Culture and History in Mama Day

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Mama Day is set on two islands, the island of Manhattan and the island of Willow Springs, which lies off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina but is proudly independent of both. Manhattan represents a place where cultures collide, while Willow Springs is culturally homogenous, home to a group of African-American residents who claim a conjure woman as their ancestor. The three differing perspectives of the novel, those of George, Cocoa, and what Vincent Odamtten identifies as the voice "of the island of Willow Springs, an ancestral choral voice," reflect the differences in each voice's cultural background and history as well as the differences among the past, the present, and the future. The narrative trajectory of the novel is one that honors the shared African-American identity of the two characters and the "ancestral voice" and integrates their multiple perspectives through love, magic, and sacrifice.

Cocoa, who has lived in New York for seven years, has adapted to the city by learning not to trust men and isn't open to the diverse people of New York, to whom she refers in terms of ethnic foods, thus diminishing the people around her to ethnic stereotypes. George, who has grown up in New York, takes it upon himself to teach Cocoa that:

My city was a network of small towns, some even smaller than here in Willow Springs. It could be one apartment building, a handful of blocks, a single square mile hidden off with its own language, newspapers and magazines—its own laws and codes of behavior, and sometimes even its own judges and juries. You'd never realize that because you went there and lived on our fringes. To live in New York you'd have to know about the florist on Jamaica Avenue who carried yellow roses even though they didn't move well, but it was his dead wife's favorite color. The candy store in Harlem that wouldn't sell cigarettes to twelve-year-olds without notes from their mothers. That they killed live chickens below Houston, prayed to Santa Barbara by the East River, and in Bensonhurst girls were still virgins when they married. Your crowd would never know about the sweetness that bit at the back of your throat from the baklava at those dark bakeries in Astoria or from walking past a synagogue on Fort Washington Avenue and hearing a cantor sing.

George respects the diversity of the cultures and histories of New York, and as a result of his openness towards others, which he teaches to Cocoa, they are able to fall in love. As Rachel Hass writes, "George and Cocoa are two nations learning to speak one another's language" and to respect one another's "laws and codes of behavior," even if it means that Cocoa must tolerate George's football obsession, and he must learn that for a woman, "the shortest distance between two points is by way of China." Though George and Cocoa's marriage represents a kind of cross-cultural exchange, George, unlike Cocoa, is a man "without history." The orphaned son of a prostitute and one of her johns, George has been taught that "only the present has potential," and his outlook is that of a rationalist, someone who looks toward the future. George and Cocoa do not go to Willow Springs until their fourth year of marriage, and Cocoa speaks of this trip as a "crossing over" into the realm of magic, a place "where time stands still" because the past, present, and future are intertwined. Naylor notes that her book is magical in several different ways:

I moved from the most universally accepted forms of magic into those...

(This entire section contains 1765 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

things that we're more resistant to accepting. You're first made aware, in the first twelve or thirteen pages, that the act of reading, itself, is an act of magic. That's when the narrator turns to you and says, "Ain't nobody really talking to you." And yet, by that point you've laughed with these people, you've been moved by certain parts of their stories. And they say, "We're not real." And then the reader should go, "Oh, of course, the magic of the imagination!"

I move from that into having a man like George and a woman like Cocoa, who are totally incongruent, meet and fall in love. We all have in our circles two individuals who we don't know what in the hell they're doing with each other. We do accept that; we accept the magic of love. And then, from there, I take you to the last frontier. That's where there are indeed women who can work with nature and create things which have not been documented by institutions of science, but which still do happen. So the book's an exploration of magic.

Willow Springs, unlike the island of Manhattan, is homogenous, a place with distinct and longstanding cultural traditions which unite the islanders. The inhabitants there trace their ownership of the land to a conjure woman whose body may have been enslaved, but who owned her own mind. The island reflects this legacy of magic and independence in its cultural traditions, including Candle Walk, which celebrates the events of 1823, when the conjure woman took title to the island, and the "standing forth," a funeral service in which the living imagine what the deceased will be doing the next time they see him or her. Willow Springs truly does have its "own laws and codes of behavior," honoring no "mainside" laws, and maintaining a sense that the dead remain with the living and that the living must honor the connections with the dead and among themselves. In contrast to George's idea that only the present has potential, the past is always with the inhabitants of Willow Springs.

One example of this is the hurricane. All the islanders have heard stories about the last big hurricane, and the stories teach them how to prepare for and handle a big storm, including not building close to the water. On a metaphoric level, the hurricane represents the sorrowful history of African-Americans:

The old walnut clock ticks on behind the soft murmuring of Abigail's voice, while far off and low the real winds come in. It starts on the shores of Africa, a simple breeze among the palms and cassavas, before it's carried off, tied up with thousands like it, on a strong wave heading due west. A world of water, heaving and rolling, weeks of water, and all them breezes die but one. I cried unto God with my voice, even unto God with my voice. Restless and disturbed, no land in front of it, no land in back, it draws up the ocean vapor and rains fall like tears. Constant rains. But it lives on to meet the curve of the equator, where it swallows up the heat waiting in the blackness of them nights. A roar goes up and it starts to spin: moving counterclockwise against the march of time, it rips through the sugar canes in Jamaica, stripping juices from their heart, shredding red buds from the royal poincianas as it spins up in the heat. Over the broken sugar cane fields—hot rains fall. But it's spinning wider, spinning higher, groaning as it bounces off the curve of the earth to head due north. Thou boldest of mine eyes waking; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times. A center grows within the fury of the spinning winds. A still eye. Warm. Calm. It dries a line of clothes in Alabama. It rocks a cradle in Georgia. I call to remembrance my song in the night. I commune with my own heart—A buried calm with the awesome power of its face turned to Willow Springs. It hits the southeast corner of the bluff, raising a fist of water to smash into them high rocks. It screams through Chevy's Pass. And my spirit made diligent search—the oak tree holds. I will meditate also of all thy work, and talk of thy doings—the tombstone of Bascombe Wade trembles but holds. The rest is destruction.

The storm begins in Africa, "tied up with thousands like it," enduring a "restless and disturbed" passage across the ocean in which the "rains fall like tears," then sweeps across the Caribbean and the Southern states. By personifying her descriptions of the storm, Naylor links it to the experience of slavery, which continues to haunt George and Cocoa as well as the Day ancestors. Cocoa is ashamed of her pale skin, which is the legacy of slaveholders' rapes, and George's emphasis on the present is, in part, a denial of this legacy. Likewise, some of the Day ancestors are "broken-hearted men" and women "who died without knowing peace." In order for Cocoa to get well, when she falls ill due to the treachery of Ruby and the aftermath of the hurricane, George must connect to Cocoa's past and to the larger history of African-Americans. Naylor writes of George:

His heart gives out on him. He was meant to find nothing there, to just bring back his hand to Mama Day. That was it. And she would have just held his hand, which would have been a physical holding as well as a metaphysical holding of hands with him and with all the other parts of Cocoa's history, the other men whose hands had worked and who had broken hearts. But George could not see that because he was a practical individual. There was nothing there for him. But he still saves Cocoa through the powers of his own will.

Like the hurricane, Cocoa's illness is destructive and sorrowful, but George heals her through the power of a love that is stronger than any hatred, redeeming the past and its suffering. George does not believe in the magical worldview of the people of Willow Springs, but he creates his own magic, saving Cocoa by "the powers of his own will," doing what the other Day men have not been able to do. In redeeming the past Days, George becomes an ancestor, and his voice in the text is an ancestral voice. After his death, he stays on Willow Springs, and he lends his name to Cocoa's second son. By confronting the darker forces of Cocoa's past and of the island's history, through the magic of a sacrificing love, George unites the past, the present and the future and ensures that the Days will go on.

Source: Jane Elizabeth Dougherty, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999. Dougherty is a Ph.D candidate at Tufts University.

There Are Four Sides to Everything

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

On a note card above my writing desk hang the words of the late American original, Liberace: "Too much of a good thing is simply wonderful."

Excess—of plots and subplots, of major characters and walk-ons, of political issues and literary allusions—is what Gloria Naylor's Mama Day, her third and most ambitious book, is blessed with. "There are just too many sides to the whole story," Cocoa, Mama Day's grandniece, explains at the end of this longish novel, and the story obviously feels urgent enough to both Cocoa and to Ms. Naylor that they present it to us whole.

If novels are viewed as having the power to save, then novelists are obliged, first, to relive the history of the errors of earlier chroniclers and fill in the missing parts. Recent novels like Mama Day, Toni Morrison's Beloved and Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine resonate with the genuine excitement of authors discovering ways, for the first time it seems, to write down what had only been intuited or heard. These are novelists with an old-fashioned "calling" (to bear witness, to affirm public virtues) in a post-modernist world; their books are scaled down for today's microwavable taste, but still linked to the great public voice of 19th-century storytelling.

Mama Day has its roots in The Tempest. The theme is reconciliation, the title character is Miranda (also the name of Prospero's daughter), and Willow Springs is an isolated island where, as on Prospero's isle, magical and mysterious events come to pass. As in The Tempest, one story line concerns the magician Miranda Day, nicknamed Mama Day, and her acquisition, exercise and relinquishment of magical powers. The other story line concerns a pair of "star-crossed" (Ms. Naylor's phrase, too) lovers: Ophelia Day, nicknamed Cocoa, and George Andrews.

Willow Springs is a wondrous island, wonderfully rendered. We learn its secrets only if we let ourselves listen to inaudible voices in boarded-up houses and hard-to-reach graveyards. We find out the way the locals do, "sitting on our porches and shelling June peas, quieting the midnight cough of a baby, taking apart the engine of a car—you done heard it without a single living soul really saying a word."

On this wondrous island, slavery and race relations, lovers' quarrels, family scandals, professional jealousies all become the "stuff as dreams are made on." The island itself sits just out of the legal reaches of Georgia and South Carolina. "And the way we saw it," ghosts whisper, "America ain't entered the question at all when it come to our land.… We wasn't even Americans when we got it—[we] was slaves. And the laws about slaves not owning nothing in Georgia and South Carolina don't apply, 'cause the land wasn't then—and isn't now—in either of them places."

America, with all its greed and chicanery, exists beyond a bridge. The island was "settled" (if that word is ever appropriate in American history) in the first quarter of the 19th century by an Africa-born slave, a spirited woman named Sapphira who, according to legend, bore her master, a Norwegian immigrant named Bascombe Wade, and maybe person or persons unknown, a total of seven sons. She then persuaded Bascombe to deed the children every square inch of Willow Springs, after which she either poisoned or stabbed the poor man in bed and vanished ahead of a posse. We find out the conditions of Sapphira's bondage only at the end of the novel: love, and not a bill of sale, had kept Bascombe and Sapphira together. Bascombe had given up his land to her sons willingly. This disclosure may make for "incorrect" politics, but it is in keeping with the Tempest-like atmosphere of benevolence, light and harmony that Ms. Naylor wishes to have prevail on Willow Springs.

Mama Day, who made a brief appearance in Ms. Naylor's earlier novel, Linden Hills, as the toothless, illiterate aunt, the wearer of ugly, comfortable shoes, the hauler of cheap cardboard suitcases and leaky jars of homemade preserves, the caster of hoodoo spells, comes into her own in this novel.

Mama Day—over 100 years old if we are to believe what folks in Willow Springs say, unmarried, stern, wise, crotchety, comforting—is the true heir of Sapphira Wade. Sapphira and Bascombe's love nest, a yellow house set deep in the woods, yields secrets about the future as well as the past to the witch-prophet-matriarch Mama Day. She is the ur-Daughter to Sapphira's ur-Mother and, in turn, through a Leda-and-the-Swan kind of mysterious dead-of-night visitations, she peoples the land herself.

As long as the narrative confines itself to Mama Day and daily life on the bizarre island full of rogues, frauds, crazies, martyrs and clairvoyants, the novel moves quickly. Curiously, the slow sections are about the love story of 27-year-old Cocoa, who has relocated from Willow Springs to New York, and George Andrews, who is meant to be emblematic of the good-hearted, hard-driving but culturally orphaned Northern black man. The courtship occurs all over Manhattan—in greasy diners, in three-star restaurants, in midtown offices, on subways—giving Ms. Naylor a chance to accommodate several set pieces. But she is less proficient in making the familiar wondrous than she is in making the wondrous familiar. Discussions of black bigotry (Cocoa uses kumquats, tacos and bagels as race-related shorthand and has to be scolded into greater tolerance) or of the alienating effects of Barnard College on black women ("those too bright, too jaded colored girls" is George's put-down) seem like arbitrary asides.

The love story suffers from a more serious flaw. Ms. Naylor, through strident parallels, wants us to compare Cocoa and George to Romeo and Juliet, and their courtship process to the taming of Katharina, the "shrew." The literary plan calls for George to sacrifice his life so that Cocoa might be saved, but the lovers never quite fill-out their assigned mythic proportions. Cocoa just seems shallow and self-centered; and George is a priggish young man who wears dry-cleaned blue jeans for roughing-it on weekends. For their love story to overwhelm us, with "all passion spent," the lovers' intensity should make whole paragraphs resonate. This, unfortunately, Ms. Naylor does not do. It seems the unchallenged domain of the 19th-century novel to link personal passion with the broader politics of an age. Cocoa is not Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, Dorothea Brooke.

But I'd rather dwell on Mama Day's strengths. Gloria Naylor has written a big, strong, dense, admirable novel; spacious, sometimes a little drafty like all public monuments, designed to last and intended for many levels of use.

Source: Bharati Mukherjee, "There Are Four Sides to Everything," in The New York Times Book Review, February 21, 1988, p. 7.

Review of Mama Day

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In her previous novel, Linden Hills Gloria Naylor created an intimate portrait of a "perverted Eden," in which upper-middle-class blacks discover that they've achieved wealth and success at the expense of their own history and identity, that they've sold their souls and are now living in a kind of spiritual hell. Mama Day, her latest novel, similarly describes a hermetic black community, but this time, it's a pastoral world named Willow Springs—a small, paradisal island, situated off the southeast coast of the United States, somewhere off South Carolina and Georgia, but utterly sovereign in its history and traditions.

Legend has it that the island initially belonged to a Norwegian landowner named Bascombe Wade, and that one of his slaves—"a true conjure woman" by the name of Sapphira, who "could walk through a lightning storm without being touched"—married him, persuaded him to leave all his holdings to his slaves, then "poisoned him for his trouble." Before killing him, she bore him seven sons. The youngest of that generation also had seven sons, and the last of them fathered Miranda, or Mama Day. The great-nieces of Mama Day are Willa Prescott Nedeed, who readers of Linden Hills will recall came to an ugly and untimely end; and Ophelia, the heroine of this novel, who is likewise threatened with early and disfiguring death.

To set up the fast-paced events that conclude Mama Day, Ms. Naylor spends much of the first portion of the book giving us menacing hints and planting time bombs set to detonate later. We're told that Ophelia's the namesake of another Day, an unhappy woman who never recovered from one of the misfortunes that befell the family, and that her own hot temper is liable to get her into trouble. We're told that George suffers from a bad heart and that he shouldn't over-exert himself. We're told that Miss Ruby, a neighbor in Willow Springs, plans to use her magical powers against any woman who comes near her husband, and that her husband happens to be attracted to Ophelia. We're also told that Mama Day herself possesses potent conjuring powers, which she will use to defend her family.

One of the problems with this information is that it's force-fed into the story line, at the expense of character development and narrative flow. The plot is made to pivot around melodramatically withheld secrets (concerning the history of Willow Springs, the nature of Mama Day's second sight, the mysterious "hoodoo" rites practiced on the island); and we are constantly being reminded of the novel's themes by trite observations that are meant to pass as folk wisdom: "Home. You can move away from it, but you never leave it"; "they say every blessing hides a curse, and every curse a blessing" or "nothing would be real until the end."

To make matters worse, the island's residents, who are given to uttering such lines, come across as pasteboard figures, devoid of the carefully observed individuality that distinguished their counterparts in Linden Hills. Mama Day is just the sort of matriarchal figure that her name indicates—strong, wise and resolute; her neighbor, a "hoodoo" man known as Dr. Buzzard, is a folksy con man, who plays a crooked game of poker and makes moonshine on the side, and Ruby is the manipulative devil woman, absurdly possessive of her man. As for the visitors to Willow Springs, they're initially just as two-dimensional: Ophelia is a bigoted, demanding woman, who seems lucky to have found a husband at all, given her large mouth and even larger ego, while George appears to be a conscientious yuppie, neatly dividing his time between work, his wife and his passion for football.

Fortunately, as Mama Day progresses, Ms. Naylor's considerable storytelling powers begin to take over, and her central characters slowly take on the heat of felt emotion. The bantering exchanges between George and Ophelia demonstrate their affection, as well as their knowledge of each other's weaknesses, and George's gradual immersion in the world of Willow Springs serves to reveal much about both him and his wife.

Still, for all the narrative energy of the novel's second half, there's something contrived and forced about the story. Whereas Toni Morrison's recent novel Beloved, which dealt with many of the same themes of familial love and guilt, had a beautiful organic quality to it, weaving together the ordinary and the mythic in a frightening tapestry of fate, Mama Day remains a readable, but lumpy, amalgam of styles and allusions. The reader eventually becomes absorbed in George and Ophelia's story, but is never persuaded that the events, which overtake them, are plausible, much less inevitable or real.

Source: Michiko Kakutani, in a review of Mama Day, in The New York Times, February 10, 1988, p. C25.


Critical Overview