Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Mama, McMillan’s first novel, is the story of an uneducated black woman living in the 1960’s who possesses the strength to survive and the will to hope. Mildred Peacock, the protagonist of the story, is no saint. She swears, she drinks constantly, and whenever she has a good opportunity, she lets a good-looking man have sex with her. Her capacity for violence is established in the much-quoted first sentence of the book, “Mildred hid the ax beneath the mattress of the cot in the dining room.”
As Mildred recalls the night she has just been through, it is clear that she might almost be justified in killing the man who has been her husband for the last ten years. Once again, her drunken husband has battered her, while the five children he professes to love cowered, terrified, waiting for the sounds of fighting to change to the sound of sexual intercourse. Because it is she who provides the financial and emotional support for the family, and her unfaithful husband comes home only to beat her, have sex, and father more children, Mildred finally decides that Crook is not worth keeping. She is going to get a divorce.
The rest of the novel shows how Mildred accomplishes the goal she has set for herself: to raise her children so that they will have a better life than hers. It is not an easy task. She has to deal with heartless employers, persistent rent collectors, and suspicious welfare workers as well as with her own weaknesses,...
(The entire section is 461 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Mama presents the social, communal, psychological, and individual story of Mildred Peacock and her struggles to achieve a satisfying life for herself and her children. Mildred is a resident of Point Haven, Michigan, an industrial town about ninety miles from Detroit. The novel details Mildred’s financial, romantic, and parental problems as she rears five children to adulthood. Though titled Mama, the novel is more concerned with showing one woman trying to be the best mother she can be while also trying to be the best person she can be. The opposition of these roles (mother and individual) fuels much of the tension, conflict, humor, and character development that make Mama such a success.
Set when the Civil Rights, Black Power, student protest, anti-Vietnam War, and feminist movements made their most significant cultural gains, Mama positions its protagonist’s struggle within the larger context of a rapidly changing America. Everybody is a little off balance. The setting emphasizes the turbulence and chaos that mark Mildred’s life.
Mildred’s children are relatively young during the beginning of the novel, and this period is dominated by Mildred’s finding ways to keep a roof over their heads, put food on the table, and keep utilities from being disconnected. Being sole breadwinner is difficult. She works at various times during the 1960’s as a waitress, domestic, unskilled laborer, and, with reluctance, briefly as a prostitute. Eventually, she goes on welfare. Motherhood consumes much energy, and Mildred needs diversions; although...
(The entire section is 655 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer’s Literary Tradition.” In Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990. Emphasizes how black female subjectivity helps to structure many texts in the black women’s literary tradition. Sees Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) as a paradigm for other black women writers.
Hirsch, Marianne. “Maternal Narratives: ‘Cruel Enough to Stop Blood.’” In Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990. Argues that the presentation of black mothers in contemporary black women’s fiction is best understood by analyzing the interactions of daughters in relation to a complicated maternal history.
McMillan, Terry. “Terry McMillan: The Novelist Explores African American Life from the Point of View of a New Generation.” Interview by Wendy Smith. Publishers Weekly 239 (May 11, 1992): 50-51. McMillan discusses Mama, her other fiction, and her place in the publishing industry.
Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983. A collection of interviews with African American women writers.
Wade-Gayles, Gloria. No Crystal Stair: Visions of Race and Sex in Black Women’s Fiction. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1984. Chapter 4, “The Halo and the Hardships: Black Women as Mothers and Sometimes as Wives,” discusses black women writers’ creation of mothers. Pays attention to the contrary impulses or allegiances that dominate black mothers’ lives: allegiances to family and to self. An acceptance of one may mean the other suffers or is neglected.