Mama fits into two major African American literary traditions: social realism and black women’s writing. One hallmark of African American literature is its attention to portrayals of real African American life. Often social, political, and economic institutions that oppress African Americans are scrutinized, and how African Americans respond to oppressive conditions can be the focus of a literary work or a major part of the work’s backdrop. McMillan presents with sensitivity and knowledge the hardships that a number of African Americans experienced during the 1960’s and 1970’s, a time when America promised much for African Americans but offered little.
Mama shows one family’s attempts to better itself while adapting to social change. The Peacock family learns that, regardless of what oppressions lurk outside the home, the family is the point of reference. McMillan’s ability to capture the full scope of African American life—the pain, the humor, the triumphs, the earthy and poetic language—dominated initial responses to the novel.
Mama, in giving expression to a number of women characters, articulates and extends the literary tradition of black women. McMillan details Mildred’s inside and outside story, the private self and the public self. In this sense, Mama looks back to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and its theme of a woman’s journey of self-discovery and self-definition in a world that does not value black women. This theme of a black woman searching for self while trying to fulfill some other role, such as mother or wife, also informs McMillan’s Disappearing Acts (1989). McMillan’s first two novels reveal the beautiful and complex stories of those who live in urban black America.