Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Daughters begins with an epigraph to an Alvin Ailey dance: “Little girl of all the daughters,/ You ain’ no more slave,/ You’s a woman now.” Marshall has stated that these words “immediately suggested to me other kinds of slavery, more political and familiar—the bondage of the mind and heart.”

Ursa is the inheritor of the struggles of those daughters who went before her, each one seeking freedom in her own way. Only through heeding their lessons does Ursa gain control over her own life and the freedom necessary to become a complete and happy person.

Celestine is the self-sacrificing woman who lives her entire life for other people, first for Mis-Mack and then for Primus and his only child, Ursa. Abandoned by her family, having neither friends nor lovers, Celestine finds her meaning in servitude. When Ursa is a little girl, Estelle suggests that Celestine take the day off or go to the movies with Estelle and Ursa, but Celestine refuses. Her devotion and loyalty to Primus define her.

Astral Forde is a daughter bound to status and security. After a passionate moment on the beach with a group of handsome football players that turns to rape and then results in pregnancy and abortion, Astral chooses only those lovers who can help her achieve financial and emotional independence. The one man she could have loved, “the nice young fella name Conrad” with whom she worked at the department store, would never be successful. He is sacrificed in favor of men who pay for her bookkeeping and typing classes, men who get her bookkeeping positions, men who are secretaries of public works departments, and men like Primus who will set her up comfortably for the rest of her life.

Ursa’s mother, Estelle, is important for pushing her daughter toward the total freedom she herself was unable to claim. The recurring image of Congo Jane and Will Cudjoe represents an ideal that Estelle believed in when she left her Connecticut teaching job to join her husband in his political life. Ursa had been raised to love the story of these two...

(The entire section is 851 words.)