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...
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