Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
McMillan explored the dilemmas facing other black women in her first two novels, Mama (1987) and Disappearing Acts (1989). In her first novel, McMillan beautifully rendered the difficulties and joys of Mildred Peacock, a poor, alcoholic single parent. Mildred fights many battles and manages, often with the assistance of her women friends and daughters, to affirm her existence at every chance. Disappearing Acts, which uses alternating interior monologues to trace the stages of a couple’s relationship, is one of the few novels by a contemporary black woman writer to give equal attention to the perspectives of black women and black men.
Waiting to Exhale combines two of McMillan’s earlier fictional concerns. She creates credible black women and also includes a variety of black male characters. Some of these, such as Bernadine’s husband and Robin’s Russell, are shown in a bad light, but many, such as Marvin and Michael, are decent, loving, and strong black men. Nevertheless, McMillan shows that some of these men are simply not suitable for these particular women, regardless of the men’s redeeming or unredeeming qualities. McMillan suggests strongly that these women know what makes them happy, and their friendship affords them the opportunity to have their individual choices supported and respected.
McMillan’s third novel received a number of accolades. Many reviewers suggested that McMillan, at the pinnacle of her craft, was now the equal of her more celebrated contemporaries Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. During the summer of 1992, all three novelists had works on The New York Times’s best-seller list—and McMillan remained on the list in the number-one position for the longest time of the three.
If McMillan invites comparison to Morrison and Walker, her work should also be juxtaposed to that of a long line of black women writers who have explored the urban terrain and how black characters adjust to it. Ann Petry’s The Street (1946), for example, presented the dilemma of a black woman who wants to have a successful relationship and who also wants to have a successful career. Unlike the women in Waiting to Exhale, however, The Street’s Lutie Johnson has no circle of women friends to help her through her personal and social problems. Comparing Waiting to Exhale to the Petry novel demonstrates both how far black women writers have come and how much America has changed.