Terry McMillan Essay - Critical Essays

Terry McMillan American Literature Analysis

It has distressed some African American activists that McMillan does not focus on racism or social inequities. Although she sometimes touches on such matters, for example, having the heroine of How Stella Got Her Groove Back deplore the poverty that she sees in Jamaica, McMillan’s primary emphasis is on personal fulfillment, particularly for black women. Mildred Peacock in Mama and Viola Price in A Day Late and a Dollar Short grew up at a time when African American women did not have the opportunities their daughters and granddaughters enjoy. As a result, they were trapped in poverty and abused by worthless men. Many of the black women of McMillan’s generation are well-educated, upwardly mobile, bright women like the author herself, and therefore they have many more options. However, they too throw themselves away on men who do not deserve them, take refuge in addiction to drugs or alcohol, or simply resign themselves to loneliness. As McMillan herself moved into middle age, she began writing about the problems that women face in a society that puts a premium on youth. In focusing on personal matters rather than on ideology, McMillan has led the way for black women writers to produce realistic works based on their own experiences and observations, works that reflect the radically different world in which they live.

McMillan’s defense against complaints about her use of profanity is, again, her insistence on realism. Her characters, she says, speak as they would in real life, and the fact that so many of her fans compare reading a McMillan novel to talking with their girlfriends supports the author’s argument. By seeming simply to report her characters’ thoughts and conversations, McMillan achieves an effect of immediacy that would be lost if she wrote in chaste, formal prose.

The most vehement criticisms of McMillan, however, concern her attitude toward African American men. A major theme in McMillan’s novels is the difficulty that black women have in finding partners who are worthy of them. In contrast to her strong, responsible, independent women, McMillan’s black male characters are weak and unreliable. They tend to define manliness in primitive terms of their power to subdue women or to seduce them.

Many of McMillan’s men are like Crook Peacock in Mama, who makes a habit of getting drunk, breaking whatever fragile objects his wife treasures, and then giving her a thorough beating, which can be halted only by her agreeing to sexual intercourse. Even those male characters who do not descend to physical violence are only too willing to exploit the women who love them. In Waiting to Exhale, for example, a man in whom one of McMillan’s heroines has invested three thousand dollars is repeatedly unfaithful to her, while the wealthy husband of another not only deserts his wife but also tries to escape with all of their property, heartlessly leaving her and their children in desperate financial straits.

Many of McMillan’s male characters truly believe that they are worth supporting merely for their sexual skills. Even the relatively sympathetic Franklin Swift, who eventually reforms, seems through most of Disappearing Acts to be much better at talking about improving his lot in life than at doing anything about it. Admittedly, in the segments of the book that are written from Franklin’s point of view rather than through the eyes of his long-suffering lover Zora Banks, McMillan makes it clear that not all of Franklin’s problems are his own fault. It is difficult for an uneducated black man to get a job, and even when, through the quota systems, Franklin manages to do so, he is before long laid off, sold out by his own representative. Franklin cannot be accused of not trying; his flaw is that he gives up too easily. It is obvious that most of his problems could be solved if he took the trouble to get an education. Unlike the determined Zora, however, Franklin is too weak-willed to do so. It is easier to get drunk and let Zora worry about the bills.

Because the women in her novels are so much more impressive than the men, most of whom impress one as being essentially childish, McMillan is often accused of blatant “male-bashing.” Again, her answer is that she is writing about things as they are, not as they ought to be. While her women characters do make some scathing comments about the men in their lives, McMillan does not believe that men cannot change; indeed, as a satirist, she is committed to point out their shortcomings in hope that at least some of them will improve. If it is a generational matter, then the answer might be found in How Stella Got Her Groove Back. The handsome young Jamaican in the story is sensitive, considerate, and ambitious. Moreover, as an open-minded, modern man, he has no trouble falling in love with a woman who is twenty years older. Ironically, the young man McMillan herself found in Jamaica, who later became her husband, proved to be a bitter disappointment. Her later books suggest that a woman may be better off settling for the love of children and the friendship of other women than in giving her heart to a man who, one way or another, is almost certain to break it.


First published: 1987

Type of work: Novel

Despite personal disappointments and desperate poverty, a strong black woman gives her children a chance for a better future.

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, particularly her needs for sex and alcohol. At one point, when her nerve pills are not enough, she has a nervous breakdown. However, she pulls herself together and rejoins the battle. At the end of the book, she sees all of her daughters settled, and she even has hopes for her prodigal son, who has sworn to stay away from the drugs that have caused him to land in prison.

In telling Mildred’s story, McMillan alternates between two points of view, that of Mildred herself and that of her oldest daughter, Freda Peacock. Even though the two characters are often separated in the second half of the novel, each is always a part of the other’s consciousness. Moreover, because mother and daughter share the same strengths, notably intelligence, determination, and an amazing capacity for hope, as well as the same weaknesses, including a susceptibility to addiction and a real talent for deluding themselves about men, the two lives often seem like one. Although it seems straightforward and simple, in fact Mama is intricately patterned and carefully choreographed, with the two main characters advancing and retreating until, at the end of the novel, they join in a touching expression of their love for each other.

Disappearing Acts

First published: 1989

Type of work: Novel

Two urban lovers with little in common except their feelings for each other move toward real commitment.

Disappearing Acts has been called an urban romance. It is, in essence, simply another New York City love story, as funny as the best works of Neil Simon. Underneath the wisecracks, the idiotic behavior, and the foolish misunderstandings that qualify McMillan’s novel as a romantic comedy there is a serious exploration of the nature of human relationships.

It is never easy for one person to love another; when two people differ as much as the lovers in Disappearing Acts, it is particularly difficult. Zora Banks is an educated, ambitious black woman, a gifted singer and songwriter who is supporting herself temporarily by teaching music in a junior high school. Franklin Swift is a construction worker with a high school equivalency diploma who for years has been thinking about going to night school and...

(The entire section is 3764 words.)