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 at first in songs, stories, and chants in the oral tradition and then recapitulated and retold in novels by black writers such as Toni Morrison (Beloved, 1987) and David Bradley (The Chaneysville Incident, 1981), these mythic/realistic creations have countered the stereotypical, indifferent, and ignorant reduction of black American culture. In Mama Day, Gloria Naylor has developed one of the strongest and most interesting characters of this ongoing tradition and has used her as the central pivot of a multiphased, complex novel that attempts not only to register the rich textures of an essentially pure—that is, separated from the white world—black community but also to show the inevitable intertwining of black and white American societies. The tensions and conflicts resulting from this fusion, and from the reactions between country/city, ancient/modern, and rational/mystical approaches to life, are all brought toward possible resolutions through the wisdom and experience of Miranda “Mama” Day.
To present a picture of the richness of black cultural experience in the United States, Naylor has charted a minicosmos, the self-contained black world of Willow Springs, an island that has declined to become a political unit of the United States. A part of neither Georgia nor South Carolina, the island 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. This island, in an example of Naylor’s use of various motifs to deepen the novel, evokes the magical realm of William Shakespeare’s Prospero, and its own master magician is Miranda Day, the spiritual heir of the unusual couple who founded the island community in the early days of the nineteenth century.
Sapphira and Bascombe Wade, an African-born slave and her Norwegian “master,” had seven sons, who were willed the land by Wade’s decree. Contrary to the local legend that Sapphira seduced Wade into the bequest and then murdered him as he slept, the novel’s conclusion reveals that the couple were united in love and action. The actual facts of the establishment of the island community contribute to the serenity and sense of fulfillment that the land offers to its inhabitants. As Bharati Mukherjee notes, Mama Day “is the true heir of Sapphira Wade” because “she is the ur-Daughter to Sapphira’s ur-Mother,” a fabulous yet living and believable figure, leader, and guide for her family and friends. Born before the turn of the twentieth century and determined to live to see the turn of the next, Mama Day is a woman whose sense of the land and her family history is combined with an inquisitive eagerness that enables her to live actively in the present while being strengthened by the accumulated wisdom of the past.
The customs, ways, and patterns of island life are presented so that Naylor can show how a black community can evolve without the distortions of racial consciousness clouding every issue and action, but the inhabitants of Willow Springs are not merely residents of a black community. Like any successful writer, Naylor is not race restrictive, and the moods, quirks, and mores of the special place she describes resonate through all human experience. The narrative action, on the other hand, develops directly from her concern as a black artist with the facts of existence for American blacks in the late twentieth century, and her method for exploring this issue is to contrast the homegrown wisdom of Mama Day with the hard-edged survival skills that her daughter Ophelia has been cultivating in New York City.
Ophelia Day—familiarly known as “Cocoa,” possibly to distance her from Shakespearean parallels and certify her modernity—finds life on the island comfortable but somewhat confining. She has gone to New York to work and live, a familiar migratory pattern for heartlanders. She meets and marries a construction engineer, George Andrews, who was reared in an orphanage, another child of an isolated community. Andrews’ basic decency and warmth have not been fully developed because he has adopted a posture of pure rationality as a protection against the assaults of the unknown. Cocoa herself has constructed a shield of sharpness to deflect the city’s pressures, and while she and George initially keep each other at a wary distance, their necessity for self-protective measures decreases as they learn about and begin to appreciate the other’s qualities. The full depth of their love is not apparent, however, until they visit Willow Springs after their marriage and are forced to face elemental problems that are as threatening as anything they...
(The entire section is 2065 words.)