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 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...

(This entire section contains 2065 words.)

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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 have encountered in New York. In the mortal struggle that follows, Cocoa begins to see and understand the ancient knowledge and strength her mother possesses and to realize how much more there is to the world than can be found in even the most modern city.

After setting the island’s coordinates in history, Naylor alternates the voices of Mama Day, Cocoa, and George to evoke the hard-edged flash of life in New York as well as the slower but more substantial existence on the island. The episodes in the city are effectively written and observed with graphic detail and a pace that captures the moods of city life, but it is life on the island that is most compelling. Naylor has formulated an intricate narrative arrangement to provide a gradually widening perspective; the city scenes occur first because, as Naylor explains, the book “is structured to make the reader aware of the various forms of the intangible that are universally accepted as natural or real ... before they are moved into the world of Willow Springs and encounter incidents that involve the supernatural.” Even in Willow Springs the relatively ordinary or mundane is presented first so that a feeling of familiarity with the great abundance of natural phenomena—often lost or unknown to most urban Americans—sets the ground upon which the exceptional and wondrous might take place. An indication of the difficulty of Naylor’s task is reflected in Rhoda Koenig’s complaint, “there’s enough strenuous quaintness around to choke a horse,” and in her criticsm, “Naylor gives her characters very little to do.”

Koenig misses the entire point of the descriptions of the pace and flow of life on Willow Springs, which are framed in the modulations of folk speech to echo the discourse of the oral tradition and are designed to show an alternative and nourishing way of living. One measure of Naylor’s success is that George, the quintessential urbanite who gives Cocoa a series of marvelous walking tours of the great city while they are courting, is convincingly converted to the pleasures, rituals, and fascinations of island life.

The real test of Naylor’s approach, however, is the progressive concentration of the narrative within Mama Day’s sensibility. According to Koenig, “Mama Day quilts and conjures and chaffs her friends and neighbors, and all of it rambles on with no point or urgency.” If that were all Mama Day offers, the novel would be a complete failure, but Naylor is trying to present a rarely expressed and singular vision; while it may take a while for the wit, keen intelligence, and reflective awareness to emerge, there is much more here than the mere “quaintness” of the distinctly rural speech that often glows with an apt metaphor or the deceptively folksy, friendly conversation that reveals character with a subtle and understated facility. Naylor shows Mama Day watching, thinking, contemplating, amasssing knowledge of people and natural occurrences, missing very little about either, and cultivating values and applying them with judicious regard for feelings. Mama Day is always directed by an almost pre-Christian sense of natural order and justice and a regard for the genuinely humane. There is no apparent urgency to her life because she does not have to rush along in the aimless stampede of city streets. Yet when something really important occurs, her urgency has the momentum of changing seasons—gradual, but inevitable and total.

The most striking demonstration of this urgency lies in the culmination of the novel’s narrative development. Once the action has shifted entirely to Willow Springs, where the characters “encounter incidents that involve the supernatural,” the validity and real strength of Miranda Day’s life is tested by two trials: the misuse of human power, which is the greatest manifestation of evil in Naylor’s view of the universe, and the entrance of wild cosmic power in a natural but still lethal demonstration of the universe’s flow of force, which humans must try to understand and channel, if not control. Human evil is represented by a woman named Ruby, whose sense of self undermines the sense of community that has enabled Willow Springs to thrive for two centuries. Her wounded vanity blinds her so that her desperate search for the cause of her unhappiness leads her to blame Cocoa, whom she curses. Mama Day’s response is twofold: Her sheer wild anger drives her to mark Ruby’s house with a sign that draws a lightning bolt to destroy it and her love for Cocoa moves her to use all of her knowledge to counter Ruby’s poison. In these actions, Naylor skillfully blends the supernatural and the scientific. Thus, Cocoa’s recovery may be seen as a combination of an herbal folk remedy—an antidote to the poison in her body—and a display of family love as an antidote to the poison that has sapped the strength of her psyche. Similarly, the lightning drawn to Ruby’s house might be seen as the result of a Prospero-like call for divine intervention or the use of a substance that establishes a field of electrical conductivity.

The storm itself is like the great snowstorm in Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident, an expression of primal power. It is a once-in-a-century hurricane that the islanders know will eventually come upon them, and the manner in which they respond to it shows their flexibility in response to overwhelming natural phenomena and later resilience and cooperation in rebuilding. After the storm, Cocoa moves back to the city to regather her life, and Mama Day lives on into time, part of the eternal cycle of the seasons and the tides, a woman who has “always liked things neat, and when she’s tied up the twentieth century, she’ll take a little peek into the other side—for pure devilment and curiosity—and then leave for a rest that she deserves.”

Miranda Day is a challenge to every stereotype devised to demean black people, a crazy black conjure woman from the country. Naylor has portrayed her as a vitally important part of the black American community and a valuable aspect of American life. She is both symbol and example of how a person might live a full and fruitful life, one that permits steady growth and a full appreciation of God’s plenty. Like the character of Pilate in Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977), her connections to the natural world give her access to wonders often denied to many late twentieth century Americans, who are trapped by life patterns of self-concern, delusion, and hatred which lead to a negation of energy and an absence of the fundamentally human enthusiasm for existence.

While Naylor’s narrative is built on the point of balance between city and country, North and South, ancient custom and modern style, neither side is presented as necessarily preferable, since different places provide support for different needs. On Mama Day’s one visit to New York, she is able to see the vast complexity and variety of life beneath the hollow posturing of the city’s frenzied hustling and useless, constant anger—just what George showed Cocoa earlier. Several of the characters in Mama Day are drawn well enough to make their share of the story interesting, but Miranda Day lives at its heart. In Naylor’s depiction, she is not only the matriarch of an unusual realm but also a demonstration of the indefinable essence of black American life.

Historical Context

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Rise of the Black Middle Class
In the 1980s, some African-Americans began to achieve a kind of material success that had been impossible for them before. Despite the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which allowed for much greater social equality, blacks still suffered great economic inequality in America. In major cities, neighborhoods became strictly segregated in the 1970s with poor blacks living in the inner city, often in ghettoes of subsidized housing, while whites moved to the suburbs where they established affluent communities. But in the 1980s, some blacks, reaping the effects of affirmative action (set in place in 1965) and benefiting from the booming economy and declining unemployment, were able to secure high-paying jobs. For the first time, a significant number of black Americans became part of the middle class. Some moved into prosperous white neighborhoods, while others established their own communities, like those Naylor describes in Linden Hills (1985). With these new developments, many blacks, including Naylor, feared that middle-class blacks were becoming disconnected from their roots and were adopting white values and beliefs.

In Linden Hills and in Mama Day, Naylor explores the negative impact such a transformation has on African Americans. George, in Mama Day, represents the affluent black who was "dark on the outside and white on the inside," as the epithet "Oreo," used in the 1980s, signified.

African-American Women's Renaissance
With the emergence of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker as nationally recognized authors in the 1970s, it appeared that a renaissance of sorts for African-American women writers had begun. Walker's The Color Purple (1982) was translated to the screen by Steven Spielberg. Morrison's works, including The Song of Solomon (1977) and Beloved (1987), were widely admired; she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Other writers, such as Toni Cade Bambara Maya Angelou Gayl Jones, and Ntozake Shange, among others, made names for themselves and solidified the idea that a flourishing of creative talent among black women was being realized. As Morrison said in conversation with Naylor, published in The Southern Review in 1985, referring to the large number of important works by black women, "It's a real renaissance. You know, we have spoken of renaissance before. But this one is ours, not somebody else's."

So important have African-American women writers been in American letters that some critics believe they have created the most challenging and powerful fiction in late twentieth-century America. When Naylor went to college in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she discovered these writers and their foremothers (most notably Zora Neale Hurston) for the first time. Their explorations of slavery, racism, black pride, and the double prejudice suffered by black women (as a woman and as an African American) inspired Naylor and made her feel that she had something to say as a writer. Morrison's work was an especially important influence on her. As she wrote in the preface to her conversation with Morrison in 1985, Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1971) was the "beginning" for her because it "said to a young poet, struggling to break into prose, that the barriers were flexible; at the core of it all is language, and if you're skilled enough with that, you can create your own genre. And it said to a young black woman, struggling to find a mirror of her worth in this society, not only is your story worth telling but it can be told in words so painstakingly eloquent that it becomes a song."

Literary Style

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One of the most striking aspects of Mama Day is its use of multiple narrators because, as Cocoa tells George at the end, "There are just too many sides to the whole story." Between one-half and two-thirds of the book is taken up with the conversation of George and Cocoa, expressed in alternating first-person narratives. These sections are separated from the rest of the text by three diamonds.

The narrator of the rest of the novel is hard to pinpoint. Most critics describe it as the communal voice of Willow Springs. But sometimes it sounds like an omniscient narrator who oversees every thing without being a part of the story, and sometimes it comes from Mama Day's consciousness. In the novel's preface, the voice of Willow Springs explains to the reader, "Think about it: ain't nobody really talking to you. We're sitting here in Willow Springs, and you're God-knows-where.… Really listen this time: the only voice is your own." Given the importance the novel places on multiple points of view, it is fitting that this unidentified narrator takes on different perspectives, even including the reader in its magic circle.

For the first half of the novel, George and Cocoa live in New York, and their experiences there alternate with the goings-on in Willow Springs. The second half of the novel takes place entirely in Willow Springs, an imaginary place. The two communities provide a stark contrast. While New York is a large city, Willow Springs is a small, rural island. And while New York is one of the most famous cities in the world, Willow Springs does not even exist on maps, and the inhabitants like it that way. "Part of Willow Springs's problems was that it got put on some maps right after the War Between the States."

The island is located off the coast near the border between South Carolina and Georgia, and neither state claims it. Therefore, Willow Springs is an independent, self-governing community that votes only in presidential elections. Although phone lines run over the sound and television signals are received on the island, its ties to the mainland are very tenuous: "We done learned that anything coming from beyond the bridge gotta be viewed real, real careful." The bridge is even destroyed by a storm every sixty-nine years or so, severing its connection with the mainland, as happens during the hurricane. Willow Springs doesn't really feel like part of the United States. Its beliefs and customs more closely resemble those its ancestors brought over from Africa than the ones George has learned in New York.

SymbolsMama Day utilizes many symbols, beginning with the island of Willow Springs itself. More than simply a rural, isolated community, Willow Springs represents another world that is neither American nor African, neither real nor imaginary. It is a place where the past is still alive and boundaries have dissolved between the living and the dead.

On the island, many other things possess symbolic importance, such as the chickens, which are associated with Mama Day, fertility, and femaleness. When George battles the chickens, he is confronting all of the mysterious forces of Cocoa, the Day family, and Willow Springs. The quilt Abigail and Mama Day make for Cocoa is a weaving together of the Day family that is to remind her of her cultural heritage. The bridge forms not only a real but also a symbolic link between Willow Springs (the imaginary and the past) and the mainland (the real and the present). When the storm, with a symbolic significance emanating from Africa, destroys the bridge, George fears not only that he cannot get a "real" doctor for Cocoa but also that they are trapped in this supernatural world.

Lastly, hands play a prominent role in the way Mama Day envisions her connection to her ancestors and what must be done to save Cocoa. George must "hand" over his belief in himself to Mama Day: "She needs his hand in hers—his very hand—so she can connect it up with all the believing that had gone before.… So together they could build the bridge for Baby Girl to walk over." By joining hands, symbolically, they could heal her together.

Magical Realism
The best way to describe Mama Day is as magical realism, in which the everyday and the supernatural coexist and are intertwined in one text. In effect, the magical becomes as "real" as the ordinary parts of the narrative. In Mama Day, the world of Willow Springs contains elements that can be associated with realism, such as when Mama Day watches "The Phil Donahue Show" and Bernice becomes ill from taking a fertility drug. Magical elements exist too, such as when Mama Day helps Bernice get pregnant with a mystical fertility ritual involving chicken eggs and when Cocoa hears the voices of her ancestors at the other place. Furthermore, the "real" aspects of the text are associated with the rational, white world of the United States mainland, while the magical aspects are derived from African folk medicine, and beliefs and are centered on the island of Willow Springs. Willow Springs, then, is a place where the "real" and magical meet and peacefully coexist.

Literary Techniques

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Naylor's choice of point of view subtly reinforces cultural differences and the constant influence of the past, the importance of tradition, the possibility of magic, and the presence of the inexplicable. The point of view alternates between first-person sections in George's and Cocoa's voices and third-person sections that follow Miranda's activities during the same time period. In Cocoa's and George's sections, they take turns addressing each other, reminiscing about their meeting and relationship. These sections contain hints of Cocoa's emotionalism and her tendency to jump to conclusions and of George's more careful, restrained, and logical approach. But because the two presumably tell their stories after the novel's events and from a more mature perspective, their voices contain an overlay of self-awareness and a suggestion of more integrated personalities. The language in their first-person sections also calls attention to their education and greater assimilation into mainstream society.

A more communal spirit is reflected in the collective voice that narrates the third-person sections, and the more colloquial language reflects the flavor of the culture. With a prologue and ending suggesting that Cocoa returns to Willow Springs to "talk" to George, the first-person sections become the conversations that they have, resembling in form a Willow Springs tradition known as a "Standing Forth." This is a kind of funeral without flowers or music in which residents gather to address the dead, describing what it was like "when I first saw you" and what it will be like "when I see you again." Thus, the dead are never truly gone; despite death, there is still a communication of sorts.

Naylor employs other techniques that suggest the blending of past, present, and future, in particular Miranda's stream-of-consciousness flashbacks and heavy foreshadowing from both Miranda's and Cocoa's points of view. While the narrative from Miranda's point of view is clear and accessible, it is in the flashbacks and foreshadowing that the language becomes more dense and more difficult, rich with wordplay. References to the family's loss of Peace—Peace denoting the names of two children as well as connoting the family's loss of tranquility—have double meanings that carry much symbolic weight. References to George's literal and metaphorical heart trouble work similarly. It is through these passages that Naylor both directly and indirectly clarifies her symbolic and thematic concerns.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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The issues of gender, race, and culture raised by the novel ought to promote lively discussion; the roles of faith and reason, rationality and intuition are also themes that attract controversy. In addition, the novel provides many opportunities for technical discussion; for instance, the stream-of-consciousness flashback scenes and more difficult lyrical passages function almost as puzzle pieces that help the reader understand the role of past generations, the significance of George's final mission, and the ways that Cocoa ultimately changes and matures.

1. Though their ancestors were slaves many generations back—and were rare examples of slaves who were freed and owned substantial property—their legacy continues in the attitudes and traditions of Willow Springs. In what way has this heritage led to positive effects? Negative?

2. Naylor seems to advocate and celebrate women's power as well as activities and values traditionally associated with women and non-Western cultures. What are some of these activities and values? What does Naylor suggest about the role of men? Does she regard more Western, male-centered values such as rationality and logic as worthwhile?

3. In what ways can the novel's mystical events be explained rationally? In what ways are they beyond explanation?

4. How would the novel's meaning shift if the lyrical, dense flashback passages were removed?

5. How do George and Cocoa change in the course of the novel? Does Miranda undergo any major changes of her own, or is she a relatively static character?

Social Concerns

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The connections between generations and the legacy of each generation to the next is a central concern in Mama Day. Willow Springs, the novel's main setting, is an island off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia but a part of neither state; this geographical separation is emblematic of its inhabitants' resistance to mainstream American culture and their pride in preserving the values and traditions handed down to them over generations. While this tension between generations and cultures has universal appeal, Naylor uses it to raise other enduring social concerns as well. Because Willow Springs residents are descended from slaves, the effects of racism and colonization are a significant part of their inheritance. Through the Day family's history of strong, powerful women, Naylor celebrates traditionally feminine values and sources of female power while portraying characters of both genders seeking relationship and balance.

The title character, Miranda Day, is, like her ancestor Sapphira Wade, an embodiment of black female power, skilled in the art of healing and attuned to natural forces, abilities that have traditionally been associated with women. Seen as both mysterious and threatening, such abilities were the basis of many accusations of witchcraft throughout European history, a parent phenomenon to the Salem witch scare, which began when a West Indian slave told voodoo tales to a group of young girls. Miranda is a mother figure to many islanders, and her gifts can be traced to Sapphira, a "true conjure woman" who is legendary for having tricked her master into deeding the island to his slaves. According to some versions of the story, Sapphira murdered him afterward. Sapphira's legend maintains a strong influence over the natives of Willow Springs, shaped by a belief in magic that sometimes crosses over into pure superstition and by a strong sense of autonomy and freedom.

Miranda takes great pride in her culture at the same time that she struggles with her own role as a healer and with the family history of tragedy and sorrow. This history will be part of the legacy passed on to her grandniece Ophelia, nicknamed Cocoa: Cocoa's father left before she was born, her grandmother suffered a miscarriage so traumatic she has refused to return to her ancestral home in fifty years, and her great-grandmother—Mama Day's own mother—committed suicide after one of her children drowned in a well. The novel's prologue, taking place some years after the rest of the story, suggests that Miranda has found tranquility, and Cocoa, greater maturity. Furthermore, the family's history of sorrow and absent men has been addressed as Miranda and, unwittingly, Cocoa and her late husband George have confronted the Days' family history. The rest of the novel will focus on how this came to be.

Throughout the novel's early chapters, there are hints of unexplained events and beliefs that often walk the line between magic or coincidence and superstition. Sapphira Wade's legacy of "witchcraft" not only survives in Miranda's talent as a healer but also in islander Dr. Buzzard's reputation as a "hoodoo" doctor and neighbor Ruby's command of black magic. Certainly Dr. Buzzard's reputation is based entirely on his bragging and the moonshine he dispenses. Others' abilities are more ambiguous.

Miranda's wisdom and knowledge of healing are evident early on when she answers an emergency call from her neighbor Bernice. In her desperation to conceive, Bernice has swallowed fertility pills stolen from the clinic where she works. Miranda, though lacking a medical degree, is clearly an experienced physician, authoritatively examining Bernice and offering her a natural remedy for her pain. Recognizing Bernice's desperation, Miranda reluctantly decides to help her become pregnant. After Miranda and Bernice perform a mysterious ritual at the "other place," Miranda's ancestral home, Bernice does become pregnant. Miranda remains troubled by her role, wondering if God will "forgive her for Bernice … But she wasn't changing the natural course of nothing, she couldn't if she tried. Just using what's there." Miranda sees her ability less as magic than as a deep understanding of the natural world.

In sharp contrast to the mystical world of Willow Springs is the fast-paced, more sophisticated one of New York City, where Cocoa has lived for seven years. Cocoa still feels like a foreigner, a feeling exacerbated by her being newly unemployed and thus especially vulnerable—and especially defensive. Though she is far more worldly than her counterparts who have remained in Willow Springs, her sheltered background is evident in her suspicions of other people and her tendency to stereotype them. Furthermore, unemployment has made her especially aware of the subtle racism around her. Cocoa's values are clearly at odds with the individualistic culture of New York after she interviews with George for a job, then withdraws herself from consideration when she discovers that the job would not allow her to go home for her customary August visit.

Cocoa and George initially appear to have little in common; their personalities typify in rudimentary form extremes of gender differences in self-expression and communication styles. George is uncommunicative, obsessed with football, and frequently closemouthed about his feelings, fearing that Cocoa will "despise" his vulnerability. This admission leads him to conclude at one point, "I was losing you because of my fear of losing you." Rather than retreating into silence as George does, Cocoa often expresses emotion in equally roundabout ways, picking fights over seemingly trivial matters. Exasperated, George says that "when living with a woman the shortest distance between two points is by way of China." Although the two come from vastly different backgrounds, both are fatherless and fear losing control, and most importantly, each supplies personality traits the other lacks. In addition, George, whose mother was a prostitute and who was raised in a boys' home, is fascinated by Cocoa's connection to her roots. He envies her for being "born in a grandmother's house" and for being able "to walk and see where a great-grandfather and even a great-great-grandfather was born."

Still, their relationship seems an unlikely one, getting its halting start when Miranda pushes Cocoa to write a letter to George asking him to hold the job. George finds gold powder in the envelope, presumably an addition of Miranda's. Later, a fortune cookie seems portentous: not only does it remind George of the powder as it crumbles, but his fortune reads, "All chickens come home to roost"—a prediction that will later prove prophetic. George and Cocoa's contentious relationship grows when he determines to show her the "real New York." George shares his roots with Cocoa and envies her sense of continuity. When they marry, Miranda makes them a quilt "for Cocoa's grandchildren to be conceived under."

After Cocoa's marriage, Miranda feels increasing urgency to reveal to Cocoa her family's history that continues to haunt them. Miranda wonders about family mysteries as well—what exactly happened between Sapphira and Bascombe Wade, for instance, and how many of Sapphira's seven sons were actually his.

Four years into their marriage, George foregoes his annual January Super Bowl vacation to instead take off August and accompany Cocoa on her annual visit to Willow Springs, which he naively sees as a paradise, idealizing farm life to the point that he begins to talk about staying in Willow Springs. Unaware of ways that he violates Willow Springs' customs and codes of manners, he cannot hear the "whispers" in the family graveyard that predict that Cocoa is going to break George's heart, nor is he at ease during a poker game with the local men in which enjoying the community ritual and deferring to Dr. Buzzard is more valued than winning.

Miranda is all too aware of whispered predictions about George; troubled by her feeling that death is in the air, she also experiences anguish about her magic being misperceived. After the death of Bernice's much doted-on child, she brings his body to Miranda. Miranda is deeply grieved that anyone believes she has the power to revive the dead; she worries that in playing with the course of others' lives, she has overstepped boundaries. Miranda's gift is a mixed blessing, enacted with a conscience and creating as much grief as joy, especially as she wrestles with her premonitions.

In a fight ostensibly about Cocoa's make-up but infused with gender and cultural differences, Cocoa and George lay the groundwork for upcoming disaster. Still not speaking to him at a party that night, Cocoa is joined on the porch by Junior Lee, whose jealous wife, Ruby, sees them sitting together.

Ruby Lee is a character whose magic is dark, emerging from jealousy and anger. Having stolen Junior Lee from a former love, Ruby Lee becomes so possessive that it is rumored that any woman Junior Lee is even seen talking to dies a terrible death. When Ruby offers to braid Cocoa's hair the day after the party, nothing seems unusual to Cocoa; this, too, is a ritual from her childhood, and Cocoa is oblivious to the nightshade Ruby uses or the strands of hair she saves as if to use them as part of a spell. Cocoa develops a virus that eludes rational explanation, leaving her pale, with glassy eyes, experiencing hallucinations, and unable to recognize George. The apparent seriousness of her condition is what sends Abigail, Cocoa's grandmother, to the other place for the first time in over fifty years to find Miranda, who is camping out there.

With the ancient wisdom absorbed from the other place, Mama Day says of Cocoa that "it's gonna take a man to bring her peace—and all they had was that boy." Acknowledging Ruby's part in Cocoa's illness, Miranda and Abigail agree that while hate is destructive, they will have to rely on a power greater than that—a power that can be interpreted as simply love but that also implies faith in a higher being.

Miranda's anger at Ruby leads her to put what is suggested to be a spell on Ruby's house; it seems no coincidence that lightning strikes the house twice immediately afterward, destroying it and leaving Ruby badly burned. The storm also washes out the bridge to the mainland and is so severe that Miranda goes to check the roof of the other place. There she finds a ledger hidden up under the roof by her father. Following this discovery and choosing to confront rather than turn her back on the past, Miranda Day pries open the well where the first Peace died. Looking at the ledger, Miranda recognizes that while the women in the family have always been strong, many of their male ancestors were also strong people who valued intuition and faith as well as logic and rationality. The ledger also leads to a liberating revelation about Sapphira: "He had freed em, all but her, cause see, she'd never been a slave. And what she gave of her own will, she took away." Thus, Sapphira's legacy is one of autonomy and the freedom to choose whom she loved.

The burden is on George to step in and take his place in the family lineage. Dying, Cocoa tells George to go to the other place, but George resists. He thinks that believing in himself is enough, but Dr. Buzzard tells him that really believing in himself means that "he ain't gotta be afraid to admit that there's some things he just can't do alone." Still, George's role in saving Cocoa is the most essential one; Miranda can only stay at the other place and "reach back to the beginning for us to find the chains to pull [Cocoa] out of this here trouble."

Miranda instructs George to take John Paul's walking stick and Bascombe Wade's ledger, search the hen's nest, and come back with what he finds—directions so seemingly nonsensical that George only finally agrees to obey out of desperation. Symbolically taking on the legacy of previous generations of men by accepting the cane and ledger, George, who is afraid of chickens, skeptically approaches the hen's nest. Despite warnings from Miranda that the "hen is gonna be evil so watch out for your eyes," George is so angered when the hen attacks him and so frustrated at being asked to perform a ritual that makes no rational sense that he attacks the hen with the walking stick, an act of exertion that brings on a heart attack and kills him.

Through the mysterious magic passed down between generations, George succeeds at saving Cocoa but leaves her and Miranda deeply grieved at his inability to save himself as well. Still, George becomes absorbed into the family legend; his legacy lives on as Cocoa goes on to remarry, name one of her two children after George, move to Charleston where she is closer to her roots, and return home each year where she is still able to commune with George's spirit.

Literary Precedents

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While critics have compared Naylor's work to that of Ann Petry, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison in its lyrical, often experimental approach to portraying African-American characters and cultures, the most obvious literary precedent is Shakespeare's Tempest. The play centers on exiles on a desert island, contains magical elements, and raises questions about what really constitutes "civilization." Recasting the story from a black woman's viewpoint, Naylor both pays respect to Shakespeare and highlights the divisions between white European culture and that of the descendents of African slaves. Miranda shares a name with Shakespeare's naive young character whose primary function is to serve as the heroine of the play's love plot, and Naylor's Miranda also shares the resistance of tyranny and enslavement exemplified by Shakespeare's Caliban. But perhaps Naylor's most radical move is making Miranda a powerful Prospero-figure; she too is a ruler on her island and like Prospero casts spells, although she relies far more on her own intuition, wisdom, and faith. Prospero's magic book and staff are replicated in the walking stick Miranda uses and the ledger that she finds. Naylor pokes gentle fun at the white male tradition represented by Shakespeare when Cocoa says, "Shakespeare didn't have a bit of soul—I don't care if he did write about … some slave on a Caribbean island."

Media Adaptations

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Mama Day was recorded on audiotape in 1989 by Brilliance.

Naylor has written a screenplay for the film adaptation of Mama Day to be produced by her company, One Way Productions, Inc. The film has not yet been made.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Brown, Rita Mae. Review in Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993, pp. 13-15.

Erickson, Peter. "'Shakespeare's Black?': The Role of Shakespeare in Naylor's Novels," in Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993, pp. 231-48.

Gloch, Allison. "A Woman to Be Reckoned With," in Special Report, January-February, 1993, pp. 22—25.

Hass, Rachel. Review in Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993, pp. 22-23.

Hayes, Elizabeth T. "Gloria Naylor's Mama Day as Magic Realism," in The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor, edited by Sharon Felton and Michelle C. Loris. Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 177-86.

Kelley, Margot Anne. "Sister's Choices: Quilting Aesthetics in Contemporary African-American Women's Fiction," in Quilt Culture: Tracing the Pattern, edited by Cheryl B. Torsney and Judy Elsley. University of Missouri Press, 1994, pp. 49-67.

Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. "Toward a New Order: Shakespeare, Morrison, and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day," in Melus, Vol. 19, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 75-90.

Levy, Helen Fiddyment. "Lead on with Light," in Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993, pp. 263-84.

Loris, Michelle C. Interview: "The Human Spirit Is a Kick-Ass Thing," in The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor, edited by Sharon Felton and Michelle C. Loris. Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. 251-63.

Meisenhelder, Susan. "'The Whole Picture' in Gloria Naylor's Mama Day," in African-American Review, Vol. 27, No. 3, 1993, pp. 405-19.

Mukherjee, Bharati. Review in Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993, pp. 19-21.

Naylor, Gloria, and Toni Morrison. "A Conversation," in Southern Review, Vol. 21, Summer, 1983, pp. 567-93.

Simon, Linda. Review in Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993, pp. 15-18.

Tucker, Lindsey. "Recovering the Conjure Woman: Texts and Contexts in Gloria Naylor's Mama Day," in African-American Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, 1994, pp. 173-88.

For Further Study
Edwards, Tamala. "A Conversation with Gloria Naylor," in Essence, June, 1998, p. 70. Edwards interviews Naylor on the occasion of the publication of her most recent book, The Men of Brewster Place.

Felton, Sharon, and Michelle C. Loris, eds. The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor. Greenwood Press, 1997. This collection of articles on Naylor's works provides a helpful sampling of the criticism on Mama Day, with discussions of the quilting motif, the importance of the conjure woman, the work's revision of The Tempest, and the work's use of magical realism. An interview with Naylor is also included.

Fowler, Virginia C. Gloria Naylor: In Search of Sanctuary. Twayne, 1996. Fowler's book provides a biography of Naylor as well as a discussion of her novels through Bailey's Cafe. There is also an interview with Naylor.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Amistad, 1993. Included in this book are many of the initial reviews of Mama Day as well as some criticism of Naylor's works.

Mandulo, Rhea. "Georgia on My Mind," in Essence, March, 1993, p. 144. Recounts the author's trip to the Sea Islands of Georgia, a trip partially inspired by the island of Willow Springs in Mama Day.

Odamtten, Vincent. "Reviewing Gloria Naylor: Toward a Neo-African Critique," in Of Dreams Deferred, Dead or Alive: African Perspectives on African-American Writers, edited by Femi Ojo-Ade. Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 115-29. Reads Naylor's text as a reflection of African ideas about religion, family, and culture.

Perry, Donna. Interview in Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out. Rutgers University Press, 1993, pp. 218-42. In this interview, Perry focuses on Naylor's relationship to other female writers and asks Naylor questions about each of her first four novels.

Peterson, V. R. Review in People Weekly, April 18, 1988, p. 9. A mostly favorable review which praises Naylor's writing style but criticizes her characterizations.

Rowell, Charles. "An Interview with Gloria Naylor," in Callaloo, Winter, 1997, pp. 179-92. This interview focuses mostly on Naylor's process of becoming a writer and her ideas about literature.


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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 future.

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 Essays


Short-Answer Quizzes