Summary and Analysis: Prologue and Part I , pp. 3-66
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2218
The Prologue offers an introduction to the physical and social settings for the plot of the novel. Willow Springs, a small island off the southeastern coast of the United States, provides the location. It is a unique place acquired by the legendary slave woman, Sapphira Wade, from her white master in 1823. Stories abound about the methods she used to obtain the deed to the land; it is widely thought that she either seduced, swindled, or even killed her master to obtain the land.
The year 1823 has thus become a symbol in the community used in conversation to denote both suffering and joy: the pain of slavery, the struggle to escape it, and the reward of freedom. In fact, the land itself literally guarantees that reward, for Willow Springs is wholly under the jurisdiction of its owners. It neither appeared on historical maps nor belonged to an American citizen at the time that Sapphira acquired the deed. The island is thus not even officially "American." It lies outside both the literal and figurative borders of the nation, connected to the mainland only by one bridge that must be periodically rebuilt after storms. This fact of physical separation from the mainland, moreover, is bolstered by the cultural awareness of those living in Willow Springs; they are particularly determined not to sell their valuable seaside real estate to developers. Instead, they opt to preserve the unique social and political climate of their island life.
The narrator links the history of the island to the plotline of the novel with the introduction of Mama Day, or Miranda. Mama Day, the great-granddaughter of Sapphira Wade, is the matriarch of the island. She leads the resistance to the developers and epitomizes the spirit of the community. It is Mama Day’s granddaughter, Cocoa, whose life story will comprise the majority of the novel. The Prologue closes with the suggestion that Cocoa’s story will reveal the true and complete meaning of “1823.”
The book is divided into two parts without chapter breaks. Within this structure, the setting and point of view both shift frequently. Time and place move between Willow Springs in the present and New York City in the past. The point of view, on the other hand, alternates between Cocoa and George, Cocoa’s first husband, who both speak in the first person, and an unnamed third-person narrator.
Part I opens with the voices of Cocoa and George, who provide impressions from the day that they first met. It is August of 1980 in a New York diner; George is having lunch away from his office, and Cocoa is taking a break from her increasingly desperate job search. Cocoa remarks that George looks professional and confident. He seems like a good prospect for a date, but she lets the opportunity pass by out of exhaustion and disillusionment, for dating in the city has proven to be almost as difficult as finding a job. Instead, Cocoa leaves for an interview at an engineering firm that she doubts will yield a job, although she has both the requisite education (a business degree) and experience. She “smile[s] sincerely” upon arriving at the firm and discovering that her interviewer is George.
George, an engineer and businessman, recalls his feeling of surprise and shock when Cocoa entered the room. He reveals that he had noticed Cocoa while leaving the diner and suspected that he would see her again. Yet George is unaccustomed to premonitions; his boyhood at an orphanage taught him instead to live only in the “now.” He is therefore “terrified” at the sight of Cocoa sitting down and nervously preparing for the interview; while watching her gestures, he feels like “someone ha[s] stuck a knife into … [his] gut.”
Despite the interest each has in the other, the interview is not a success. George’s tone is too personal when he remarks that Cocoa’s “buttered cream” skin corresponds with her nickname. Cocoa similarly reveals too much by telling George that she must return to Willow Springs for a few weeks. The firm, however, needs to hire someone immediately. Cocoa does not get the job, and the two part ways.
The scene moves to Willow Springs. Miranda, also known as Mama Day, makes plans with her sister Abigail for Cocoa’s upcoming visit. A memory of the death of Peace, a third sister that died in childhood, is interjected just before the discussion begins and demonstrates the closeness of the bond between the sisters. Since Peace's death, Miranda has begun every conversation with Abigail with the question, “You there, Sister?” In fact, family bonds are often foremost in Miranda’s mind. In this scene, she contemplates her hopes for Cocoa. Cocoa is one of the two last women in the Day family line; both girls have gone north to seek their futures. Miranda imagines, however, that the search will be over once a husband, not a job, is secured. Yet Cocoa, unlike her cousin Willa, has failed on this account even after seven years in New York. Her great-aunt is nevertheless hopeful. After all, Cocoa remains closely connected to life in Willow Springs; she thus provides the last chance for the Day women to pass on knowledge and experience of this place to a new generation.
Mama Day, in particular, has special powers that could benefit the lives of any future nieces. Her power is made clear by several examples in this section; she gives herbs to Bernice, a woman suffering from infertility, threatens Doctor Buzzard, the local hoodoo man, from interfering with her efforts, and provides her niece with home remedies for a range of potential ailments. In fact, Mama Day even facilitates further contact between George and Cocoa. She secretly adds a yellow powder to a letter that Cocoa writes to George about the interview and job during her visit in Willow Springs. The powder mysteriously draws George to Cocoa in spite of himself; he effectively sets up another meeting between them by finding a job for her with one of his clients and later sending her roses.
The second meeting, however, is no less successful than the first. Cocoa offends George with her lack of interest in his work, presumed bigotry, as evidenced by the racial epitaphs she uses freely, and naive enthusiasm for New York. Yet she redeems herself by explaining that her racist language masks a fear of living in such a large city among so many different kinds of people. Cocoa even admits that she thinks of George as a “bonbon,” a man that is “dark on the outside and white on the inside.” Cocoa’s ability to fulfill George’s desire for “honesty” in a woman is enough to warrant more dates; the pair tour New York together for the rest of the summer, and a budding relationship is consummated.
Mama Day, published in 1998, is Gloria Naylor’s third novel. It is arguably her most well-known and critically acclaimed work. With the publication of this book, Naylor joined a group of writers—most notably Toni Morrison and Alice Walker—credited with sparking a renaissance in writing by African-American women. It is frequently noted that the life experiences of these authors are a primary motivation for their work. In particular, their fiction often addresses the double-discrimination that African-American women face due to their being both black and female, and the obstacles the women face in striving for equality. In Mama Day, Naylor connects these concerns with a call for recognition of the family and social histories that continue to impact the lives of contemporary African Americans.
It is clear from the Prologue that Willow Springs itself makes recognition, and thus awareness, of African-American history inevitable. Residents of the island, after all, owe their present lifestyle to a past transaction that took place during slavery times. Both the ownership of their lands and the freedom in their daily lives result from a guarantee against outside influence and power procured for them by a black slave woman, Sapphira Wade, in 1823. The irony of this fact underscores its importance. Freedom was gained not only from an unlikely source, a former slave, but also at an unusual time, forty years before emancipation. The history of Willow Springs thus addresses the impact of slavery on the experience of African Americans. A storyline that will address this history accordingly must ask the questions, "How can a history marked by oppression and struggle be integrated into the contemporary experience of African Americans? What kind of role does this history play in that experience? And how should that history be remembered or addressed by all Americans today?"
Naylor addresses these questions metaphorically through the experience of suffering and loss experienced by one family, the Days. This family is particularly concerned with creating a sense of historical continuity and cultural identity for both themselves and their community. Mama Day, after all, is the symbol of these values in Willow Springs. She is the direct descendent of Sapphira Wade and the matriarch of her community. It is Mama Day who leads the effort to preserve this place and the lifestyle it provides, whether by resisting the sale of land or helping her neighbors to thrive. She draws on power gained from the land itself—an awareness of nature that allows her to manipulate its processes—to protect her community from the ailments that threaten them. Yet the plot of the novel suggests that these threats are not so easily thwarted, for Mama Day cannot even protect her own family from the effects of conflict and change.
Cocoa provides the best evidence of this and thus becomes the central figure of the novel. The hope for Cocoa is that she will ensure the survival of both her family and community. She is one of just two surviving female descendants in the Day family and, moreover, the only one to maintain a close connection to Willow Springs. Although she has moved to New York, Cocoa visits home each summer, writes letters each month, and most importantly, thinks about her family and the island almost every day. Both Mama Day, her great-aunt, and her grandmother Abigail thus depend on Cocoa to “take care of [family] business” by bearing a child who will sustain this literal and spiritual connection to Willow Springs. If she fails, the family line will be broken and their ties to the island will be endangered. The community will lose the presence of the one family that seems to be so critical to its long-term survival.
Cocoa is aware of these pressures. However, she is preoccupied with her personal goals rather than family obligations at this stage in life. Her ambitions additionally demand as much time and energy as she can give. Cocoa is looking for a job in the city, arguably the most competitive employment market in the nation, at a particularly difficult time. It is 1980, and Cocoa discovers that jobs seekers are as plentiful as the “endless classifieds” that she peruses each day. The city offers a façade of infinite opportunity while the experience of its streets, subways, and offices speaks to a different reality. Cocoa begins to suspect, in fact, that this reality hinges on an unstated system of discrimination and exclusion, an instance of “racism moved underground.” It is the only cause that can explain the result of her fruitless search. Despite her excellent educational and experiential background, months of job searching yield few leads. Her experience unveils the seemingly invisible, yet nevertheless quite real, obstacles to the success of single, black women even at the end of the twentieth century in a place like Manhattan.
George’s entrance into Cocoa’s life, however, changes both her luck and her destiny. He acts on his mysterious attraction to Cocoa and uses his business connections to find a job for her. Cocoa accepts both his help and advances, though she suspects that he is a traitor to the race, a black man who is “dark on the outside and white on the inside.” She fails to understand him even after several meetings. In fact, the novel's first section introduces a conflict between the pair that proves to be central to their relationship and, hence, to the development of the novel. George is an engineer who has relied on the traits of practicality and responsibility to slowly advance his career. His pragmatism is the inevitable outcome of a childhood spent in a Northern orphanage, where “[h]e learned to invest in [himself] alone” rather than to place his faith in an uncertain future. He is a man of the “now,” of what he sees and feels in the present. Cocoa, by contrast, is a professional woman who has developed a tough exterior that hides an “honesty” and sensitivity attributed to her Southern upbringing. Her brashness has emerged from the disappointment of the failure to secure long-term prospects for either work or romance in the city. She guards her self-respect above all else. Miranda calls herself willful; George finds her to be spunky. In either case, this meeting of two strong spirits promises for a relationship filled with both great passion and heated conflict. As representatives of two different regions, cultures, and approaches to life, Cocoa and George must struggle to understand and care for one another.