In Mama Day, how does gender, especially women's power and George's understanding of women, function as a theme?

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Without a doubt, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day is infused with folklore and superstition, including the beyond-the-grave relationship of Cocoa and George, Mama Day’s authoritative healing powers, and the everlasting marvel of Sapphira Wade. In this novel, there is no escaping the mythical history and lifestyle prevalent in Willow Springs,...

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which is contrasted with the pragmatic hustle and bustle of New York City. According to legend, Willow Springs would not exist as it does if it weren’t for the “slave woman,” Sapphira, who “smothered Bascombe Wade in his very bed and lived to tell the story for a thousand days” (Naylor 3). In other words, the stories within this novel hinge on the presence of strong women as well as the dreadful reality of slavery in the US, which forced the importation of people from Africa, such as Sapphira. The novel points out that although these strong African women were forced to board the ships and settle in this new land as slaves, their souls did not surrender to the slave owners.

Obviously, slavery is more prevalent in Southern literature than in other regional literature because of the perceived necessity of slaves to work on Southern plantations. In contrast to the South, the northern part of the US did not offer a suitable climate for enormous agricultural estates. Gloria Naylor introduces the female characters, in particular, to bring meaning to slavery in the South. Most notable is Sapphira, who, although a slave to Bascombe Wade (and eventually mother of his seven children), refuses to live her life merely as a slave. She takes matters into her own hands and releases herself and future descendants from slavery—at least as long as they reside in Willow Springs. Mama Day acknowledges that “All Willow Springs knows that this woman was nobody’s slave” (280). By using an enslaved woman as a heroine, Naylor challenges the misguided notion that socially perceived vulnerabilities are permanent or fatal. Sapphira’s standard is strong enough to have lasted five generations of Days down to Cocoa, who recognizes the significance of her ancestry and heritage by visiting Willow Springs every year in August.

Another feature in this novel that brings meaning to female slavery in the South is the island of Willow Springs. This island is connected to the rest of the US (and, in essence, civilization) by a flimsy wooden bridge over a body of water. The island is a place of mythic powers, with no overbearing political, cultural, or economic organization, which contrasts with the rest of the US and its domineering culture revolving around industrialism. Even in the year 1999, when this novel takes place, Willow Springs is—similar to Sapphira Wade—independent of the mainstream and the mainland. Naylor creates this island, and specifically the connecting bridge, to complement the idea that although slave owners profited from the physical labor of the people, they were unsuccessful in confining slaves' spirits and beliefs. Naylor furthers this point by having Cocoa live in New York, marry a black man who was raised by a white family, assimilate within the city, and yet remain inevitably connected to the South and, more precisely, to her rich heritage. By doing this, Naylor wants to show the reader that as long as customs are passed down from one generation to the next, the connection to heritage will remain. However, as the bridge connecting Willow Springs and the mainland collapses under pressure, there is also the chance of losing this ancestral history when it is no longer passed on.

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