends. Cocoa fights with Miranda, but she continues to visit Willow Springs each August. George does not come to visit Willow Springs until their fourth year of marriage, after Cocoa has graduated from college and they have made plans to start a family.
Mama Day is preparing for George's visit when she realizes that Ruby is trying to use magic against Cocoa. In a foreshadowing of George's death, George and Cocoa both have dreams about him drowning. George explores the island, meeting many of the inhabitants, including Dr. Buzzard. He beats him at cards, earning the respect of the other men. George talks about moving to Willow Springs, but Cocoa is undecided. Miranda realizes that a hurricane is coming, and George and Cocoa have a terrible fight when George sees that she's wearing makeup foundation that is too dark for her. At the party in their honor, George rebuffs Cocoa's attempt to speak to him. Junior Lee makes a pass at Cocoa, and Ruby witnesses it. When Cocoa comes to see Ruby, she braids nightshade into Cocoa's hair. George and Cocoa do not reconcile until the hurricane comes, when he brings her back into their bed.
The hurricane destroys the bridge to the mainland and kills Bernice and Ambush's son, Little Caesar. Cocoa is very ill, and George is frustrated by his inability to leave Willow Springs and get medical help for her. Mama Day realizes that Ruby has poisoned Cocoa and cuts off Cocoa's braids. George gathers with the people of Willow Springs to "stand forth" for Little Caesar, and everyone says what Little Caesar was doing when they first saw him and what he'll be doing when they see him again. Miranda uses magic to make lightning strike Ruby's house, burning it to the ground, but Cocoa gets sicker and sicker, and begins to hallucinate, while George is frantic and frustrated by his inability to help her. When Miranda remembers the broken-hearted men of her past, she realizes that she needs George's help to rescue Cocoa.
George's plan to row across the Sound is thwarted by the townspeople, who know he won't be able to make it across. Abigail tells George to meet Mama Day at the "other place," the family homestead, and Dr. Buzzard tells George to work with the islanders, who also want Cocoa to recover. George does not believe in Miranda's magic, but he sees how ill Cocoa is, and he tries to obey Miranda, who has told him to go to the chicken house and bring back whatever he finds there. But George does not realize that Mama Day means his own two hands, and after tearing apart the chicken house, George's weak heart gives out, and he dies.
Cocoa feels that her life is over, and she spends three months on Willow Springs recovering from her illness and grieving. Cocoa decides not to return to New York. Eventually Cocoa remarries and moves to Charleston, where she names her second son after George. Abigail has died, and the story ends with Miranda eating her "last August 21st honeydew," foreshadowing the death of Mama Day as well.
George is an engineer from New York who marries Cocoa. His first-person narration makes up about a third of the text, as he explains to Cocoa his perspective on their courtship, marriage, and visit to Willow Springs. Near the end of the novel the reader learns that George has died and that he speaks from beyond the grave.
Shortly after his birth, George was abandoned by his mother, who was a prostitute, and raised by whites in an orphanage. There he learned that "only the present has potential" and only "facts" are relevant. He had no use for emotions, beliefs, myths, or superstitions. Once he was on his own, he said, "I may have knocked my head against the walls, figuring out how to buy food, supplies, and books, but I never knocked on wood. No rabbit's foot, no crucifixes—not even a lottery ticket." George has a bad heart and controls his condition with a pill twice a day with strict regularity. His only passion is football, a game that fascinates him by its mathematical possibilities.
When George meets Cocoa his world is turned upside down. She represents to him a world of great emotions and mysteries. He is especially intrigued by Cocoa's family and her past in Willow Springs. He envies her sense of belonging and tradition. But after their marriage, he continues to spend his vacations traveling to the NFL play-off games rather than going home with Cocoa. After four years of marriage, he finally makes the trip with her. While he at first romanticizes the island and its inhabitants, he is gradually confronted with phenomena that subvert his understanding of how the world works.
George represents contemporary urban African-Americans who have adopted white customs and beliefs and have lost touch with their roots. Having adopted Western rationalism, George sees Mama Day as a "crazy old woman" rather than a powerful conjurer who can save Cocoa from her mysterious illness. The only solution he can see is to travel to the mainland and get a real doctor. Because the bridge has been destroyed by a storm, he half-heartedly helps Mama Day, but he loses control and has a heart attack in his rage. His dying rescues Cocoa from death's door, and he is buried on the island, where Cocoa frequently returns to visit him.
Dr. Buzzard pretends to be a hoodoo/medicine man, but his powers are trickery, and his remedies are largely made from alcohol from his still. He incurs Mama Day's disrespect for his deception.
Abigail Day is Cocoa's grandmother and Mama Day's sister. She helped raise Cocoa and is a central nurturing figure. She does not possess the knowledge of the natural and supernatural worlds that Mama Day does, and when Cocoa is deathly ill, she can only sing and hope and try to feed her. Abigail has also cut herself off from her past by refusing to ever visit the other place, the home where she grew up.
Cocoa, as the grandniece of Mama Day and the wife of George Andrews, acts as a bridge between their two worlds—African-American mysticism and Western rationalism. Her first-person narration explaining her point of view to George makes up about one-third of the text. As a young person who has left Willow Springs and taken up residence in New York, she is in danger of losing touch with her heritage. Although she visits Willow Springs for two weeks every August, she becomes more and more a part of George's world. He introduces her to the "real" New York, and she earns a degree in history, which reminds the reader of Reema's boy, who goes to the mainland and earns an advanced degree only to return to the island a stranger.
When George agrees to visit Willow Springs with her, Cocoa is anxious to show him off to the townspeople, who always viewed her as a kind of freak because of her lighter skin. (Her family had nicknamed her Cocoa to "put some color on her.") But George does not understand her insecurities, and they get in a fight that threatens to tear them apart. While Cocoa is preoccupied with mending her relationship with George, she falls prey to Ruby. Not suspecting the jealous feelings Ruby has towards her, she lets Ruby braid her hair. But this time, the ritual which has helped bond her to the community since she was a child threatens to destroy her as Ruby poisons her.
During her ensuing illness, Cocoa has horrific hallucinations and pushes George away from her. She begins to believe that worms have invaded her body and are eating her alive from the inside out. Only the soothing strokes of her grandmother's hands can keep the parasites from devouring her. After George saves her by sacrificing his life, and Mama Day nurses her back to health, Cocoa leaves her life in New York and settles in Charleston, a Southern city that keeps her near her home but not fully a part of it. She later remarries and has two sons, one of whom she names George, and she visits Willow Springs often to talk to her first husband about what happened. As Mama Day notes, Cocoa is the only Day woman who has finally "been given the meaning of peace."
Grace, Cocoa's mother, died of grief after her husband was unfaithful to her, leaving Cocoa motherless.
John-Paul was Mama Day's and Abigail's father. He was a talented artist who could carve lifelike images of flowers, and he taught Mama Day to be at home in the woods.
The title character, Mama Day, has acquired her name because as a midwife she has helped to bring into the world nearly ever other inhabitant of the island, although she never married or had children of her own. She also serves as the community's doctor, possessing a vast knowledge of herbal remedies and how to treat most illnesses. She has gained the utmost respect of all of Willow Springs' inhabitants, who revere her as the descendant of Sapphira Wade and the inheritor of her foremother's conjuring powers.
In the first half of the novel, Mama Day helps Bernice become pregnant, performing a mysterious ritual with the help of her chickens. Her true "gift," she believes, is to help things grow. "Can't nothing be wrong in bringing on life, knowing how to get under, around, and beside nature to give it a slight push," she tells herself." "But she ain't never, Lord, she ain't never tried to get over nature."
- Mama Day was recorded on audiotape in 1989 by Brilliance.
- Naylor has written a screenplay for the film adaptation of Mama Day to be produced by her company, One Way Productions, Inc. The film has not yet been made.
In the second half of the novel, Mama Day must help save her grandniece Cocoa. Although she has tried to protect Cocoa from Ruby's murderous jealousy, she can only enact revenge on Ruby for poisoning Cocoa by sprinkling a metallic powder around her house, causing lightning to strike twice and kill her. She retreats to the other place, which she visits often, to learn from her Day ancestors how she can save Cocoa. While there, she finds a ledger with the bill of sale for a slave woman, her great-great-grandmother, whose name she has never known. But time has washed away most of the words, leaving only the letters Sa. In a dream, she learns the name Sapphira and that she must listen past the pain of her mothers. She realizes that Cocoa has placed part of herself in George's hands, so she must enlist his help. But because George does not trust her, he cannot bring back the symbol of life from the chickens' nests. Instead, he attacks the chickens and destroys them and himself, saving Cocoa in his own way by sacrificing himself. At the end of the novel, Mama Day is still alive at the age of 104, and she anticipates peeking into the next century before she finally dies.
Ophelia was Abigail's and Mama Day's mother. She went mad after her baby, Peace, died, and drowned herself in the sound between the island and the mainland.
Peace was Abigail's and Mama Day's younger sister who drowned in the well when she was still a baby. Abigail also named her first daughter Peace, and that child also did not live past infancy.
Ambush is a resident of Willow Springs and is married to Bernice.
Bernice, Ambush's wife, is desperate to have a baby. She enlists Mama Day's aid and undergoes a fertility ritual that allows her to finally get pregnant. Once she has her baby, she proves to be an overprotective and overindulgent mother. Bernice is also Cocoa's best friend from Willow Springs.
Charles is Bernice and Ambush's son. The townspeople call him Little Caesar because his mother treats him like a king. He dies in the hurricane.
Mrs. Jackson was George's teacher at the Wallace P. Andrews Shelter for Boys. She taught him that "only the present has potential, sir."
Junior Lee is a no-good, lazy fool who cheats on his wife, Ruby.
Reema's boy is from Willow Springs, but once he goes to the mainland and gets an education, he becomes an outsider. He tries to collect research on the island's residents, but they thwart his efforts, and he misunderstands them.
Ruby possesses great powers, but she uses them to hurt other women, in particular those to whom Junior Lee is attracted. She first puts a hex on his long-time girlfriend, who goes mad. Ruby makes Junior Lee marry her. She keeps a watchful eye over him. When Ruby catches Junior Lee making advances towards Cocoa, she lures Cocoa to her house and braids her hair, as she has done since Cocoa was a girl, combing poison into her hair and scalp. Mama Day uses her superior powers to kill Ruby with lightning as a result.
Dr. Brian Smithfield, the medical doctor from the mainland, has held a grudging respect for Mama Day ever since she performed a Caesarean section birth with great expertise despite her lack of sophisticated implements or training.
Bascombe Wade was a Norwegian slave owner whose family originally owned the island of Willow Springs. He fell in love with his slave Sap-phira, and his grief over his inability to completely possess her initiated the tragic history of the Day family.
Sapphira Wade was the great-grandmother of Mama Day. Although her name is no longer known to the residents of Willow Springs, she is remembered as a powerful conjurer and slave woman who convinced her master, Bascombe Wade, to deed all of the island to his slaves. She gave birth to seven sons and then flew back to Africa, the legend goes. "God rested on the seventh day and so would she," hence her family's last name, Day.
Mama Day is imbued with supernatural occurrences. As part of the hoodoo religion they have inherited from their slave ancestors, the inhabitants of Willow Springs believe in the supernatural. Near the end of the novel, readers learn that George, one of the narrators, has been dead for fourteen years, and that Cocoa speaks to him regularly.
But it is Mama Day who embodies the supernatural. She possesses a "gift" that she inherited from her great-grandmother, the slave Sapphira Wade. According to Willow Springs legend, Sapphira was a "conjure woman" who "could walk through a lightning storm without being touched; grab a bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand; use the heat of the lightning to start the kindling going under the medicine pot…. She turned the moon into salve, the stars into swaddling cloth, and healed the wounds of every creature walking up on two or down on four." According to the bill of sale for Sapphira that prefaces the novel, she "has served on occasion in the capacity of midwife and nurse, not without extreme mischief and suspicions of delving in witchcraft."
This language expresses the white world's view of Sapphira's power, but the novel goes to great lengths to demystify and present in a positive light the powers Mama Day possesses. In the world of Willow Springs, where all the inhabitants are descendants of slaves, magic and the supernatural are everyday parts of life, and Mama Day's gift is something to be respected and occasionally feared.
The novel makes a clear distinction between the kind of conjuring or hoodoo that Mama Day practices and two other kinds: the trickery of Dr. Buzzard and the evil practices of Ruby. Mama Day uses her powers for benevolent purposes, healing the sick, helping women to give birth, and helping Bernice get pregnant. As she says, she gets "joy" "from any kind of life." Her job is "bringing on life, knowing how to get under, around, and beside nature to give it a slight push." She works in concert with nature to help things grow, while Ruby uses spells, poisons, and herbal mixtures with graveyard dust to kill and drive insane the women whom she fears are after her man. The only time Mama Day kills is when she attracts lightning to Ruby's house in revenge for Ruby's poisoning of Cocoa. And while Dr. Buzzard also claims to heal, his remedies are fake, consisting mostly of alcohol and nothing of any real medicinal value. He also exploits the villagers' fears and beliefs in ghosts to hawk his charms and talismans.
Topics for Further Study
- Research the history and practices of African-American folk medicine and hoodoo and write a paper comparing them to Western medicine, using Mama Day and Dr. Smithfield as examples.
- Research your own family history, making a family tree like that at the beginning of Mama Day. Then write a paper about how your family's legacy continues to influence you and other family members.
- Explore historical and fictional accounts that describe the relations between slave women and their masters in early America (like those between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings) and write first-person narratives of Sapphira and Bascombe Wade's experiences. You can make them talk to each other the way George and Cocoa do in Mama Day.
- Compare Zora Neale Hurston's practices, methodology, and results in her Mules and Men (1935) to the efforts of the student, Reema's boy, who returns to Willow Springs at the beginning of Mama Day. You may also expand your research to include a historical survey of how anthropologists have approached and interpreted southern black folk culture.
Mama Day's practices are described in great detail to emphasize that what she possesses most of all is a vast knowledge of effective herbal remedies. She also uses her understanding of psychology, such as when she helps Bernice by giving her black and gold seeds, which, rather than possessing supernatural powers, represent her negative feelings about her mother-in-law and her hopes for her baby. Naylor therefore demystifies some of Mama Day's practices and shows the reader that her supernatural powers are natural extensions of her understanding of the "real" world.
The lesson that Cocoa must learn in Mama Day is that she cannot escape her past. Even though she has spent the last several years in New York, in the last half of the book she must come to terms with Willow Springs and her heritage, which means the loss of "peace" that the women in her family have suffered.
George cannot help her with this because he has no past and no understanding of the rich heritage of the Day family. He does not understand why they have to put moss in their shoes when they walk in the west woods where her ancestors are buried. She can only say, "it is a tradition" and "it shows respect." He is intrigued by the "other place," the Day ancestral home, and wants to become a part of it without knowing its sad history. While Cocoa hears voices telling her "you'll break his heart," George hears nothing and tells her "we could defy history."
When Cocoa becomes ill from Ruby's poisoning, Mama Day goes to the other place to find out what she has to do to save Cocoa. She realizes that Cocoa has put a significant part of herself in George's hands, and that he must help her. When he is unable to join hands with Mama Day and make the "bridge for Baby Girl to walk over," he must sacrifice his life to save Cocoa. Only with his death and his letting go of Cocoa can Mama Day's remedies return Cocoa to health and her cultural heritage, making her the first Day to learn "the meaning of peace." And only in death can George become a part of the island and its heritage. He is buried on the island, and Cocoa names one of her sons from a subsequent marriage after him.
One of the most striking aspects of Mama Day is its use of multiples narrators, because, as Cocoa tells George at the end, "There are just too many sides to the whole story." Between one-half and two-thirds of the book is taken up with the conversation of George and Cocoa, expressed in alternating first-person narratives. These sections are separated from the rest of the text by three diamonds.
The narrator of the rest of the novel is hard to pinpoint. Most critics describe it as the communal voice of Willow Springs. But sometimes it sounds like an omniscient narrator, who oversees everything without being a part of the story, and sometimes it comes from Mama Day's consciousness. In the novel's preface, the voice of Willow Springs explains to the reader, "Think about it: ain't nobody really talking to you. We're sitting here in Willow Springs, and you're God-knows-where…. Really listen this time: the only voice is your own." Given the importance the novel places on multiple points of view, it is fitting that this unidentified narrator takes on different perspectives, even including the reader in its magic circle.
For the first half of the novel, George and Cocoa live in New York, and their experiences there alternate with the goings-on in Willow Springs. The second half of the novel takes place entirely in Willow Springs, an imaginary place. The two communities provide a stark contrast. While New York is a large city, Willow Springs is a small rural island. And while New York is one of the most famous cities in the world, Willow Springs does not even exist on maps, and the inhabitants like it that way. "Part of Willow Springs's problems was that it got put on some maps right after the War Between the States."
The island is located off the coast, near the border between South Carolina and Georgia, and neither state claims it. Therefore, Willow Springs is an independent, self-governing community that votes only in presidential elections. Although phone lines run over the sound and television signals are received on the island, its ties to the mainland are very tenuous: "We done learned that anything coming from beyond the bridge gotta be viewed real, real careful." The bridge is even destroyed by a storm every sixty-nine years or so, severing its connection with the mainland, as happens during the hurricane. Willow Springs doesn't really feel like part of the United States. Its beliefs and customs more closely resemble those its ancestors brought over from Africa than the ones George has learned in New York.
Mama Day utilizes many symbols, beginning with the island of Willow Springs itself. More than simply a rural, isolated community, Willow Springs represents another world that is neither American nor African, neither real nor imaginary. It is a place where the past is still alive and boundaries have dissolved between the living and the dead.
On the island, many other things possess symbolic importance, such as the chickens, which are associated with Mama Day, fertility, and female-ness. When George battles the chickens, he is confronting all of the mysterious forces of Cocoa, the Day family, and Willow Springs. The quilt Abigail and Mama Day make for Cocoa is a weaving together of the Day family that is to remind her of her cultural heritage. The bridge forms not only a real but also a symbolic link between Willow Springs (the imaginary and the past) and the mainland (the real and the present). When the storm, with a symbolic significance emanating from Africa, destroys the bridge, George fears not only that he cannot get a "real" doctor for Cocoa, but that they are trapped in this supernatural world.
Lastly, hands play a prominent role in the way Mama Day envisions her connection to her ancestors and what must be done to save Cocoa. George must "hand" over his belief in himself to Mama Day: "She needs his hand in hers—his very hand—so she can connect it up with all the believing that had gone before…. So together they could build the bridge for Baby Girl to walk over." By joining hands, symbolically, they could heal her together.
The best way to describe Mama Day is as magical realism, in which the everyday and the supernatural coexist and are intertwined in one text. In effect, the magical becomes as "real" as the ordinary parts of the narrative. In Mama Day, the world of Willow Springs contains elements that can be associated with realism, such as when Mama Day watches "The Phil Donahue Show" and Bernice becomes ill from taking a fertility drug. Magical elements exist too, such as when Mama Day helps Bernice get pregnant with a mystical fertility ritual involving chicken eggs and when Cocoa hears the voices of her ancestors at the other place. Furthermore, the "real" aspects of the text are associated with the rational, white world of the United States mainland, while the magical aspects are derived from African folk medicine and beliefs and are centered on the island of Willow Springs. Willow Springs, then, is a place where the "real" and magical meet and peacefully coexist.
Rise of the Black Middle Class
In the 1980s, some African-Americans began to achieve a kind of material success that had been impossible for them before. Despite the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which allowed for much greater social equality, blacks still suffered great economic inequality in America. In major cities, neighborhoods became strictly segregated in the 1970s with poor blacks living in the inner city, often in ghettoes of subsidized housing, while whites moved to the suburbs where they established affluent communities. But in the 1980s, some blacks, reaping the effects of affirmative action (set in place in 1965) and benefiting from the booming economy and declining unemployment, were able to secure high-paying jobs. For the first time, a significant number of black Americans became part of the middle class. Some moved into prosperous white neighborhoods, while others established their own communities, like those Naylor describes in Linden Hills (1985). With these new developments, many blacks, including Naylor, feared that middle-class blacks were becoming disconnected from their roots and were adopting white values and beliefs.
In Linden Hills and in Mama Day, Naylor explores the negative impact such a transformation has on African-Americans. George, in Mama Day, represents the affluent black who was "dark on the outside and white on the inside," as the epithet "Oreo," used in the 1980s, signified.
African-American Women's Renaissance
With the emergence of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker as nationally recognized authors in the 1970s, it appeared that a renaissance of sorts for African-American women writers had begun. Walker's The Color Purple (1982) was translated to the screen by Steven Spielberg. Morrison's works, including The Song of Solomon (1977) and Beloved (1987), were widely admired; she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Other writers, such as Toni Cade Bambara, Maya Angelou, Gayl Jones, and Ntozake Shange, among others, made names for themselves and solidified the idea that a flourishing of creative talent among black women was being realized. As Morrison said in conversation with Naylor, published in the Southern Review in 1985, referring to the large number of important works by black women, "It's a real renaissance. You know, we have spoken of renaissance before. But this one is ours, not somebody else's."
So important have African-American women writers been in American letters that some critics believe they have created the most challenging and powerful fiction in late-twentieth-century America. When Naylor went to college in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she discovered these writers and their foremothers (most notably Zora Neale Hurston) for the first time. Their explorations of slavery, racism, black pride, and the double prejudice suffered by black women (as a woman and as an African-American) inspired Naylor and made her feel that she had something to say as a writer. Morrison's work was an especially important influence on her. As she wrote in the preface to her conversation with Morrison in 1985, Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1971) was the "beginning" for her because it "said to a young poet, struggling to break into prose, that the barriers were flexible; at the core of it all is language, and if you're skilled enough with that, you can create your own genre. And it said to a young black woman, struggling to find a mirror of her worth in this society, not only is your story worth telling but it can be told in words so painstakingly eloquent that it becomes a song."
When Mama Day first appeared in 1988, the novel was met with mixed reviews. Some reviewers had a great respect for Naylor's ambitious book and its accomplishments, while others were simply confused. Those who liked the book commented on its power to absorb the reader in its magical world. As Rachel Hass wrote in The Boston Review, "The rhythm of the prose pulls you inside the story like a magnet." And in the Los Angeles Times, Rita Mae Brown urged, "Don't worry about finding the plot. Let the plot find you." But she also admitted, "Naylor's technique can be a confusing one to read." While Brown found this difficulty to be surmountable, leaving readers with rich rewards for their efforts, others did not.
What seemed to bother reviewers most were the novel's diversity of speakers and its mixture of realism and fantasy. Linda Simon, in the Women's Review of Books, criticized Naylor for not "opt[ing] for character development in a more realistic setting." In the end, Simon felt that too many questions were left unanswered because of the novel's reliance on magic to resolve the situation. But for Bharati Mukherjee in The New York Times Books Review, it was the sections about the magical world of Willow Springs that carried the novel. Naylor "is less proficient in making the familiar wondrous than she is making the wondrous familiar," she concluded. Overall, although some reviewers found the novel confusing, many believed that Naylor had established herself as an important author with Mama Day.
In the 1990s, the novel has received substantial attention from critics and scholars who have found it a rich and multi-layered text deserving serious analysis. Some specifically deride earlier reviewers for misunderstanding the novel. Missy Dehn Kubitschek wrote in a Melus essay, for example, that "The major reviews of Naylor's 1988 novel, Mama Day, refuse in crucial ways to grant the novel's donnée, even when they are generally positive." They do so, she argues, because they oversimplify the novel's message, seeing it as belonging to "one or another overly exclusive tradition." The wide variety of analyses of the novel, which focus on many equally important aspects of the novel, attest to Ku-bitschek's claim that Mama Day is a much richer text than reviewers first realized.
Some of the most prominent interpretations of the novel focus on the use of quilting imagery, the importance of magic and hoodoo traditions, and allusions to The Tempest. Scholars such as Susan Meisenhelder, in the African-American Review, and Margot Anne Kelley, in Quilt Culture, have emphasized the importance of quilting to both the form and substance of Mama Day. As Meisenhelder argued, "Naylor repeatedly stitches past, present, and future together," and "Mama Day is … a complex narrative quilt of distinct voices." This structure of the novel as quilt helps reinforce the novel's message for Meisenhelder, which she interpreted as the "failure to see 'the whole picture,' to see history, community, and relationships between men and women as quilts, dooms black people to the madness and suicide characterizing white tragedies."
Others have seen the use of magic as the defining aspect of the novel, including Elizabeth T. Hayes, who argued in The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor that "the magical is as quotidian in Mama Day as peach pie," making the novel a prime example of "magic realism." Hayes also linked this approach to African-American culture, as do other critics like Lindsey Tucker, who explicated in her article for the African-American Review the importance of conjure women such as Mama Day to Southern black folk culture, and Helen Fiddyment Levy, who in her book Fiction of the Home saw Naylor's use of magic and myth as powerful themes linking her characters to the African-American community.
Finally, many scholars have seen many direct connections between Mama Day and works by Shakespeare. Peter Erickson argued in his book Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves that Naylor revises Shakespeare, questioning the importance of the white literary tradition he represents and elevating the black folk tradition represented by the community of Willow Springs. As he and other critics, including Kubitschek, have pointed out, Naylor specifically engages The Tempest by making Willow Springs an island community that appears on no map, naming her protagonist Miranda, and having a hurricane descend upon the island at the novel's climax. But Naylor revises Shakespeare's play, as Erickson argued, by "rewrit[ing] the exchange between Prospero and Caliban concerning ownership," giving the slave descendants ownership of the island, and by making Miranda (Mama Day) a wise old woman with divine gifts and matriarchal power as opposed to the innocent daughter of The Tempest. Miranda, in effect, becomes the Prospero figure, with a significant difference: she does not abuse her power.
Some critics also point to links between Mama Day and Hamlet and King Lear. In addition to these main interpretive approaches to Mama Day, there are still many others, most notably emphasizing black sisterhood, motherhood, and generational heritage in the novel. Overall, the criticism of Mama Day exhibits the text's many interpretive possibilities.
Jane Elizabeth Dougherty
Dougherty is a Ph.D candidate at Tufts University. In the following essay, she explores issues of culture and history in Mama Day.
Mama Day is set on two islands, the island of Manhattan and the island of Willow Springs, which lies off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina but is proudly independent of both. Manhattan represents a place where cultures collide, while Willow Springs is culturally homogenous, home to a group of African-American residents who claim a conjure woman as their ancestor. The three differing perspectives of the novel, those of George, Cocoa, and what Vincent Odamtten identifies as the voice "of the island of Willow Springs, an ancestral choral voice," reflect the differences in each voice's cultural background and history as well as the differences among the past, the present, and the future. The narrative trajectory of the novel is one that honors the shared African-American identity of the two characters and the "ancestral voice" and integrates their multiple perspectives through love, magic, and sacrifice.
Cocoa, who has lived in New York for seven years, has adapted to the city by learning not to trust men and isn't open to the diverse people of New York, to whom she refers in terms of ethnic foods, thus diminishing the people around her to ethnic stereotypes. George, who has grown up in New York, takes it upon himself to teach Cocoa that.
My city was a network of small towns, some even smaller than here in Willow Springs. It could be one apartment building, a handful of blocks, a single square mile hidden off with its own language, newspapers and magazines—its own laws and codes of behavior, and sometimes even its own judges and juries. You'd never realize that because you went there and lived on our fringes. To live in New York you'd have to know about the florist on Jamaica Avenue who carried yellow roses even though they didn't move well, but it was his dead wife's favorite color. The candy store in Harlem that wouldn't sell cigarettes to twelve-year-olds without notes from their mothers. That they killed live chickens below Houston, prayed to Santa Barbara by the East River, and in Bensonhurst girls were still virgins when they married. Your crowd would never know about the sweetness that bit at the back of your throat from the baklava at those dark bakeries in Astoria or from walking past a synagogue on Fort Washington Avenue and hearing a cantor sing.
What Do I Read Next
- In American Voudou: Journey into a Hidden World (1998), Rod Davis gives a personal account of his journey through America, primarily the South, to discover how African voodoo has been preserved and transformed in America. He describes his encounters with the practitioners of and believers in the many forms of African voodoo, such as hoodoo, root medicine, spiritual healing, and black magic.
- Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men (1935) records the folk tales, songs, and voodoo customs and beliefs of southern blacks that Hurston collected on her many travels through the South.
- Bruce Jackson's essay "The Other Kind of Doctor: Conjure and Magic in Black American Folk Medicine," in the book African American Religion: Interpretive Essays in History and Culture (1997), edited by Timothy E. Fulop and Albert J. Raboteau, pays serious attention to the long-ignored practice of hoodoo or conjure as a healing art in African-American folk culture.
- Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow (1983) is about a black family's upward mobility in New York, its subsequent struggle with materialism, and the return of the widow Avey Johnson to her cultural roots on an island in the Caribbean.
- Nobel-prize winner Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) tells the story of a mother's desperation to protect her children from slavery. The novel blurs the boundaries between the real and the unreal, the living and the dead, and the past and the present.
- In The Tempest William Shakespeare tells the story of the magician Prospero and his efforts to retain control over his daughter, Miranda, and the other inhabitants of their secluded island. This play is often referred to by critics as an American allegory.
- Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use" (1973) explores the importance of quilting to nurturing black sisterhood and keeping intergenerational ties intact.
George respects the diversity of the cultures and histories of New York, and as a result of his openness towards others, which he teaches to Cocoa, they are able to fall in love. As Rachel Hass writes, "George and Cocoa are two nations learning to speak one another's language" and to respect one another's "laws and codes of behavior," even if it means that Cocoa must tolerate George's football obsession and he must learn that for a woman, "the shortest distance between two points is by way of China." Though George and Cocoa's marriage represents a kind of cross-cultural exchange, George, unlike Cocoa, is a man "without history." The orphaned son of a prostitute and one of her johns, George has been taught that "only the present has potential," and his outlook is that of a rationalist, someone who looks toward the future. George and Cocoa do not go to Willow Springs until their fourth year of marriage, and Cocoa speaks of this trip as a "crossing over" into the realm of magic, a place "where time stands still" because the past, present, and future are intertwined. Naylor notes that her book is magical in several different ways:
I moved from the most universally accepted forms of magic into those things that we're more resistant to accepting. You're first made aware, in the first twelve or thirteen pages, that the act of reading, itself, is an act of magic. That's when the narrator turns to you and says, "Ain't nobody really talking to you." And yet, by that point you've laughed with these people, you've been moved by certain parts of their stories. And they say, "We're not real." And then the reader should go, "Oh, of course, the magic of the imagination!"
I move from that into having a man like George and a woman like Cocoa, who are totally incongruent, meet and fall in love. We all have in our circles two individuals who we don't know what in the hell they're doing with each other. We do accept that; we accept the magic of love. And then, from there, I take you to the last frontier. That's where there are indeed women who can work with nature and create things which have not been documented by institutions of science, but which still do happen. So the book's an exploration of magic.
Willow Springs, unlike the island of Manhattan, is homogenous, a place with distinct and longstanding cultural traditions which unite the islanders. The inhabitants there trace their ownership of the land to a conjure woman whose body may have been enslaved, but who owned her own mind. The island reflects this legacy, of magic and independence, in its cultural traditions, including Candle Walk, which celebrates the events of 1823, when the conjure woman took title to the island, and the "standing forth," a funeral service in which the living imagine what the deceased will be doing the next time they see him or her. Willow Springs truly does have its "own laws and codes of behavior," honoring no "mainside" laws, and maintaining a sense that the dead remain with the living and that the living must honor the connections with the dead and among themselves. In contrast to George's idea that only the present has potential, the past is always with the inhabitants of Willow Springs.
One example of this is the hurricane. All the islanders have heard stories about the last big hurricane, and the stories teach them how to prepare for and handle a big storm, including not building close to the water. On a metaphoric level, the hurricane represents the sorrowful history of African-Americans:
The old walnut clock ticks on behind the soft murmuring of Abigail's voice, while far off and low the real winds come in. It starts on the shores of Africa, a simple breeze among the palms and cassavas, before it's carried off, tied up with thousands like it, on a strong wave heading due west. A world of water, heaving and rolling, weeks of water, and all them breezes die but one. I cried unto God with my voice, even unto God with my voice. Restless and disturbed, no land in front of it, no land in back, it draws up the ocean vapor and rains fall like tears. Constant rains. But it lives on to meet the curve of the equator, where it swallows up the heat waiting in the blackness of them nights. A roar goes up and it starts to spin: moving counterclockwise against the march of time, it rips through the sugar canes in Jamaica, stripping juices from their heart, shredding red buds from the royal poincianas as it spins up in the heat. Over the broken sugar cane fields—hot rains fall. But it's spinning wider, spinning higher, groaning as it bounces off the curve of the earth to head due north. Thou boldest of mine eyes waking; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times. A center grows within the fury of the spinning winds. A still eye. Warm. Calm. It dries a line of clothes in Alabama. It rocks a cradle in Georgia. I call to remembrance my song in the night. I commune with my own heart—A buried calm with the awesome power of its face turned to Willow Springs. It hits the southeast corner of the bluff, raising a fist of water to smash into them high rocks. It screams through Chevy's Pass. And my spirit made diligent search—the oak tree holds. I will meditate also of all thy work, and talk of thy doings—the tombstone of Bascombe Wade trembles but holds. The rest is destruction.
The storm begins in Africa, "tied up with thousands like it," enduring a "restless and disturbed" passage across the ocean in which the "rains fall like tears," then sweeps across the Caribbean and the Southern states. By personifying her descriptions of the storm, Naylor links it to the experience of slavery, which continues to haunt George and Cocoa as well as the Day ancestors. Cocoa is ashamed of her pale skin, which is the legacy of slaveholders' rapes, and George's emphasis on the present is, in part, a denial of this legacy. Likewise, some of the Day ancestors are "broken-hearted men" and women "who died without knowing peace." In order for Cocoa to get well, when she falls ill due to the treachery of Ruby and the aftermath of the hurricane, George must connect to Cocoa's past and to the larger history of African-Americans. Naylor writes of George:
His heart gives out on him. He was meant to find nothing there, to just bring back his hand to Mama Day. That was it. And she would have just held his hand, which would have been a physical holding as well as a metaphysical holding of hands with him and with all the other parts of Cocoa's history, the other men whose hands had worked and who had broken hearts. But George could not see that because he was a practical individual. There was nothing there for him. But he still saves Cocoa through the powers of his own will.
Like the hurricane, Cocoa's illness is destructive and sorrowful, but George heals her through the power of a love that is stronger than any hatred, redeeming the past and its suffering. George does not believe in the magical worldview of the people of Willow Springs, but he creates his own magic, saving Cocoa by "the powers of his own will," doing what the other Day men have not been able to do. In redeeming the past Days, George becomes an ancestor, and his voice in the text is an ancestral voice. After his death, he stays on Willow Springs, and he lends his name to Cocoa's second son. By confronting the darker forces of Cocoa's past and of the island's history, through the magic of a sacrificing love, George unites the past, the present and the future and ensures that the Days will go on.
Source: Jane Elizabeth Dougherty, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
In the following review, Mukherjee suggests that literary excess is a blessing in Mama Day.
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Source: Bharati Mukherjee, "There Are Four Sides to Everything," in The New York Times Book Review, February 21, 1988, p. 7.
In the following excerpt, Kakutani gives a mixed review of Mama Day.
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Source: Michiko Kakutani, in a review of Mama Day, in The New York Times, February 10, 1988, p. C25.
Rita Mae Brown, a review in Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Amistad, 1993, pp. 13-15.
Peter Erickson, "'Shakespeare's Black?': The Role of Shakespeare in Naylor's Novels," in Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Amistad, 1993, pp. 231-48.
Allison Gloch, "A Woman to Be Reckoned With," in Special Report, January-February, 1993, pp. 22-25.
Rachel Hass, a review in Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Amistad, 1993, pp. 22-23.
Elizabeth T. Hayes, "Gloria Naylor's Mama Day as Magic Realism," in The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor, edited by Sharon Felton and Michelle C. Loris, Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 177-86.
Margot Anne Kelley, "Sister's Choices: Quilting Aesthetics in Contemporary African-American Women's Fiction," in Quilt Culture: Tracing the Pattern, edited by Cheryl B. Torsney and Judy Elsley, University of Missouri Press, 1994, pp. 49-67.
Missy Dehn Kubitschek, "Toward a New Order: Shakespeare, Morrison, and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day," in Melus, Vol. 19, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 75-90.
Helen Fiddyment Levy, "Lead on with Light," in Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Amistad, 1993, pp. 263-84.
Michelle C. Loris, "Interview: 'The Human Spirit Is a Kick-Ass Thing," in The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor, edited by Sharon Felton and Michelle C. Loris, Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 251-63.
Susan Meisenhelder, "'The Whole Picture' in Gloria Naylor's Mama Day," in African-American Review, Vol. 27, No. 3, 1993, pp. 405-19.
Bharati Mukherjee, a review in Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Amistad, 1993, pp. 19-21.
Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison, "A Conversation," in Southern Review, Vol. 21, Summer, 1983, pp. 567-93.
Linda Simon, a review in Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Amistad, 1993, pp. 15-18.
Lindsey Tucker, "Recovering the Conjure Woman: Texts and Contexts in Gloria Naylor's Mama Day," in African-American Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, 1994, pp. 173-88.
Tamala Edwards, "A Conversation with Gloria Naylor," in Essence, June, 1998, p. 70.
Edwards interviews Naylor on the occasion of the publication of her most recent book, The Men of Brewster Place.
Sharon Felton and Michelle C. Loris, editors, The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor, Greenwood Press, 1997.
This collection of articles on Naylor's works provides a helpful sampling of the criticism on Mama Day, with discussions of the quilting motif, the importance of the conjure woman, the work's revision of The Tempest, and the work's use of magical realism. An interview with Naylor is also included.
Virginia C. Fowler, Gloria Naylor: In Search of Sanctuary, Twayne, 1996.
Fowler's book provides a biography of Naylor as well as a discussion of her novels through Bailey's Cafe. There is also an interview with Naylor.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, editors, Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, Amistad, 1993.
Included in this book are many of the initial reviews of Mama Day as well as some criticism of Naylor's works.
Rhea Mandulo, "Georgia on My Mind," in Essence, March, 1993, p. 144.
Recounts the author's trip to the Sea Islands of Georgia, a trip partially inspired by the island of Willow Springs in Mama Day.
Vincent Odamtten, "Reviewing Gloria Naylor: Toward a Neo-African Critique," in Of Dreams Deferred, Dead or Alive: African Perspectives on African-American Writers, edited by Femi Ojo-Ade, Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 115-29.
Reads Naylor's text as a reflection of African ideas about religion, family, and culture.
Donna Perry, an interview in Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out, Rutgers University Press, 1993, pp. 218-42.
In this interview, Perry focuses on Naylor's relationship to other female writers and asks Naylor questions about each of her first four novels.
V. R. Peterson, a review in People Weekly, April 18, 1988, p. 9.
A mostly favorable review which praises Naylor's writing style but criticizes her characterizations.
Charles Rowell, "An Interview with Gloria Naylor," Callaloo, Winter, 1997, pp. 179-92.
This interview focuses mostly on Naylor's process of becoming a writer and her ideas about literature.
"Mama Day." Novels for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/mama-day
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