Mama Day

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The Afro-American community, since its inception, has maintained fables and legends of heroic figures who have been symbols of inspiration and hope through the long, hard times of slavery and discrimination. Appearing first in songs and stories in the oral tradition, and then recapitulated and reinforced in novels by black writers such as Toni Morrison (SONG OF SOLOMON) and David Bradley (THE CHANEYSVILLE INCIDENT), these mythic creations have countered the stereotypical reduction of black American culture by racist attitudes of indifference and ignorance.

To show the exceptional richness of black cultural experience in the United States, Gloria Naylor has developed a self-contained black world on an island that has declined to become a political unit of the United States. Neither part of Georgia nor South Carolina, Willow Springs has avoided the suppression caused by segregation as well as the corruption of the acquisitive and status-driven American society of the late twentieth century. Like an unspoiled garden, the island provides everything that its inhabitants need, if they are willing to learn its ways and abide by its natural rhythms.

Willow Springs’s most formidable citizen is Miranda Day, born before the turn of the century and determined to see the next one, a woman whose sense of the land and her family history is combined with an inquisitive eagerness that enables her to live in the present while being strengthened by the accumulated wisdom of the past. Her daughter Ophelia, a thoroughly modern woman who finds the island comfortable but confining, has gone to New York. There she meets and marries a construction engineer, George Andrews, whose basic decency and essential warmth have not been fully developed because he has adopted a shield of rationality as a protection against the assaults of the unknown.

Naylor alternates the voices of Mama Day, Ophelia, and George Andrews to evoke the hard-edged flash of life in New York as well as the moods of a slower but more substantial mode of existence on the island. The contrast is not simply between city and country, or north and south, or between ancient customs versus modern styles, since different places provide supportive elements for different needs. At the heart of Naylor’s narrative is the contrast between a full and fruitful life, one that enables a person to grow and live with an appreciation for God’s plenty, and a life of self-concern, delusion, and hatred, which leads to a negation of energy and a denial of the fundamentally human enthusiasm for existence. On Mama Day’s only visit to New York, she is able to see the vast complexity and variety of life in the city beneath the hollow posturing of the city’s frenzied hustling and useless, constant anger. recognizing the mystical and spiritual qualities of life beyond a calculating, purely logical analysis of existence makes her a fascinating and formidable character. As depicted in MAMA DAY, she is not only a matriarch of an

Miranda Day’s insistence on unusual realm but a demonstration (and revelation) of the indefinable essence of black American life called soul.


Andrews, Larry R. “Black Sisterhood in Gloria Naylor’s Novels.” College Language Association Journal 33 (September, 1989): 1-25. Andrews argues that Mama Day , like Naylor’s two earlier novels, shows how crucial the sense of community is among black women. By passing this sense of community down through generations, black women can help to give themselves strength in a world so often dominated by men. This tradition, however, is threatened by the modern world, in which women forget their heritage and consequently lose a bridge with the past and a link with the...

(This entire section contains 1379 words.)

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Boyd, Nellie. “Dominion and Proprietorship in Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day and Linden Hills.” MAWA Review 5 (December, 1990): 56-58. Boyd contrasts Naylor’s second and third novels to find that they have different approaches toward a character who leads a community. In Mama Day, Boyd finds that Mama Day—the spiritual leader of Willow Springs—acts as a sort of benevolent dictator. She compares her to William Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest in the sense that she serves as the “island’s conscience.”

Christian, Barbara. “Gloria Naylor’s Geography: Community, Class, and Patriarchy in The Women of Brewster Place and Linden Hills.” In Reading Black, Reading Feminist, edited by Henry L. Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian Books, 1990. Though Christian does not discuss Mama Day, she does comment at length on several subjects that appear in all of Naylor’s novels: the geographical fictional world, the nurturing sisterhood of women, and the effects of patriarchy. She also provides a helpful comparison of Naylor and Toni Morrison.

Eckard, Paula G. “The Prismatic Past in Oral History and Mama Day.MELUS 20 (Fall, 1995): 121-135. Both Smith’s and Naylor’s novels suggest that individual lives, as well as the future, might be rewritten in the light of knowledge obtained from re-interpreting the past. Eckard argues that these works illustrate that a past encompassing the foundation of each person’s life can be discovered, drawn out, interpreted, and applied.

Kubitschek, Missy D. “Toward a New Order: Shakespeare, Morrison, and Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day.” MELUS 19 (Fall, 1994): 75-90. Kubitschek explores the intertextuality of Shakespeare, Morrison, and Naylor. The story concerns the life and motherhood of a black woman who moves from rural to urban America. Kubitschek traces influences from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest and shows how they are laced throughout Naylor’s novel.

Lattin, Patricia H. “Naylor’s Engaged and Empowered Narratee.” CLA Journal 41 (June, 1998): 452-469. Naylor focuses on several different narrative voices in her novel including the use of three narrators and one narratee. In Mama Day, one of the narrators challenges the narratee to be active, pass on the story, and create a situation where the narrator and the narratee work closely on the text.

Metting, Fred. “The Possibilities of Flight: The Celebration of Our Wings in Song of Solomon, Praisesong for the Widow, and Mama Day.Southern Folklore 55 (Fall, 1998): 145-166. Metting explores the concept of flight in the fiction of Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, and Gloria Naylor. Their works often portray slave resistance or escape, and flight is associated with wishful thinking or other means of escape. However, protective flight can take the form of psychically escaping or being absorbed by creatively constructed language.

Pearlman, Mickey. “An Interview with Gloria Naylor.” High Plains Literary Review 5 (Spring, 1990): 98–107. Suggests that Mama Day, like the two earlier novels, concerns space and memory, the created world of Willow Spring and the ties to the past. Sees the relationship between Miranda and Ophelia as one between a mother and daughter.

Saunders, James Robert. “The Ornamentation of Old Ideas: Gloria Naylor’s First Three Novels.” The Hollins Critic 27 (April, 1990): 1–11. Relates the three novels to one another. Focuses on legend and myth, calls attention to the tie between Ophelia and her namesake in Hamlet, and notes the symbolic function of names in Naylor’s fiction. Sees the power of love transcending the improbable narrative format, which involves two speakers, one of whom (George) is dead.

Storhoff, Gary. “ The Only Voice Is Your Own”: Gloria Naylor’s Revision of The Tempest.African American Review 29 (Spring, 1995): 35-45. Many “new critics” interpret The Tempest to justify European activities such as slavery and colonialism. Naylor exposes the bankrupt patriarchal system, exclusively Protestant view of nature, and the Eurocentric construction of the “Other.”

Tucker, Lindsey. “Recovering the Conjure Woman: Texts and Contexts in Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day.African American Review 28 (Summer, 1994): 173-188. Focuses on the main character, Miranda Day, who encapsulates various qualities of the traditional conjure woman. Miranda’s prowess with herbal medicine distinguishes her from the hoodoo practitioner, and Naylor uses the trickster myth to establish healing and other positive influences as necessary to the conjure woman’s art so that she may benefit the community at large.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Quilting in Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 18 (November, 1988): 6–7. Argues that Ophelia’s request that Miranda and Abigail make her a quilt is a central episode in the novel. Concludes that the quilt, made with pieces of material from all the women in the family, incorporates the lives of all the women, good and bad. Ophelia must deal with choices and decide how to handle her family inheritance.


Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)


Critical Overview