Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 634
Mama Day is a novel about women, about a historical sisterhood that spans generations. The novel begins with Sapphira’s bill of sale from 1819 and with Miranda’s various versions of the legend that establishes Sapphira as the first conjure woman. The title of the novel suggests that its protagonist is Mama (Miranda) Day, a literal descendant of Sapphira and her spiritual reincarnation, but Ophelia, Miranda’s successor, is the real protagonist of the novel. All three women are related through legend (Ophelia’s story itself assumes legendary status), dreams, roles, and appearance. Early in the novel, Miranda sees the likeness between Ophelia and Sapphira and notes that Ophelia “brings back the great, grand Mother.”
Ophelia reveals herself through her narrations to George as a bright young woman who has left Willow Springs for Atlanta and New York but remains “at home” in Willow Springs. She retains her hometown values and beliefs (for example, that the way a man chews his food indicates the kind of lover he will be), but she is ambivalent about superstition and magic—she does not accept the potency of Miranda’s powder on the letter she mails to George, for example. From Miranda’s perspective, however, Ophelia is Sapphira’s spiritual descendant, a woman who, unlike George, will ultimately believe in the efficacy of Ruby’s spell.
Although Ophelia is an adult in New York, she continues to be called “Baby Girl” and, later, “Cocoa.” It is not until she has matured and is ready to listen that she becomes Ophelia. Her dreams about drowning call to mind her mother’s drowning and brings to mind the fate of William Shakespeare’s Ophelia in Hamlet (c. 1600). After she survives her experience at Ruby’s hands and recovers, she is ready to take her place as a teller and reteller of stories and to fulfill the promise Miranda saw in her.
George also develops in the course of the novel. Though his is a disciplined life, he is more open than Ophelia in New York; but his urban background, Columbia education, and middle-class trappings do not prepare him for Willow Springs. He sees the surface paradise but cannot see or listen in order to understand. He is, in Abigail and Miranda’s words, a “boy,” a term Dr. Buzzard also applies to him. Dr. Buzzard tells George that Ophelia’s salvation is in Willow Springs, not on the mainland, but George asks, “What do you do when someone starts telling you something that you just cannot believe?”
While George and Ophelia speak conversationally, the sections narrated from Miranda’s perspective are quite different. They contain dialogue, but the essence of the material is in Miranda’s thoughts, dreams, and memories. In effect, Miranda seems both of this world, in which she is midwife, adviser, and guide, and beyond this world, which she can control to some extent. Bernice even brings a dead child named Little Caesar to Miranda in hopes of effecting a resurrection. Naylor presents Miranda’s control ambiguously and comically, noting of her that “when she’s tied up the twentieth century, she’ll take a little peek into the other side—for pure devilment and curiosity.”
Unlike Naylor’s two earlier novels, Mama Day contains some positively portrayed African American males. George is unique among Naylor’s male characters. Even Ophelia’s unnamed second husband wins Miranda’s accolade of a “good second-best.” In Ambush, readers encounter another positive male figure: Bernice’s husband is faithful, supportive, and sensitive, so much so that Ophelia uses him as a point of comparison for George. On the other hand, readers encounter stereotypical male characters such as Junior Lee and Dr. Buzzard; Naylor may have altered her portraits of males, but she remains more interested in her women characters.
Last Updated on January 20, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 267
Ophelia (Cocoa) Day, the protagonist of the novel, is the most interesting character in the book. She grows from an immature young woman into a person with exceptional personal insight. By the end of the story, she has learned not only about human nature but also about her family and herself. Her role in the novel suggests that of an “everywoman,” a character intended to stand as a microcosm for the female African American experience. Although Naylor has argued that her fiction is not didactic, it is hard not to see a moral in the lesson that Cocoa learns.
George Johnson, the most important male figure in the novel, is a well-developed character. Readers are able to see all facets of him, his flaws as well as his virtues. It is easy, however, to sympathize with him throughout the novel, because a reader learns about Willow Springs and the Day family just as he does.
Miranda (Mama) Day, who made a cameo appearance in Naylor’s second novel, Linden Hills (1985), is a marvelous creation. She can be profane and funny as she talks about sex, or sad and introspective as she reflects on her family’s many tragedies. With Mama Day, Naylor has created a character who has a life outside the novel. She comes alive and remains with readers long after the book’s covers have been shut.
Ruby, the only truly evil person in the novel, is little more than a stereotype of an African American witch. She acts in predictable ways, and her character is not developed because it does not need to be.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503
Miranda (Mama) Day
Miranda (Mama) Day, the elderly matriarch of the Day clan and unofficial ruler of Willow Springs. Linked to Sapphira Wade, her ancestor, in terms of possessing intuition, herbal knowledge, and magic, she is a conjure woman with the power to destroy and to heal. As midwife and healer, she has medicinal powers superior to those of medical doctors.
Abigail Day, Miranda’s sister and soulmate, grandmother to Ophelia. Abigail and Miranda know each other’s minds and write joint letters to Ophelia.
Ophelia (Cocoa) Day
Ophelia (Cocoa) Day, who, despite the title of the novel, is the protagonist and one of the narrators in the novel. She is Miranda’s spiritual descendant as Miranda is Sapphira’s. She leaves Willow Springs to make her fortune in New York City, where she meets and marries George Andrews. She returns to Willow Springs for two weeks every August. The novel primarily concerns the events that occur when she brings George home one summer.
George Andrews, a successful engineer with heart trouble. When Ophelia is sick, he is the means by which she is saved, though he loses his life in the process. Although he is dead, he is the other narrator in the novel, and his love not only saves his wife but also enables him to communicate with her.
Sapphira Wade, an African American slave and wife to Bascombe Wade, whose plantation consisted of Willow Springs. She persuaded him to free his slaves and deed his property to them, and she was responsible for his death when he would not free her. The mother of seven sons, she is a legend on the island.
Ruby, Miranda’s adversary, a jealous, murderous “mountain” of a woman who uses magic to kill Frances so that she can marry Junior Lee. When he shows an interest in Ophelia, Ruby uses nightshade and a spell to almost kill her. Miranda destroys her and her home with lightning.
Bernice Duvall, Ambush’s wife, so desperate to have a child that she resorts to quackery and pills. Miranda saves her life and takes her to the “other place,” one associated with Sapphira, to ensure her pregnancy. Her son is known first as Chick, a term related to his appearance and the ritual Miranda performs to help Bernice get pregnant, and then as Little Caesar. He dies in the storm at the end of the novel.
Dr. Buzzard, whose real name is Rainbow Simpson, a bootlegger, gambler, and herbalist with pretensions of possessing magic. Unlike Ruby, he knows better than to challenge Miranda’s magic.
Mrs. Jackson, an administrator and mentor to George at the Wallace P. Andrews Shelter for Boys. Her consistency, sympathy, and fairness help mold George’s character. He is guided by her declaration that only the present has potential.
Dr. Smithfield, a local physician who has confidence in Miranda’s medical knowledge and who works with her on Bernice.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 670
Though she never appears on the page and though her descendants do not even know her name, Sapphira Wade is a pervasive presence. Infantilized in her bill of sale with the label "mischievous," Sapphira Wade emerges as a strong, resistant, and powerful woman, someone who insisted on determining her own fate, a quality passed on to her descendants.
The characters who most obviously inherited her determination and wisdom are Miranda and Abigail, who at eighty-three and eighty are cantankerous and bawdy in their humor as well as possessive of Cocoa, their "Baby Girl." They frequently bicker but are fiercely loyal. Their knowledge of the outside world comes primarily from The Phil Donahue Show, and their impression of cities and Cocoa's life is naive. Yet Abigail, a character who pales in the shadow of Miranda and is comparatively flat, acts with courage when she returns to the site of her own trauma for Cocoa's sake. And Miranda earns the respect of everyone on the island as well as the mainland doctor for her knowledge and skill. Miranda is in many ways larger than life, although she is physically a small woman; Ruby, who misuses her gifts, is large and takes pride in her physical power, but because she is driven entirely by jealousy and hatred, she comes across as small-minded. Ruby is what Cocoa is in danger of becoming if she cannot curb her own possessive jealousy and relentless insecurity; Miranda is what Cocoa has the potential to become as she matures. Initially defensive, prickly, and quick to stereotype others, Cocoa also proves herself to be smart, humorous, and affectionate, especially in her relationship with her grandmother and great-aunt. George first admires Cocoa's spunk, her beauty, and her Southern accent. Cocoa proves that she can take care of herself when she deflects a boss's unwanted attention by circulating rumors about a fictional homicidal ex-boyfriend. She also has enough self-awareness to admit that she sounds bigoted when she is "frightened of change and difference." Though Cocoa is seen as hard-headed and spoiled by her still-adoring relatives, her loss of George jolts her into a new maturity. While Miranda dominates the novel, the change Cocoa finally undergoes makes her the most dynamic character.
George, too, is a three-dimensional character who undergoes internal change before his death. He makes a concession to Cocoa in taking off August to visit Willow Springs with her, and he acts out of love for her when confronted by the possibility of her loss, even when he does not really believe in Miranda's instructions. George is never fully able to let go of his control, which eventually leads to his death, yet he earns the affection and respect of Cocoa's relatives.
If Miranda and Abigail are naive about the world outside of Willow Springs, George is equally naive about the world inside of it, as evidenced by his relationship with Dr. Buzzard. Dr. Buzzard's glib "magic" is a mockery of Miranda's mystical ability; he is a quack, a fraud. Once on the vaudeville circuit, he now sees his own role as a "hoodoo doctor" as equivalent to Mama Day's role as a healer. George infuriates Miranda by repeating a comment Dr. Buzzard has made about his and Mama Day's "professional rivalry." In typical Miranda fashion, she scolds Dr. Buzzard and gently punishes George for repeating and believing the comment and for his slightly condescending attitude by wearing him out on a walk in the woods. Although Dr. Buzzard's reputation is based primarily on others' superstitions, he proves himself to be wise and worthy when he calms George, who is angry that the boat has been taken apart to build the bridge: "Your way woulda been suicide. Our way, that same boat is certain to get you over." Later Dr. Buzzard shows his willingness to trust in larger forces—and his love and loyalty toward Cocoa and her family—when he says, "Can you, at least, believe that you ain't the only one who'd give their life to help her?"
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1825
George is an engineer from New York who marries Cocoa. His first-person narration makes up about a third of the text as he explains to Cocoa his perspective on their courtship, marriage, and visit to Willow Springs. Near the end of the novel, the reader learns that George has died and that he speaks from beyond the grave.
Shortly after his birth, George was abandoned by his mother, who was a prostitute, and raised by whites in an orphanage. There he learned that "only the present has potential" and only "facts" are relevant. He had no use for emotions, beliefs, myths, or superstitions. Once he was on his own, he said, "I may have knocked my head against the walls, figuring out how to buy food, supplies, and books, but I never knocked on wood. No rabbit's foot, no crucifixes—not even a lottery ticket." George has a bad heart and controls his condition with a pill twice a day with strict regularity. His only passion is football, a game that fascinates him by its mathematical possibilities.
When George meets Cocoa, his world is turned upside down. She represents to him a world of great emotions and mysteries. He is especially intrigued by Cocoa's family and her past in Willow Springs. He envies her sense of belonging and tradition. But after their marriage, he continues to spend his vacations traveling to the NFL play-off games rather than going home with Cocoa. After four years of marriage, he finally makes the trip with her. While he at first romanticizes the island and its inhabitants, he is gradually confronted with phenomena that subvert his understanding of how the world works.
George represents contemporary urban African-Americans who have adopted white customs and beliefs and have lost touch with their roots. Having adopted Western rationalism, George sees Mama Day as a "crazy old woman" rather than a powerful conjurer who can save Cocoa from her mysterious illness. The only solution he can see is to travel to the mainland and get a real doctor. Because the bridge has been destroyed by a storm, he half-heartedly helps Mama Day, but he loses control and has a heart attack in his rage. His dying rescues Cocoa from death's door, and he is buried on the island, where Cocoa frequently returns to visit him.
See Cocoa Day.
Dr. Buzzard pretends to be a hoodoo/medicine man, but his powers are trickery, and his remedies are largely made from alcohol from his still. He incurs Mama Day's disrespect for his deception.
Abigail Day is Cocoa's grandmother and Mama Day's sister. She helped raise Cocoa and is a central nurturing figure. She does not possess the knowledge of the natural and supernatural worlds that Mama Day does, and when Cocoa is deathly ill, she can only sing and hope and try to feed her. Abigail has also cut herself off from her past by refusing to ever visit the other place, the home where she grew up.
Cocoa, as the grandniece of Mama Day and the wife of George Andrews, acts as a bridge between their two worlds—African-American mysticism and Western rationalism. Her first-person narration, explaining her point of view to George, makes up about one-third of the text. As a young person who has left Willow Springs and taken up residence in New York, she is in danger of losing touch with her heritage. Although she visits Willow Springs for two weeks every August, she becomes more and more a part of George's world. He introduces her to the "real" New York, and she earns a degree in history, which reminds the reader of Reema's boy, who goes to the mainland and earns an advanced degree only to return to the island a stranger.
When George agrees to visit Willow Springs with her, Cocoa is anxious to show him off to the townspeople, who always viewed her as a kind of freak because of her lighter skin. (Her family had nicknamed her Cocoa to "put some color on her.") But George does not understand her insecurities, and they get in a fight that threatens to tear them apart. While Cocoa is preoccupied with mending her relationship with George, she falls prey to Ruby. Not suspecting the jealous feelings Ruby has towards her, she lets Ruby braid her hair. But this time the ritual, which has helped bond her to the community since she was a child, threatens to destroy her as Ruby poisons her.
During her ensuing illness, Cocoa has horrific hallucinations and pushes George away from her. She begins to believe that worms have invaded her body and are eating her alive from the inside out. Only the soothing strokes of her grandmother's hands can keep the parasites from devouring her. After George saves her by sacrificing his life, and Mama Day nurses her back to health, Cocoa leaves her life in New York and settles in Charleston, a Southern city that keeps her near her home but not fully a part of it. She later remarries and has two sons, one of whom she names George, and she visits Willow Springs often to talk to her first husband about what happened. As Mama Day notes, Cocoa is the only Day woman who has finally "been given the meaning of peace."
Grace, Cocoa's mother, died of grief after her husband was unfaithful to her, leaving Cocoa motherless.
John-Paul was Mama Day's and Abigail's father. He was a talented artist who could carve lifelike images of flowers, and he taught Mama Day to be at home in the woods.
The title character, Mama Day, has acquired her name because as a midwife she has helped to bring into the world nearly ever other inhabitant of the island, although she never married or had children of her own. She also serves as the community's doctor, possessing a vast knowledge of herbal remedies and how to treat most illnesses. She has gained the utmost respect of all of Willow Springs' inhabitants, who revere her as the descendant of Sapphira Wade and the inheritor of her foremother's conjuring powers.
In the first half of the novel, Mama Day helps Bernice become pregnant, performing a mysterious ritual with the help of her chickens. Her true "gift," she believes, is to help things grow. "Can't nothing be wrong in bringing on life, knowing how to get under, around, and beside nature to give it a slight push," she tells herself." "But she ain't never, Lord, she ain't never tried to get over nature."
In the second half of the novel, Mama Day must help save her grandniece Cocoa. Although she has tried to protect Cocoa from Ruby's murderous jealousy, she can only enact revenge on Ruby for poisoning Cocoa by sprinkling a metallic powder around her house, causing lightning to strike twice and kill her. She retreats to the other place, which she visits often, to learn from her Day ancestors how she can save Cocoa. While there, she finds a ledger with the bill of sale for a slave woman, her great-great-grandmother, whose name she has never known. But time has washed away most of the words, leaving only the letters Sa. In a dream, she learns the name Sapphira and that she must listen past the pain of her mothers. She realizes that Cocoa has placed part of herself in George's hands, so she must enlist his help. But because George does not trust her, he cannot bring back the symbol of life from the chickens' nests. Instead, he attacks the chickens and destroys them and himself, saving Cocoa in his own way by sacrificing himself. At the end of the novel, Mama Day is still alive at the age of 104, and she anticipates peeking into the next century before she finally dies.
See Mama Day.
Ophelia was Abigail's and Mama Day's mother. She went mad after her baby Peace died, and she drowned herself in the sound between the island and the mainland.
Peace was Abigail's and Mama Day's younger sister who drowned in the well when she was still a baby. Abigail also named her first daughter Peace, and that child also did not live past infancy.
Ambush is a resident of Willow Springs and is married to Bernice.
Bernice, Ambush's wife, is desperate to have a baby. She enlists Mama Day's aid and undergoes a fertility ritual that allows her to finally get pregnant. Once she has her baby, she proves to be an overprotective and overindulgent mother. Bernice is also Cocoa's best friend from Willow Springs.
Charles is Bernice and Ambush's son. The townspeople call him Little Caesar because his mother treats him like a king. He dies in the hurricane.
Mrs. Jackson was George's teacher at the Wallace P. Andrews Shelter for Boys. She taught him that "only the present has potential, sir."
Junior Lee is a no-good, lazy fool who cheats on his wife, Ruby.
See Charles Duvall.
Reema's boy is from Willow Springs, but once he goes to the mainland and gets an education, he becomes an outsider. He tries to collect research on the island's residents, but they thwart his efforts, and he misunderstands them.
Ruby possesses great powers, but she uses them to hurt other women, in particular those to whom Junior Lee is attracted. She first puts a hex on his long-time girlfriend, who goes mad. Ruby makes Junior Lee marry her. She keeps a watchful eye over him. When Ruby catches Junior Lee making advances towards Cocoa, she lures Cocoa to her house and braids her hair as she has done since Cocoa was a girl, combing poison into her hair and scalp. Mama Day uses her superior powers to kill Ruby with lightning as a result.
Dr. Brian Smithfield, the medical doctor from the mainland, has held a grudging respect for Mama Day ever since she performed a Caesarean section birth with great expertise despite her lack of sophisticated implements or training.
Bascombe Wade was a Norwegian slave-owner whose family originally owned the island of Willow Springs. He fell in love with his slave, Sapphira, and his grief over his inability to completely possess her initiated the tragic history of the Day family.
Sapphira Wade was the great-grandmother of Mama Day. Although her name is no longer known to the residents of Willow Springs, she is remembered as a powerful conjurer and slave woman who convinced her master, Bascombe Wade, to deed all of the island to his slaves. She gave birth to seven sons and then flew back to Africa, the legend goes. "God rested on the seventh day and so would she," hence her family's last name, Day.