Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

In Mama Day, Naylor has developed some settings, characters, and themes from her earlier novels, The Women of Brewster Place (1983) and Linden Hills (1985). In each of those novels, she created a fictional world, in the first book an urban and narrowly circumscribed one, in the second, a suburban and more extensive one. Both worlds, however, are consciously created: Brewster Place is the child of developers and politicians, and Linden Hills is created by an African American. Willow Springs, another fictional world, is created by a woman. In fact, Naylor’s worlds tend to be matriarchies in which sisterhood is a recurrent theme. Although it is rare for her women of the same age to be “sisters” (Etta and Mattie in Brewster Place present a significant exception), “sisterhood” seems more common among women from different generations, as is the case with Miranda and Ophelia.

While Naylor’s female characters have remained fairly consistent, there appears to be a softening in her depiction of male African Americans. In The Women of Brewster Place, men are portrayed, with few exceptions, as weak, ineffectual drunks, violent fathers and lovers, or brutal rapists. In Mama Day, George and Ambush are devoted, sensitive men who are committed to their views. Since Naylor has acknowledged and bemoaned the fact that the men in the first novel were not favorably depicted, her Mama Day male characters seem the result of a conscious effort to avoid the male-bashing that some critics have noted in contemporary fiction written by African American women.

Memory and dreams play a large role in Naylor’s fiction. In Mama Day, Ophelia and George have the same dream about her drowning and his reaching out to her; the dream proves accurate on a symbolic level, because she is floundering and needs his touch to recover. Memory, too, is important because of its role in storytelling, a central concern in Mama Day. In the same way that Miranda remembers stories about Sapphira, she remembers and tells readers about Ophelia’s legend. Ophelia herself has recast her own story, changing it each time as she remembers a slightly different past. In fact, Mama Day seems to be as much about narration as it is about character, which may be another way of recognizing the effect of narration on character.