Study Guide

Mama Day

by Gloria Naylor

Mama Day Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Mama Day proceeds, for the most part, in linear fashion and covers the period from Ophelia’s meeting with George in New York to the events occurring prior to and during the storm at the end of the novel. The novel’s present is tied to the past, so much so that Naylor provides her readers with a family tree dating back to 1799, when Sapphira Wade was born. Much of the narration is in the form of a conversation between Ophelia and George, who, although dead, communicates with his wife. Their sections involve their feelings, values, dreams, and responses to the events they experience. In addition to the first-person narratives, Naylor uses Miranda as the character through whom the third-person-limited point of view is revealed. From Miranda’s perspective, readers learn about superstition, magic, family history, and dreams.

Before the novel’s action begins (Naylor has divided the book into two parts, one focusing on New York and the events leading to George’s visit to the island, and one concerning the events that occur during his stay), Naylor provides her readers with a first-person prologue in which Miranda discusses the legend of Sapphira Wade, the history of the island, and a young college boy whose studies prevent him from understanding his past. The point of the prologue is to establish the importance of listening with a mind open to a reality at odds with facts and reason.

Part 1 concerns events in both Willow Springs and New York City, two different worlds associated with two different people, Ophelia and George, who have been shaped by their backgrounds. Although Ophelia believes that “those were awful times for a single woman in that city of yours,” she learns, with George’s help, to see the city as distinct communities and to acknowledge and overcome her own prejudices. Significantly, they are brought together by a letter...

(The entire section is 767 words.)

Mama Day Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Mama Day, Gloria Naylor’s third novel, tells the story of Ophelia (Cocoa) Day and George Johnson, who later becomes her husband, and her initiation into the Day family. The novel is divided into three parts and opens with a brief prologue in which an anonymous, omniscient narrator sets the date as August, 1999; the rest of the novel is therefore a series of flashbacks. The prologue also tells the genealogy of the Days, the most important family of Willow Springs, an isolated island; although claimed by both South Carolina and Georgia, it is ignored and allowed to set its own laws and be independent of any outside control. Originally a slave plantation, the island was owned by Bascombe Wade, who in 1819 purchased a slave named Sapphira. He subsequently fell in love with her and took her for his wife. Four years later, after persuading him to free his slaves and deed the island to them, she killed him. That year— 1823—marks the beginning of time on Willow Springs, and all local history is dated from it.

Sapphira had a reputation as a conjure woman, a woman who could work spells and control nature. By persons unknown, she bore seven sons; the youngest, Jonah, who later took the surname “Day,” had seven sons as well, including a youngest named John-Paul. An African legend, continued in the South, holds that the eldest daughter of the seventh son of a seventh son would be unusually blessed with “conjure” powers, and this held true as the first of John-Paul’s daughters, Miranda (born in 1895), became the matriarch of Willow Springs. Because she has the gift of prophecy and the ability to work with nature to heal the sick or defeat evil, she is called...

(The entire section is 688 words.)

Mama Day Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

If Linden Hills strains credulity, then the main setting of Mama Day is even more unbelievable, if not downright mythical: Willow Springs, a southern coastal island relatively unwashed by the tides of racism. The island is populated by the descendants of white slaveholder Bascombe Wade and his black wife Sapphira and of other slaves that he freed and deeded land to back in 1823. Since that time, the island has been plagued mainly by malaria, Union soldiers, sandy soil, two big depressions, and hurricanes. The fictitious barrier island lies off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia but is owned by no state. Willow Springs is a backwater of history where the people have been mostly left to themselves, and they have developed a black American culture strongly connected to the land, to their historical beginnings, and even to their African roots.

Willow Springs is a daring concept—an effort to imagine what black life might have been like in America if left free to develop on its own. Naylor acknowledges the concept’s utopian aspects by drawing parallels between Willow Springs and the magical island in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611). Yet the conjuring that goes on in Willow Springs recalls the conjuring in Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (a translation of the thirteenth century African epic published in 1965) and the good magic and bad magic still practiced in parts of Africa. Also very real are the closeness to the land, the recognized status of individuals within the community, the slow pace of life, and the presence of the past—things that rural southerners, black and white, miss when they move to northern cities.

In the novel, such a person is Ophelia “Cocoa” Day, who was born on Willow Springs and raised by her grandmother Abigail and great-aunt Miranda “Mama” Day (descendants of Bascombe and Sapphira Wade). Cocoa left Willow Springs to work in New York City, but she is drawn back to the island for regular August visits. In New York, the novel’s other setting, Cocoa meets George...

(The entire section is 846 words.)

Mama Day Summary

Part I
Though Mama Day is told from three perspectives, the story itself is a simple one; it presents the...

(The entire section is 868 words.)

Mama Day Summary and Analysis

Summary and Analysis: Prologue and Part I , pp. 3-66

Summary
The Prologue offers an introduction to the physical and social settings for the plot of the novel. Willow...

(The entire section is 2218 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part I, pp. 66-165

Summary
Miranda and Abigail write a letter to Cocoa in New York; Ambush, Bernice’s husband, suddenly interrupts the...

(The entire section is 2476 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part II, pp. 166-242

Summary
Miranda finds a mysterious packet of herbs under her front porch and suspects that Ruby has been practicing...

(The entire section is 1493 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Part II and Conclusion, pp. 242-312

Summary
Cocoa and George both seek a “way out” of the fight the next day. They are each paralyzed, however, by...

(The entire section is 2047 words.)