Mama Day (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
The Afro-American community, since its inception, has maintained fables and legends of heroic figures who have been symbols of inspiration and hope through the long, hard times of slavery and discrimination. Appearing at first in songs, stories, and chants in the oral tradition and then recapitulated and retold in novels by black writers such as Toni Morrison (Beloved, 1987) and David Bradley (The Chaneysville Incident, 1981), these mythic/realistic creations have countered the stereotypical, indifferent, and ignorant reduction of black American culture. In Mama Day, Gloria Naylor has developed one of the strongest and most interesting characters of this ongoing tradition and has used her as the central pivot of a multiphased, complex novel that attempts not only to register the rich textures of an essentially pure—that is, separated from the white world—black community but also to show the inevitable intertwining of black and white American societies. The tensions and conflicts resulting from this fusion, and from the reactions between country/city, ancient/modern, and rational/mystical approaches to life, are all brought toward possible resolutions through the wisdom and experience of Miranda “Mama” Day.
To present a picture of the richness of black cultural experience in the United States, Naylor has charted a...
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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.
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Questions and Answers: Prologue and Part I, pp. 3-66
1. What is unique about the geography and history of Willow Springs, and how is this important to its residents?
2. What is Mama Day's significance to the community of Willow Springs?
3. What role is Cocoa expected to fulfill in her family, and what are the potential implications of failing in that role?
4. What difficulties are faced by Cocoa in New York, and what is the significance of those obstacles for African-American women during this time period?
5. What are the primary similarities and differences between George and Cocoa, and how are they important to the development of the plot in this section?
1. Willow Springs is an independent island, separate from the United States. This status is the result of its unique history. It neither appeared on early maps of the region nor belonged to an American citizen. Its separation from the mainland has been maintained by an unwillingness of its residents to surrender their control or cultural autonomy. The island is a symbol of freedom for its residents, many of whom are direct descendants of former slaves.
2. Mama Day is the matriarch of Willow Springs. She is the great-granddaughter of Sapphira Wade, the slave woman who obtained both the island and freedom from her master. Yet Mama Day’s role on the island is much more than symbolic. She leads the islanders' attempt to preserve their...
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Questions and Answers: Part I, pp. 66-165
1. What fears are shared by Cocoa and George during their romance, and what do those fears suggest about their future as a couple?
2. What does Miranda fear from the marriage of Cocoa and George?
3. How is Miranda’s character developed in this section, and what are the implications for the portrayal of motherhood in the novel?
4. How do the depictions of Candle Walk night impact the setting and plot?
5. What is the mood at the end of Part I, and what does that atmosphere portend for Part II?
1. Cocoa and George both fear the loss of the other; they believe their love is “too good to last.” These fears suggest that the future of the couple will be determined by their ability to reconcile differences in their background and beliefs.
2. Miranda fears that Cocoa will suffer as a wife and mother, much like the Day women of the past. The marriage symbolizes Cocoa’s transition into these roles and, accordingly, the possible realization of this fate.
3. The complexity of Miranda’s character emerges quite clearly in this section. She expresses both pride and regret over her role as the matriarch of her community. Her willingness to dedicate so much time and energy to her neighbors masks a neglect of her own needs and concerns that become apparent for the first time in this section of the book.
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Questions and Answers: Part II, pp. 166-242
1. What does the island symbolize in the relationship between Cocoa and George, and how does that symbolism help to develop the plot in this section?
2. Why is it appropriate that George fears rejection during the trip to Willow Springs?
3. What role does the first week on the island play within the overall plot of the book?
4. What is the relationship between the fight waged by Cocoa and George and the primary themes of the book?
5. Why is the outcome of the fight expected, and what does this fact suggest about events to come?
1. The island symbolizes the differences in the personalities and backgrounds of Cocoa and George; the trip to Willow Springs thus helps to highlight the conflict that develops between the couple in this section.
2. George’s fear is appropriate because the island challenges the beliefs and assumptions that are most integral to his character. The trip constitutes a test of not only his patience but also his character.
3. The first week becomes the calm before the storm that follows. It provides opportunities for George to learn about Willow Springs and for the Days to contemplate their hopes for the family, especially the long-awaited arrival of heirs to their land and lifestyle.
4. The fight emphasizes the themes of history and identity in the novel. It begins with Cocoa’s...
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Questions and Answers: Part II and Conclusion, pp. 242-312
1. What are the effects of the hurricane on George?
2. What are the circumstances surrounding Cocoa’s illness, and why are they so difficult for George to believe?
3. How is George’s fate tragic, and what is the potential impact of his fate on the plot?
4. How does Cocoa bring meaning to the loss of George?
5. What brings peace to Miranda at the end of the book, and how is that outcome significant?
1. The hurricane convinces George of his powerlessness against nature, or God, and his insignificance within the scope of creation. It seems to alter his perspective on the world by modifying his love of logic with a newfound respect for mystery.
2. Cocoa has been poisoned by Ruby, who imagines that the young woman has been flirting with Junior Lee. George possesses neither the knowledge nor experience of Willow Springs needed to believe that hoodoo magic could kill Cocoa.
3. George is unable to overcome his dependence on logic; this failure limits his ability to survive the crisis of Cocoa’s illness. His inability to escape desperate circumstances seems to mirror the experience of loss suffered by the Day women from generation to generation.
4. Cocoa lets herself experience the ongoing, painful process of grief. She realizes that George will always symbolize a great love for her that will not be diminished by...
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One of the most striking aspects of Mama Day is its use of multiple 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 every thing 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...
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Naylor's choice of point of view subtly reinforces cultural differences and the constant influence of the past, the importance of tradition, the possibility of magic, and the presence of the inexplicable. The point of view alternates between first-person sections in George's and Cocoa's voices and third-person sections that follow Miranda's activities during the same time period. In Cocoa's and George's sections, they take turns addressing each other, reminiscing about their meeting and relationship. These sections contain hints of Cocoa's emotionalism and her tendency to jump to conclusions and of George's more careful, restrained, and logical approach. But because the two presumably tell their stories after the novel's events and from a more mature perspective, their voices contain an overlay of self-awareness and a suggestion of more integrated personalities. The language in their first-person sections also calls attention to their education and greater assimilation into mainstream society.
A more communal spirit is reflected in the collective voice that narrates the third-person sections, and the more colloquial language reflects the flavor of the culture. With a prologue and ending suggesting that Cocoa returns to Willow Springs to "talk" to George, the first-person sections become the conversations that they have, resembling in form a Willow Springs tradition known as a "Standing Forth." This is a kind of funeral without flowers or music in which...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
The issues of gender, race, and culture raised by the novel ought to promote lively discussion; the roles of faith and reason, rationality and intuition are also themes that attract controversy. In addition, the novel provides many opportunities for technical discussion; for instance, the stream-of-consciousness flashback scenes and more difficult lyrical passages function almost as puzzle pieces that help the reader understand the role of past generations, the significance of George's final mission, and the ways that Cocoa ultimately changes and matures.
1. Though their ancestors were slaves many generations back—and were rare examples of slaves who were freed and owned substantial property—their legacy continues in the attitudes and traditions of Willow Springs. In what way has this heritage led to positive effects? Negative?
2. Naylor seems to advocate and celebrate women's power as well as activities and values traditionally associated with women and non-Western cultures. What are some of these activities and values? What does Naylor suggest about the role of men? Does she regard more Western, male-centered values such as rationality and logic as worthwhile?
3. In what ways can the novel's mystical events be explained rationally? In what ways are they beyond explanation?
4. How would the novel's meaning shift if the lyrical, dense flashback passages were removed?
5. How do George and Cocoa change in...
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The connections between generations and the legacy of each generation to the next is a central concern in Mama Day. Willow Springs, the novel's main setting, is an island off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia but a part of neither state; this geographical separation is emblematic of its inhabitants' resistance to mainstream American culture and their pride in preserving the values and traditions handed down to them over generations. While this tension between generations and cultures has universal appeal, Naylor uses it to raise other enduring social concerns as well. Because Willow Springs residents are descended from slaves, the effects of racism and colonization are a significant part of their inheritance. Through the Day family's history of strong, powerful women, Naylor celebrates traditionally feminine values and sources of female power while portraying characters of both genders seeking relationship and balance.
The title character, Miranda Day, is, like her ancestor Sapphira Wade, an embodiment of black female power, skilled in the art of healing and attuned to natural forces, abilities that have traditionally been associated with women. Seen as both mysterious and threatening, such abilities were the basis of many accusations of witchcraft throughout European history, a parent phenomenon to the Salem witch scare, which began when a West Indian slave told voodoo tales to a group of young girls. Miranda is a mother figure to many...
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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.
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While critics have compared Naylor's work to that of Ann Petry, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison in its lyrical, often experimental approach to portraying African-American characters and cultures, the most obvious literary precedent is Shakespeare's Tempest. The play centers on exiles on a desert island, contains magical elements, and raises questions about what really constitutes "civilization." Recasting the story from a black woman's viewpoint, Naylor both pays respect to Shakespeare and highlights the divisions between white European culture and that of the descendents of African slaves. Miranda shares a name with Shakespeare's naive young character whose primary function is to serve as the heroine of the play's love plot, and Naylor's Miranda also shares the resistance of tyranny and enslavement exemplified by Shakespeare's Caliban. But perhaps Naylor's most radical move is making Miranda a powerful Prospero-figure; she too is a ruler on her island and like Prospero casts spells, although she relies far more on her own intuition, wisdom, and faith. Prospero's magic book and staff are replicated in the walking stick Miranda uses and the ledger that she finds. Naylor pokes gentle fun at the white male tradition represented by Shakespeare when Cocoa says, "Shakespeare didn't have a bit of soul—I don't care if he did write about … some slave on a Caribbean island."
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Mama Day's characters make passing references to Bailey's Cafe and Linden Hills, titles of two earlier Naylor works. This is the extent of overt connections between the works, although Naylor is throughout her writing critical of social structures that undermine the development of African Americans and interest in feminist themes.
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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 Praise Song 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...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Brown, Rita Mae. Review in Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993, pp. 13-15.
Erickson, Peter. "'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.
Gloch, Allison. "A Woman to Be Reckoned With," in Special Report, January-February, 1993, pp. 22—25.
Hass, Rachel. Review in Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993, pp. 22-23.
Hayes, Elizabeth T. "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.
Kelley, Margot Anne. "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.
Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. "Toward a New Order: Shakespeare, Morrison, and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day," in Melus, Vol. 19, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 75-90.
Levy, Helen Fiddyment. "Lead on with Light," in Gloria Naylor: Critical...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Andrews, Larry R. “Black Sisterhood in Gloria Naylor’s Novels.” College Language Association Journal 33 (September, 1989): 1-25. Andrews argues that Mama Day, like Naylor’s two earlier novels, shows how crucial the sense of community is among black women. By passing this sense of community down through generations, black women can help to give themselves strength in a world so often dominated by men. This tradition, however, is threatened by the modern world, in which women forget their heritage and consequently lose a bridge with the past and a link with the future.
Boyd, Nellie. “Dominion and Proprietorship in Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day and Linden Hills.” MAWA Review 5 (December, 1990): 56-58. Boyd contrasts Naylor’s second and third novels to find that they have different approaches toward a character who leads a community. In Mama Day, Boyd finds that Mama Day—the spiritual leader of Willow Springs—acts as a sort of benevolent dictator. She compares her to William Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest in the sense that she serves as the “island’s conscience.”
Christian, Barbara. “Gloria Naylor’s Geography: Community, Class, and Patriarchy in The Women of Brewster Place and Linden Hills.” In Reading Black, Reading Feminist, edited by...
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