Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Mama Day proceeds, for the most part, in linear fashion and covers the period from Ophelia’s meeting with George in New York to the events occurring prior to and during the storm at the end of the novel. The novel’s present is tied to the past, so much so that Naylor provides her readers with a family tree dating back to 1799, when Sapphira Wade was born. Much of the narration is in the form of a conversation between Ophelia and George, who, although dead, communicates with his wife. Their sections involve their feelings, values, dreams, and responses to the events they experience. In addition to the first-person narratives, Naylor uses Miranda as the character through whom the third-person-limited point of view is revealed. From Miranda’s perspective, readers learn about superstition, magic, family history, and dreams.

Before the novel’s action begins (Naylor has divided the book into two parts, one focusing on New York and the events leading to George’s visit to the island, and one concerning the events that occur during his stay), Naylor provides her readers with a first-person prologue in which Miranda discusses the legend of Sapphira Wade, the history of the island, and a young college boy whose studies prevent him from understanding his past. The point of the prologue is to establish the importance of listening with a mind open to a reality at odds with facts and reason.

Part 1 concerns events in both Willow Springs and New York City, two different worlds associated with two different people, Ophelia and George, who have been shaped by their backgrounds. Although Ophelia believes that “those were awful times for a single woman in that city of yours,” she learns, with George’s help, to see the city as distinct communities and to acknowledge and overcome her own prejudices. Significantly, they are brought together by a letter...

(The entire section is 767 words.)

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Mama Day, Gloria Naylor’s third novel, tells the story of Ophelia (Cocoa) Day and George Johnson, who later becomes her husband, and her initiation into the Day family. The novel is divided into three parts and opens with a brief prologue in which an anonymous, omniscient narrator sets the date as August, 1999; the rest of the novel is therefore a series of flashbacks. The prologue also tells the genealogy of the Days, the most important family of Willow Springs, an isolated island; although claimed by both South Carolina and Georgia, it is ignored and allowed to set its own laws and be independent of any outside control. Originally a slave plantation, the island was owned by Bascombe Wade, who in 1819 purchased a slave named Sapphira. He subsequently fell in love with her and took her for his wife. Four years later, after persuading him to free his slaves and deed the island to them, she killed him. That year— 1823—marks the beginning of time on Willow Springs, and all local history is dated from it.

Sapphira had a reputation as a conjure woman, a woman who could work spells and control nature. By persons unknown, she bore seven sons; the youngest, Jonah, who later took the surname “Day,” had seven sons as well, including a youngest named John-Paul. An African legend, continued in the South, holds that the eldest daughter of the seventh son of a seventh son would be unusually blessed with “conjure” powers, and this held true as the first of John-Paul’s daughters, Miranda (born in 1895), became the matriarch of Willow Springs. Because she has the gift of prophecy and the ability to work with nature to heal the sick or defeat evil, she is called...

(The entire section is 688 words.)