The Maternal Aesthetic of Mama Day

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Author: Julie Tharp
Date: 2001
From: Gloria Naylor: Strategy and Technique, Magic and Myth
Publisher: U of Delaware P
Reprint In: Children's Literature Review(Vol. 202. )
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,222 words

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[(essay date 2001) In the following essay, Tharp takes issue with simplistic critical interpretations of Willow Springs as a “utopian universe,” pointing out the complexities and problems associated with life on the island. Despite these difficulties, she argues, Mama Day constitutes “a road map for an alternative civilization” that offers “the opportunity for mutual support and personal integrity.”]

Mother I need
mother I need
mother I need your blackness now
as the August earth needs rain
I am
the sun and moon and forever hungry
the sharpened edge
where day and night shall meet
and not be
Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn

Two comments in recent critical works form the departure point for this discussion of Mama Day. In the first, Helen Fiddyment Levy mentions the emotional costs of the mother’s loss in one sentence, only to drop the subject. She goes on to write: “Although Hazel Carby calls for a return to the urban setting for verisimilitude in the portrayal of the lives of urban blacks, Naylor’s career suggests that portrayals of black rural communities, even the ideal home place, represent more than a facile ‘romantic’ vision of the folk… .”1 The connection between the two, the mother and the “ideal home place,” are apparent enough for Levy that she offers no transition here. And yet, it is the reduction of the maternal to an “ideal home” that often results in a “facile ‘romantic’ vision of the folk,” the vision which Carby is anxious to replace. By overlooking the complexity of the maternal figure in Naylor’s work, a complexity upon which she has insisted from her first novel, we replicate that romance, we gloss over the critique she offers.

Virginia Fowler also seems to slip into this romantic view in her study Gloria Naylor: In Search of Sanctuary, where she concludes:

The possibilities for wholeness and restoration of peace that are so powerfully rendered in Mama Day are absent from the other novels. But those possibilities are generated by the economically independent, Afrocentric, female-centric world of Willow Springs—in short, by a utopian universe bearing no resemblance to the actual world.2
Fowler’s very search for a sanctuary, of course, limits her perspective somewhat, but Willow Springs is by no means a utopian universe by most definitions. A rival conjurer nearly kills Cocoa out of her own jealousy; George risks (and succumbs to) death to save Cocoa; the original Ophelia commits suicide; men drink too much; women lose babies, families fall apart; and large corporations threaten the community’s very existence. The island is like any place in these regards. It differs primarily in its responses to these problems; the responses are not, however, always “ideal”: Mama Day is not able to “restore peace.” It falls to Cocoa to do that. While Fowler’s search for restorative space in Naylor’s fiction is certainly sympathetic, seeing Willow Springs as a utopian universe replicates the simplification of Carby’s assignment of a romantic character to the rural and to the black maternal aesthetic which here guides it.

In a 1992 interview Gloria Naylor offers a slightly different interpretation of this material. “Our survival today has depended on our nurturing each other, finding resources within ourselves. The women in Robinson, Mississippi, who dealt with herbs for instance, played a crucial role in our community.”3 These women, who did in fact live outside the world of Willow Springs, were directly responsible for the community’s physical and often emotional health, their very survival. Speaking of the novel Mama Day Naylor says:

It goes back to the stories I listened to when I sat in the corner of the kitchen, and to the different ideas that my parents had regarding the old women who not only worked as quasi traditional doctors, but who used roots and herbs and had supernatural kinds of powers. My mother believed that there were things that happened in life that you could not questions but my father was very reluctant to accept “superstition.” The structure of Mama Day emerged from this dual interpretation. I wanted as well to look at women in history, especially at women connected to the earth who could affect behavior.4
There is, for Naylor, a connection between recovering black women’s history of the woman as healer and source of supernatural power and the survival of a people with their ethnic identity intact. This is far more true for the urban characters—Cocoa and George—than for the rural ones who have maintained some connection all along. Further, Naylor’s kitchen education suggests that indeed this maternal culture continues to exist at least in people’s memories.

One element of this historical background is developed in Lindsey Tucker’s excellent article on conjurers as a context for reading Mama Day. Tucker provides several points worth mentioning in this discussion. The conjurers of the Sea Islands have been thought to resemble African elders and their traditions closely. The skills tend to run in families; individuals inherit both the position in the community and the knowledge. “Conjure women often carry the name Mother and hold considerable power within their communities.”5 Practitioners of conjure are both supremely rational in their careful attention to nature and supernatural in that they often have “second sight.” Mama Day can see, as several critics have point out, the “whole picture.”6 The power that these women carry is generally practiced for the health and well-being of the community, but Tucker points out that such power is presumed to be benevolent only by choice and could as easily be turned against one. The inhabitants of Willow Springs, for instance, know better than to anger Mama Day or to harm what is hers.

Implicit within Tucker’s examination of the conjurer and her relationship to the novel Mama Day is an understanding that this figure needs to be understood not just culturally or spiritually but also politically and even economically. What Naylor offers us, and what I will develop later, is no less than a road map for an alternative civilization, one based on a reordering of mainstream philosophy as holistic, spiritual and natural, rather than dichotomous, rational and technocratic. This vision does not guarantee utopian bliss, but it does offer the opportunity for mutual support and personal integrity.

For an appreciation of what Naylor is attempting here the novel should be read against a broader historical understanding of motherhood. Black women have often been prevented from assuming their role as mother to their own children. Even assuming that a woman’s children were not sold away from her, the slave system kept women working in the fields from dawn to dusk and spinning half the night. Collective child care, Susan A. Mann points out in “Slavery, Sharecropping and Sexual Inequality,” was devised for the slaveowners’ benefit, rather than for the women’s and was, consequently, another instance of their loss of control over their children’s welfare.7 In more recent years women have had to work similar hours in domestic service and in factories, according to Jacqueline Jones in her detailed study of black women’s work in the U.S., Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow.

While the act of bearing children (for a future labor pool) has not been generally discouraged, Jones argues that black women’s attempts to sustain family life have amounted to a political act of protest: “Most women had to entrust the care of their offspring to a neighbor, nearby relative, or older sibling (in all likelihood these persons also had other responsibilities during the day), or leave them alone to fend for themselves. … More than one observer even suggested that the high mortality rates among urban children were due to daytime accidents or diseases that their overworked, distracted parents failed to detect in time.”8 The dual message imparted by the culture—bear black children but raise white ones—was responded to with equally dual behavior. Women might willingly work long hours at domestic chores for their own families but only do a fair job for a white employer.9 Mothers were and are torn by their children’s needs and by economic necessity, a dilemma that is intensified by a dominant political agenda that demands black women’s subordination. Furthermore, “Despite their efforts to care for their own offspring and earn a living wage at the same time, black working mothers were held responsible for a variety of social ills related to family life, from the extraordinarily high black infant mortality rates characteristic of all northern cities to education ‘retardation’ and juvenile delinquency.”10 Often prevented by socioeconomic circumstances from raising their children, black mothers have nonetheless been blamed for their neglect.

Mother-centered literature by African American women must be understood as commenting directly on this state of affairs. Maya Angelou remarks in her Foreword to Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers and Daughters, “Each poem makes me know again as if for the first time that the most moving song created during my people’s turmoil of slavery was and remains, ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.’”11 These contemporary women writers are repairing the rend in the historical fabric of motherhood. Writing as daughters, they reinstate maternal love and nurture. Writing as mothers, they explore a variety of pressures—physical, emotional, cultural, even mythical. They are in both cases closing the wounds of the beneft mother and child.

Although Willow Springs depicts an island that is not part of the U.S., that belongs solely to its inhabitants of African descent, loss of mother and child still figure largely in the text. Sapphira “flies to Africa” leaving her children behind; when Peace drowns in the well, Ophelia grieves for years before killing herself and leaving her other children motherless; Miranda’s great unresolved grief is the loss of her mother; Abigail’s daughters, one of which is Cocoa’s mother, all die at very young ages, leaving Cocoa motherless. These scenes of loss invite us to consider the strength of the mother/child emotional bond and to read it against the history of loss figured by Sapphira—enslaved African woman who bears seven sons by her white “owner.” We have to read Mama Day and her maternal presence against this loss—both Cocoa’s need for that nurturance and Mama Day’s need for Cocoa to carry on her traditions.

Like Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and many others, Gloria Naylor writes of her understanding of the mother’s role in determining black women’s identity and integrity. The Women of Brewster Place, for example, problematizes the separation of women by poverty, class and sexuality and illustrates their need for powerful othermothers to nurture a fractured community. Naylor’s novels, unlike many others, make no claims to being historical per se, but instead express historical context as a concrete presence within each story. They speak to the issues of the historical construction of black motherhood, but tie those issues more directly to contemporary characters’ relationships to them.

Willow Springs is utopian in the sense that it functions as an island of mother love, an island where, for generations, women have raised their children without interference from the mainland culture. Naylor allows herself the indulgence, if you will, of imagining just what such a place would be like. In that sense it also functions as symbolic of a mythic African maternal presence in all of black women’s lives. What is so interesting about Naylor’s depiction, as well as those of the authors mentioned above, is that the mother is never solely an ideal home. She is demanding, powerful, and at times dangerous. The desperation of Toni Morrison’s character Sethe, for instance, drives her to kill her own children rather than have them returned to slavery. Part of the island’s danger lies in its threat to the mainland culture, to the men who represent it and to the daughters who internalize it. Cocoa herself is vulnerable to Ruby at least in part because she has not embraced her birthright. When George tries to succeed through masculine dominance, he dies. Only in recognizing his own interdependence with others can he survive and thrive. Mama Day and her world view threaten everything George and his world stand for. As long as he is unable to have faith in the unseen, in the apparently irrational, he and all he stands for an endangered. Even accepting a faith in the natural and supranatural would be destructive to many of the thought structures and institutions existing beyond the bridge. Suzanne Juhasz argues that in Mama Day the “world beyond the bridge can never be joined with the magic island of mother love without the radical change to its patriarchal nature, a change that seems impossible.”12

The two worlds of Mama Day are the modern city, subject to every kind of fragmentation of space and time imaginable, and the island which runs on mythic time; the history of the island exists simultaneously in the past and the present. Willow Springs’s boundaries too are literally fluid, changing with the tide and with the presence or absence of the bridge, the only connection to the mainland. Naylor’s use of dual settings in this novel problematizes the issue of identity broached in contemporary black women’s writing, outlining the traditions available to them and seeking a tolerable solution through the character of Ophelia/Baby Girl/Cocoa. The three names given to the central protagonist, in fact, illustrate rather well the individual’s triple significance. Named by her grandmother and great aunt, Cocoa’s identity is layered. She is all three people at once and yet each name/identity bears a different significance, Ophelia being the great granddaughter, the bearer of past, of tradition; Baby Girl being the future, the hope for generations to come; and Cocoa being the woman of color who exists and acts in the present. She is all three, and the traditional African and maternal aesthetic which guides this naming anchors her here on earth within her family and community. Mama Day links black mothering to a gender and ethnic identity which undermines, if not inverts, the destructive fragmentation of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. It restores memory of the past and hope for the future.

The title character, Mama Day, embodies the healing potential available through the African American mother. Not biological mother to anyone but having delivered most of the island’s inhabitants, she is given the title Mama, by right of aptitude and honor. At one point in the novel Mama Day even thinks of herself as “Old’s mama.” She is also Mother to the island in her capacity as keeper of island health and history.

Mama Day and Abigail embody the historical legacy of the island, a legacy of black female power to survive and thrive in adverse conditions. Their embodiment of Sapphira’s significance is key, since Sapphira Wade “don’t live in the part of our memory we can use to form words” (4). Understanding that comment is essential to understanding the novel since the significance of the African maternal tradition must be grasped from concrete images, from the bodied presence of signs and signifiers. Mama Day reads and understands the world through material signs, reading storms in the behavior of her chickens. It is also then in Mama Day’s response to the lush, sensual detail of the novel that Sapphira and her legacy are expressed. She understands context as crucial to the analysis of any situation, constantly reiterating what she knows about people’s pasts and about the island’s past in studying a sign, or in attempting to work her magic. She frequently invokes female relatives who have died, almost as a prayer or centering device: “Grace, Hope, Peace, and Peace again” (10). As her younger sister and nieces, these four women should have at least helped her bear the responsibility of the family history and tradition. Mama’s repetition of their names is a mournful reminder of the cultural and historical weight she bears on her old, tired shoulders, as well as an invocation of much needed peace. The expectations she and Abigail have for Cocoa are understandable only within an appreciation of this weight.

As a conjurer and as midwife and healer Mama Day also embodies Sapphira’s knowledge, carrying on the African-born woman’s traditions of knitting body and soul together, easing people through life and death transitions, respecting the presence of the spiritual world in the material and working with both to effect change. Mama Day has psychic ability; she hears the whispering voices of the island’s past that tell her what’s gone on before. Miranda’s second sight usually comes to her when she’s performing traditional women’s tasks—tending family graves, quilting, brewing tea—connecting her to “other ways of knowing” with the materially feminine. But she also possesses a large helping of mother wit, busying Bernice with walking, planting, cooking and churning in order to strengthen her and to pass the time until spring, knowing full well that Bernice will think the practices to have magical significance. Mama Day performs all of her roles with the use of common sense and natural substances—plants, seeds, charcoal, bone marrow, eggs—operating squarely within the earthly realm from a broader understanding of the natural. Bernice’s impregnation seems to rely as much upon mother wit, exercise and nutrition as it does upon the conjure ritual. Whether the ritual is supernatural or not, Bernice’s belief in it predisposes her to fertility.

Ultimately, however, Mama Day is only another mother in a line of them extending back to the near-mythic “great great grand Mother” (208) whose name is not known nor spoken by anyone save the narrator. Sapphira comes to Miranda in a dream, calling her daughter, expressing the Mother’s significance through her body:

Flooding through like fine streams of hot, liquid sugar to fill the spaces where there was never no arms to hold her up, no shoulders for her to lay her head down and cry on, no body to ever turn to for answers. Miranda. Sister. Little Mama. Mama Day. Melting away under the sweet flood waters pouring down to lay bare a place she ain’t known existed: Daughter. And she opens the mouth that ain’t there to suckle at the full breasts, deep greedy swallows of a thickness like cream, seeping from the corners of her lips, spilling onto her chin. Full. Full and warm to rest between the mounds of softness, to feel the beating of a calm and steady heart. …(283)
The dream Mother’s body, her arms, shoulders, breasts, heart, is a source of strength, sympathy, serenity, and steadiness in addition to being a source of answers.

Cocoa is herself another woman in the Day line who has the potential to rise up as a great grand mother. Miranda thinks, “the Baby Girl brings back the great, grand Mother. We ain’t seen 18 & 23 black from that time till now. The black that can soak up all the light in the universe, can even swallow the sun … and it’s only an ancient mother of pure black that one day spits out this kinda gold” (48). Cocoa’s sensitivity about her light skin implies that she does not understand its significance as Mama Day does. At the beginning of the novel she knows little of this import and cares for it less. That Mama Day may be right is confirmed in Cocoa’s cantankerous personality certainly, but also in small ways through her need for Abigail and Miranda’s function as “living mirrors” and for their sustaining letters (48). Throughout the novel, even as Cocoa assimilates to her urban environment, she depends upon the letters they send, her occasional visits home and the affirmation they provide that tells her who she really is. They convey to her the knowledge that she is not simply another office drone in a large city but someone with a rich history and cultural background, someone who matters very much to a small family and community. Miranda is, in fact, awaiting Cocoa’s decision to take over for her and to provide her with the next generation of the Day family before she will allow herself to die.

Traditions of grandmotherly involvement in child-rearing help to establish a strong sense of heritage. Robert Staples documents the prevalence of multigenerational African-American families and notes in particular the common situation of the maternal grandmother raising the children while the mother works.13 The grandmother’s integral role in child-rearing, while honored in Ashanti culture, has often been an economic necessity on this continent. Collins writes, “Although the political economy of slavery brought profound changes to enslaved Africans, cultural values concerning the importance of motherhood and the value of cooperative approaches to child care continued.”14 Everywhere in black women’s writing the grandmother looms as a powerful figure both beneficent and threatening: Maya Angelou’s grandmother in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Eva Peace, Pilate Dead, and Baby Suggs in Morrison’s novels, the Grandmother of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and here Mama Day herself. Clearly their perceived power testifies to their resistance to mainstream degradation of blacks, women, and the aged, but it also imparts to the young a pride in this most maligned flesh and a sense of historical and familial continuity undermined by mass culture.

The Baby Girl, so named in the African tradition by her grandmother in hopes of her survival, is given the “proper” name of Ophelia and the pet name of Cocoa. In her efforts to establish a separate identity, however, Baby Girl seems driven to New York, a place as different from Willow Springs as Mama Day is different from the rigidly ordered George. The most significant evidence that George is Cocoa’s antithesis lies in his lack of a mother, the knowledge of which gives him so much pain. George’s nameless mother, a fifteen-year-old prostitute/suicide, clearly expresses the devastating effects of a racist, sexist society, when posited along side of the island’s alternative visions of motherhood. Although Cocoa and George share the loss of their birth mothers, Cocoa differs substantially from George in that she has an abundance of love and guidance from her “othermothers,” Miranda and Abigail, as well as from the closely knit island community. Cocoa’s choice of New York and of this man imply that the strength of the mother’s love and attraction necessitates and also makes possible Cocoa’s departure, although she ritually returns to Willow Springs to replenish herself. Leaving, she takes with her a “hand-stitched counterpane, jars of canned preserves, a basket of potpourri, and a boxful of paper bags marked chest cold, fever, headache, and monthly” (51). Metaphors for the earthly connection derived from her mothers, the gifts appeal to the senses and ease the body. She also returns periodically to keep faith with her Grandmother and with Mama Day.

Naylor expressly announces through the narrative structure that the novel examines a young African-American woman’s struggle to live a life informed and strengthened by her cultural and feminine heritage, but not swallowed up in that heritage in the way that George is and Cocoa almost is when Ruby “spells” her. Cocoa fears the destructive power of the mother, surely because she has not yet claimed it for herself. She cannot, therefore, live permanently in Willow Springs, at least not until she has accepted Mama’s legacy. Cocoa’s departure from New York after the central events of the novel have transpired and her alternative residence in Charleston express her partial acceptance of her heritage. She ceases to see the world as to split—either New York or Willow Springs—and instead finds a midpoint in the southern city, a place from which she can easily make frequent visits to the island.

There seems little indication within the novel that Cocoa is concerned with social transformation; she is not exporting the island ethos to the mainland. She’s a practical, contemporary woman—graduate of a business school. The island, however, represents the converse of American business practices. People work only when they need to, create geographically close, multi-generational families, use medicine and medical practices that respect wholeness, practice traditions that unite the entire community. The “assembly-line nutrition” of New York bears no resemblance at all to the apparently abundant peaches, berries, honey, eggs, collard greens, and chickens that Abigail and Miranda prepare (13). Food comes from truck gardens or chicken coops or Dr. Buzzard’s beehives and is eaten in season. Candle Walk resists the Christian influence of the original slaveowners and of the mainland world, as does the funeral service for Little Caesar that George attends, even though there is a church on the island and most of the residents have an active faith. The gifts given at Candle Walk must come “from the earth and the work of your own hands,” a giving that embodies connection between hand and heart, culture and nature (110). Candle Walk is also a form of non-institutionalized welfare, although to call it that is to demean its spirit:

Candle Walk was a way of getting help without feeling obliged. Since everybody said, “Come my way, Candle Walk,” sort of as a season’s greeting and expected a little something, them that needed a little more got it quiet-like from their neighbors. And it weren’t no hardship giving something back—only had to be any bit of something.(110)
In this manner, the community can share the wealth with whomever needs it in a healing rather than divisive gesture.

In her essay “Uses of the Erotic,” Audre Lorde speaks of healing the split between mind, body and spirit, a split which has been imposed by Western civilization. She argues that this integration—eros—is a source of creativity, of healing, of energy, and ultimately of resistance to forces that would divide us from ourselves and from one another. She argues that claiming “the power of the erotic in our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world.”15 The economy of Willow Springs as well as its eating and work habits and cultural traditions express such an erotic vision. They provide healing to the island inhabitants and illustrate a radically different way of operating from the urban world of New York City. Furthermore, the alternative customs are all respectful of the fact that the inhabitants live on an island. In other words, they treat their homes and their people as the nonrenewable resources that they are and therefore respect the circular nature of interpersonal and interplanetary relationships. Naylor draws particular attention to the fact that the island is not a part of either Georgia or South Carolina, although both have vied for it. It is not a part of any country and, as such, is both its own country and a parallel to the planet Earth, inasmuch as Earth is an island within space. It is integrated and unified, like an egg from one of Mama Day’s beloved chickens.

The novel’s language challenges standard usage in much the same way as other African-American writers have challenged notions of “standard English” as adequate. A lush, tropical jungle of concrete detail, Mama Day is composed of language as rich as the island’s air: “air that thickens so that it seems as solid as the water, causing colors and sounds and textures to actually float in it … no choice but to breathe in lungfuls of oaks dripping with silvery gray moss, the high leaning pines” (175). The language, like the sensual elements of the island, resists categories and instead straddles and embraces them. George’s accusation that Mama is speaking in metaphors when she tries to explain her ways provides us with a cue as Mama thinks: “Metaphors. Like what they used in poetry and stuff. The stuff folks dreamed up when they was making a fantasy, while what she was talking about was real. As real as them young hands in front of her” (294). While “metaphor” is the only term available to express the doubling of Mama Day’s language, it is inadequate to the situation in which the doubleness is “real,” not figurative. The name Peace, for example, always means both the children named Peace, who died, and “peace,” the abstract concept. In tending the family plot, Mama Day thinks: “Got Peace, Grace, Hope and Peace again. They never found mama’s body, although John-Paul and three of his brothers dragged the bottom of The Sound for a week. Mother flew off that bluff screaming Peace. And she coulda been put to rest with Peace—and later on, Peace again” (117).

Closely related to the doubled quality of the words is the quality of the silence on the island. The narrator prepares us to listen “without a single living soul really saying a word” in the beginning of the novel, telling us that one could have heard the entire story as she tells it without a word being spoken (10). It is that kind of listening ability at which Mama Day excels, hearing ancestors’ voices in the breeze, a woman’s hatred in the rustle of the leaves. The bodies of people, as the body of the island and all of its animals, rocks, trees, and plants speak a language beyond metaphor, decipherable to those who attend it.

Naylor’s use of two obvious linguistic devices, however, bear mention in this discussion. Sapphira, in name and person, is certainly a reference to and revision of the Sapphire stereotype, implying that the stereotype deliberately defuses and degrades a powerful, even murderous presence in African American history, responding negatively both to the African and feminine alike. Similar to the black mammy, Sapphire renders the dangerous safe for mass consumption, whereas Sapphira summons an African goddess, threatening both white and patriarchal suppression. More complex, Naylor’s creation of the 18 & 23 as a reference to the mythical year in which Sapphira, after having borne seven sons, obtains the island and kills Bascombe Wade, and significant of any act or behavior that resembles such a maelstrom, still defies easy classification, used as it is to describe storms, people, events, etc. Both devices testify to the creative and destructive powers of the great grand Mother. In a sense the power of the hurricane IS the power of the great mother here, connected as she is to the natural world in all its potential. It “could only be the workings of Woman” (251).

Structurally, the novel within the frame leaps between Cocoa’s, George’s, and the narrator’s retelling of the events, moving back and forth in Part I between the two antithetical worlds of the city and the island, seemingly reinscribing the split. Cocoa and George never actually leave the island in “discussing” the events; however, it is there they must go to find “answers.” Part II takes place either on the island or en route to it. That the island’s philosophy can encompass and even absorb the city is confirmed by Mama Day’s visit there to help Cocoa move. Mama Day meets sandwich shop owners and opera-singing streetpersons. She sees what George called the “real” New York, and then carts home cheap souvenirs of the city landmarks to give as gifts on Candle Walk that year: “Folks lucky enough to get one will be sure to prize ’em. It ain’t often you’re able to display a genuine product from a place like New York” (305). The genuine products of Willow Springs all come from the earth and the work of two hands, while the “genuine product” of New York is a mass-produced trinket, with no connection to the earth, that seems to degrade the very object it enshrines. The seeming naivete of the remark is undercut by islanders’ knowledge of the difference. The items therefore lack the threat posed by commodity culture. Willow Springs is distant in space and time from the “big buildings” of New York, but simultaneously very much like it: “Any city is the people, ain’t it?” (306).

Mama Day fleshes out in “metaphorical” terms the maternal aesthetic at work in the lives of contemporary African American, middle class women, even as those women struggle to make it in capitalist America. Willow Springs functions as an independent country where the Mother reigns, and it offers, for Cocoa, a grounding in her own heritage, her own identity. Against that backdrop, her life in the U.S. seems not just unfulfilling but oppressive. It is for Cocoa to decide when and if she will accept the challenge offered by Sapphira.

In John S. Mbiti’s groundbreaking work African Religions and Philosophy he describes the custom of burying or in some way disposing of the placenta and umbilical cord in some spot close to the birth place soon after a child’s birth in order to signify to the community that the child has separated from its mother’s body and entered the larger body of human society.16 Recognizing that nonetheless a child remains in close physical proximity to its mother for some time after that, many groups ritually reenact the child’s birth between the ages of six and ten, at which time the child formally leaves “babyhood” behind and becomes a productive member of the community. This ritually enforced movement from the nurturant mother space to the active involvement with community is replaced in Mama Day with the tendency for young adults to cross the bridge to the mainland, to leave the island behind. The fact that the mother retains an important psychological place in the adult’s world, increasingly so as she contemplates motherhood herself, speaks to the primacy of that bond.

It may also reflect, in this country, a greater need for retreats to a nurturant space in a society which consistency undermines the female and person of color and subverts essentially non-dichotomous modes of thinking. Mbiti writes:

The traditional solidarity in which the individual says “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am,” is constantly being smashed, undermined and in some respect destroyed. Emphasis is shifting from the “we” of traditional corporate life to the “I” of modern individualism.17
Written in 1969 to describe the changing lives of Africans, it could just as easily describe the transition from a preoedipal state of human interconnection to the overdifferentiating stance of European American philosophy inculcated everywhere in “developed” countries and daily penetrating “developing” ones. Conceivable in both psychoanalytic and socio-economic terms, “modernization,” or “civilization” if you wish, marks a movement away from the mother, literally and figuratively. The shifting emphasis on wage-earning rather than domestic production, for example, evident in colonized African countries (and earlier in America as well) has led to a devaluing of the mother’s contributions to the household and often to her seeking sources of cash income that have taken her away from her children. The long term effects of that devaluation and mother/child separation can be fragmented, alienated cultures which emphasize differentiation rather than connection.

Novels like Mama Day expressly resist that movement through the “development” of alternative communities anchored in traditional African notions of interdependence. The extent to which the female characters of these and other novels can embrace that vision of community provides a measure for successful resistance. The novel ends on an affirmation of community as a source of mothering for the women and men who must, in their turn, embrace mothering for the coming generations. Naylor’s exploration of the mother is one of the most fully realized in contemporary African American women’s literature but also the one least constrained by outside historical influences, arguing implicitly for a separatist space. Given the difficulties encountered by mothers and daughters elsewhere in this body of work, her argument is certainly compelling.


All citations to Naylor’s Mama Day are from New York, Ticknor & Fields, 1996 edition.

1. Helen Fiddyment Levy, “Lead on with Light,” Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, Eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. A. Appiah (New York: Amistad Press, 1993), p. 281.

2. Virginia C. Fowler, Gloria Naylor: In Search of Sanctuary (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996), p. 142.

3. Angels Carabi, “Belles Lettres Interview,” Belles Lettres 7 (Spring 1992): p. 38.

4. Carabi, p. 42.

5. Lindsey Tucker, “Recovering the Conjure Woman: Texts and Contexts in Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day,African American Review 28, 2 (1994): p. 176.

6. Susan Meisenhelder, “‘The Whole Picture’ in Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day,African American Review 27, 3 (1993): 405-19.

7. Susan A. Mann, “Slavery, Sharecropping, and Sexual Inequality,” Signs 14, 4 (Summer 1989): 774-98.

8. Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow (New York: Viking, 1994), p. 129.

9. Jones, p. 9.

10. Jones, p. 184.

11. Maya Angelou, “Foreword,” Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers and Daughters (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991), p. xii.

12. Suzanne Juhasz, Reading from the Heart (New York: Viking, 1994), p. 202.

13. Robert Staples, Black Woman in America (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1973). More recently Patricia Hill Collins writes about the need for community othermothers in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990).

14. Collins, p. 121.

15. Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic, the Erotic as Power,” Sister Outsider (Trumansberg, New York: Crossing Press, 1984), p. 59.

16. John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (New York: Praeger, 1969).

17. Mbiti, pp. 224-25.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420120307