Gloria Naylor’s North/South Dichotomy and the Reversal of the Middle Passage: Juxtaposed Migrations within Mama Day

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Date: 2006
From: Middle Passages and the Healing Place of History: Migration and Identity in Black Women’s Literature
Publisher: Ohio State UP
Reprint In: Children's Literature Review(Vol. 202. )
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,163 words

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[(essay date 2006) In the following essay, Paterson examines the thematic contrast between New York and Willow Springs, the two principal settings of Mama Day. Paterson identifies New York as the seat of the dominant American culture, which she characterizes as Eurocentric, profit-driven, and individualistic. By contrast, she suggests, Willow Springs represents the survival of an agrarian, community-centered African culture that has been rejected by the mainstream.]

In “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” Toni Morrison observes that “there is something very special and very identifiable” about black literature, even if the style is “elusive” (200). Morrison laments the fact that few scholars or critics acknowledge this quality in the work of African American writers, and that such scholars prefer to praise or condemn the work “based on criteria from other paradigms” (200-201). Morrison urges scholars to consider a new paradigm when evaluating black literature, a paradigm that often includes a choral voice, which threatens critics who view the artist as a “supreme individual,” who is “always in confrontation with his own society” (201). This de-centering of the narrative subject often confuses scholars, many of whom wish to see the black writer as an independent agent negotiating through dominant discourses in order to assert his or her own identity.

Black women’s writing presents even more challenges to scholars operating under white theory; as Carol Boyce Davies argues, “black women/’s writing cannot be framed in terms of one specific place, but exist/s in myriad places and times, constantly eluding the terms of the discussion” (Black Women, Writing and Identity 36). The dissonance that results from such “multiple voicings” may well make Eurocentric theorists uncomfortable, but this “radical Black diasporic subjectivity” deserves to be read and examined, even if its agency is elusive (Davies 37). Even though such a dialogic vision contradicts the European notion of the protagonist as a heroic isolate who embarks upon a dramatic quest, its plurality should be studied, even if scholars do need to utilize a different paradigm to do so. In particular, we must become more adept at interpreting the nuances of the first person plural point of view, a perspective that often embodies the collective voice of the African community, and forges a “conscious historical connection” to what Morrison calls the ancestral past (202). It is therefore the “job” or sacred duty of the African American writer to preserve those historical ties, since “when you kill the ancestor, you kill yourself” (202).

Gloria Naylor’s 1988 novel Mama Day “forges” just such connections, “among other African-American writers, other female writers,” and “other classical literary figures” (Felton and Loris 3), echoing Morrison’s premise. Indeed, if there is a single common thread running through the diverse scholarship on Mama Day, it is in the linking of the historical and the spiritual through the processes of community and genealogy. For Naylor, the spiritual and the historical are not distinct cultural elements, but inextricably linked, as the spiritual becomes historical, and histories become infused with spirit. The catalyst for this process is genealogy: the spiritual and its historical context are transferred from one generation to the next, in the process providing a portal through which the spiritual can break into and act upon events in the present, in turn generating new histories.

In Mama Day, Naylor uses the intricate ancestry of the Day family to forge connections between the capitalist, white world of modernist New York and the insular, black community of Willow Springs. As readers of the novel, we are invited to enter into Cocoa Day’s conversation with George Andrews, a dialogue that he participates in posthumously, and a narrative that forms the bulk of the novel’s forward action, even though the events narrated occur strangely outside of time. As Lindsey Tucker observes, “Cocoa’s words are spoken in a time which has not arrived and addressed to a person who has been many years dead” (173). Indeed, by setting the moment of “story-listening” (Donlon 34) in 1999 rather than in 1988 when the novel was initially published, Naylor “stitches past, present, and future together” in what Susan Meisenhelder sees as an “unfinished, dynamic story” of “black experience” that is “as culturally autonomous as Willow Springs itself” (“The ‘Whole Picture’ in Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day” 418).

Such a dynamic structure allows Naylor to enfold the narratives of George and Cocoa together, allowing them to call and respond to one another romantically while at the same time juxtaposing the individual journeys of each. Through the call and response dialogue of Cocoa and George, Naylor can also focus on a particular “dichotomy” of philosophies—“the clash between” the “rationality” or “nonbelief” that has shaped the identity of George, and the intuition or “belief” that characterizes Cocoa (Harris, “Shaping a Narrator to an Audience, an Audience to a Tale,” 95). By allowing these philosophies to collide, Naylor examines the factors that have contributed to each character’s distinct identity and provides points of departure from which each will travel. As Cocoa and George call and respond to one another, they must reconstruct both their separate and collective pasts, as such reconstruction allows them to articulate their respective migrations, trajectories that first collide with their initial meeting in New York City. In Cocoa’s journeys back and forth between North and South, Naylor exposes the myth of the free and cosmopolitan North, as represented by Manhattan Island and New York City, and in George’s migration to the South from New York, she further challenges history by metaphorically reversing the journey of the Middle Passage through George’s integration into the African culture of Willow Springs. By giving up his dependence on the rationality and beliefs of the dominant American culture, George aligns himself with the African roots of Willow Springs, therefore reclaiming his own heritage as he is both physically and spiritually grafted into the genealogy of the island. Thus, in juxtaposing the migrations of Cocoa Day and George Andrews in Mama Day, Naylor explores the connection between history, genealogy, and African American identity, and provides an alternative narrative framework that allows for the reinterpretation of some of the darkest moments within the collective American past.

It is no coincidence that the romance between Cocoa and George begins in New York, since Naylor’s urban North represents not only monetary opportunity and the promise of advancement but also a place ripe with opportunities for romance as well. It is only in this urban North that Cocoa can find a plethora of potential partners, where she can meet “quite a few” men in diners and coffee shops by offering them mint-flavored toothpicks from the little box she always carries around with her. Only in the urban North can she have the kind of job where she can spend the day under the air conditioner and be a “crisp butterfly” (14) and not out in the fields picking cotton or at the drive-through window of a fast food restaurant.

This urban North, and in particular the city of New York, embodies both the ambition and failure of the modern city, as it is the center for high finance, high fashion, and high art. Its skyscrapers point upwards, and its citizens inhabit those buildings, with little connection to one another despite such close proximity. New York may be, as George tells Cocoa, “a network of small towns” (61), but it is a network often divided and devoid of genuine community, a network of warehouse apartments and complicated intersections, where people are isolated by schedules dictated by trains and office clocks rather than the seasons of an agricultural economy. Such isolation and regimentation “exacts” from humanity “a different sort of consciousness than does rural life,” notes sociologist Georg Simmel, who examined the role of the modern city in shaping consciousness as early as 1902 in “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (130). According to Simmel, the metropolis creates “psychological conditions” that “use up” more consciousness than do the slower, more habitual “life and sensory imagery” of the rural community (131). For Southern blacks during the Great Migration, the impact upon the psyche was especially distressing, since, as Farah Jasmine Griffin notes, “the arrival of Southern blacks is marked by an immediate confrontation with a foreign place and time, with technology and urban capitalism, with the crowd and the stranger” (51). Such a confrontation “assaults” what Griffin calls the “migrant psyche” and changes the way that the African American conceives “time and space” (52). And though, as Simmel observes, “metropolitan man” may be “free” of the prejudices and preconceptions “which hem in the small-town man,” this freedom is not necessarily comfortable, as “the bodily proximity and narrowness of space” in the city “makes the mental distance” between individuals all “the more visible” (133). Indeed, all too often caverns exist between the citizens of a city, and in New York those caverns can seem insurmountable.

This alienation and lack of community are precisely what Cocoa experiences in New York, as she discovers that many of the opportunities held out by the large city turn out to be far more elusive than she imagined. Cocoa must spend a desperate six months searching for work, begging for job leads from friends when she nears the exhaustion of her unemployment benefits and discovers that jobs through temping agencies will scarcely pay the rent, let alone all the other necessities of life (15). And romantic possibilities often fizzle as well; although Cocoa’s toothpick strategy has already resulted in two dates in one month, one turned out to be a “creep” and the other a “half creep” (16), causing Cocoa to conclude that she is living in “awful times for a single woman in that city,” (17), awful times that make women “desperate and sad” (17), and she wants no part of such desperation.

Such a façade of possibility highlights the crumbling American ideal of the self-made man, an ideal never more promoted than in the image of Lady Liberty thrusting her torch into the clouds above Ellis Island. “Give us your poor, your huddled masses,” the engraving at Liberty’s feet reads, but at the time of that engraving those “huddled masses” certainly did not include the chained rows of slaves, legs shiny with sweat and urine, crowded onto the decks of slave ships on a forced pilgrimage to the New World. Neither did they include the regiment of Africans fighting in the Civil War against their own freedom or the myriad of Negro slaves harvesting corn and cotton to boost the Southern economy. While it was fashionable during the height of the industrial revolution to believe that individuals could advance beyond their stations given the right education and set of skills, by the mid-twentieth century many people were beginning to question such a premise, arguing that even if the ideal did exist, it only applied to white men who were born into situations of privilege. Instead of leading to a close examination of racial relations and a genuine understanding of the accumulated horrors of slavery, this challenging of ideals prompted yet more false structures, designed to appease white guilt by attempting, on the surface, to promote equality. Cocoa is all too familiar with such empty gestures, as she acknowledges that firms who hire African Americans as front desk receptionists often hire no other black people for the more advanced positions, believing that by hiring just one person, “they’d put the ghost of Martin Luther King to rest” (20).

In the case of the Andrews and Stein office, however, it is a white woman who is at the reception desk, and George Andrews himself is black, hinting at real potential—in Cocoa’s case, the potential both for a job and for the significant interpersonal connection she has lacked ever since she left Willow Springs. She is attracted to him immediately, and although she tries to repress this attraction, especially when she realizes he is the interviewer whom she is scheduled to meet, she cannot help but think about him both sexually and romantically. His hands linger during their post-interview handshake, and as she stumbles out into a reception area filled with other applicants, she is filled with the promise of both a salary and a love interest (31).

What the handshake is not filled with is the potential for Cocoa to connect with her heritage, and it is because of this lack that she readily defends her yearly trip back to Willow Springs. Instead of altering her plans when George tells her that she will have to start Monday if she is hired, she informs him that the trip is nonnegotiable. Cocoa must go back home, not only because her position as only remaining grandchild obligates her to, but also because she needs to observe the tradition she has created for herself. The references throughout the novel to the annual nature of Cocoa’s journey transform the typical two-week vacation of the working professional into a ritual pilgrimage into the inner workings of the soul, a time for the kind of renewal and invigoration that can only result from the clarity of reconnecting with one’s family of origin.

In forcing Cocoa to choose between honoring her tradition and unconditionally accepting the position with Andrews and Stein, Naylor juxtaposes the city of New York, and in particular Manhattan Island, with the island of Willow Springs. In the chimerical meritocracy of New York, opportunities are diverse and plentiful but elusive and often insubstantial. In Willow Springs, there is little opportunity for advancement, but there are tangible ties within the community and to its heritage. As Meisenhelder observes, Willow Springs is “culturally independent,” standing outside of white traditions and even outside of America (“Whole Picture” 405) in its location among what Trudier Harris calls the “mythical, southern territories” of fictional spaces (“Shaping a Narrator to an Audience” 62), spaces that, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi, serve as ripe soil for generational sagas (63).

Willow Springs’s independence both from the mainland and from the politics and culture of statehood forces upon it a certain kind of insularity, but, as George points out to Cocoa during and after their first date, pockets of circumscription exist even within a place as large as New York. According to George, Cocoa has come to New York “following a myth” (Naylor 61) that she has to be quick, aggressive, and competitive, because New Yorkers are always rushing. The reality of New York that George sees, however, is of “a network of small towns” within whole blocks, a couple of alleys, or a single apartment building, in which the people have lived for generations and are bound together by a single language, “code of behavior” (61), and set of laws. George also challenges Cocoa with the idea that she has isolated herself, by choosing to venture no further beyond her apartment building than an area the size of Willow Springs (65).

The difference, then, between these neighborhoods of New York City and the town of Willow Springs lies simply in connections; because Willow Springs is not geographically or politically connected to the area around it, its citizens must seek internal connections, reaching back through history to the events and characters of the past. In New York, Cocoa can learn that a “Kumquat” is really a Korean and that a “taco” is a Puerto Rican (62), and she can begin to appreciate those external and cultural differences, but in Willow Springs, she can internalize the legends of Sapphira Wade and the mysteries of the Other Place. Thus, what Naylor points to through Cocoa and George’s mutual education of one another is that with big city diversity comes the crux of the problem inherent in the industrial condition. Cocoa will become an island unto herself if the goal of the place is merit and progress—tradition and heritage are less important and must often be compromised, leaving the individual isolated and alone. And this is the problem for Cocoa with New York: the freedom she wants is there, but she must relinquish a little bit of her identity in order to have it, a sacrifice she is not willing to make—for a job or for a man.

In order for the capitalist world of New York and the mystical community of Willow Springs to coexist in the narrative, Naylor must bring them together in the marriage of Cocoa and George, a marriage that she sensibly initiates in a neutral location, New Orleans. Although New Orleans is southern, it is a very different South from that of Willow Springs, and George himself remarks that it is not the “real South” (129). Naylor takes little pains to describe the city, caring instead to reveal the whirlwind nature of Cocoa and George’s marriage by her lack of detail. Cocoa and George get married so suddenly that George only remembers the week as “an exhilarating blur” (140), and Cocoa’s only recollection of New Orleans is of “fifty thousand people running up and down Bourbon Street screaming, ‘Go Eagles. Go, Raiders,’ flapping green wings on their backs and waving tinfoil swords” (147). And even though neither George nor Cocoa has significant attachment to the culture or geography of the city, Naylor superficially aligns the marriage trip with George. After all, the trip is not only his suggestion but also the condition upon which he accepts Cocoa’s proposal in the first place. If either member of the couple can claim any connection to New Orleans, it is George, but only in a peripheral way, as the crowds at football games only serve for him as a surrogate and temporal community. Thus, while New Orleans is a place where the wedding itself can take place, such a neutral space does not allow the kind of spiritual growth that both characters must undergo if their marriage is to blossom and bear fruit. For this kind of growth, ancestral connections are needed, and it is only when Cocoa finally brings George to Willow Springs that both characters can reconnect to their spiritual heritage.

When Cocoa first introduces George to the island community, she is nervous and uncomfortable, rather than excited and proud, knowing that she faces the sudden clash of the two different worlds she has inhabited. Her life with George suddenly collides with her past from the island, and this collision prompts her to doubt whether or not George can love and accept the essence of Willow Springs that dwells within her. To Cocoa, Willow Springs is not just a hometown but also the living essence of her soul. She knows that George loves part of her—the part he has become acquainted with during the six months they’ve known each other in New York, but she questions whether he can accept “the rest” of her, “the whole” that is “here” in Willow Springs (176). Interestingly, this slippage of terms—from “rest” to “whole”—reveals in microcosm the slippages in Cocoa’s identity. Before she revisits the island with George, Cocoa has never questioned the role Willow Springs has played in determining her identity. Until that moment, she has been content to exist in two separate personas, never allowing for a discourse to take place between the two. George’s presence in Willow Springs forces her to acknowledge the “transformation” (176) that she undergoes every time she returns to Willow Springs, and enables her to step outside of herself and examine the part of her that has become urbanized. She stands in “Cocoa’s bedroom” (176) watching “Ophelia’s husband carefully unpacking his clothes” (177). This sudden shift to third-person reference suggests that the first-person narrator of the passage—Cocoa’s essential self—is neither wholly Cocoa nor wholly Ophelia, but an authentic being in her own right, one who has assumed the differing personas necessitated by the roles she has been given by each community.

In assuming these differing personas, Cocoa has also developed different patterns of behavior for each community, and George’s presence in Willow Springs also prompts her to reexamine those patterns. Like any young woman bringing home a new love, Cocoa fears the exposure of her flaws and the failure of her relational strategies, and in particular her methods of manipulating others. In New York, for example, she has found that she can effectively manipulate George’s emotions by throwing temper tantrums. But in Willow Springs, those tantrums, “whether coddled or dismissed” are “never taken seriously” (177). When Cocoa looks at her bedroom through George’s eyes, she sees its rustic character, flaws and all. For the first time, “the slope in the wooden floor” unsettles her and all she can think about is the “dripping shower head that left a blue-green stain in the base of the tub” (177), a dripping showerhead that engineer George will likely want to fix.

While Cocoa wonders how her past and familial ties will affect her relationship with George, she also acknowledges that George’s presence in her bed transforms her room from a girlhood sanctuary to a “world where only Ophelia and George belong” (177). After all, with George, Cocoa is Ophelia, but beyond Cocoa’s immediate family, no one on the island knows “who in the hell Ophelia” is (176). This childhood bedroom is the place where the Cocoa of Willow Springs collides with the Ophelia of George’s New York. It is only after experiencing the force of this collision that she can temporarily reconcile her two disparate identities and realize how fortunate she is to belong in both worlds: “Ophelia and Cocoa could both live in that house with you [George]” (177).

Cocoa’s acknowledgment of how fortunate she is to belong to both George and to the island community reveals the multifaceted nature of her identity, a complex nature that may be mistaken for what Homi Bhabha calls hybridity, but in actuality is something very different. Bhabha’s concept of hybridity relies upon the notion that the hybrid emerges from a negotiation between two or more different cultural identities. Out of this negotiation flowers a reevaluated cultural identity that incorporates this confrontation of difference: “The social articulation of difference, from the minority perspective, is a complex, on-going negotiation that seeks to authorize cultural hybridities that emerge in moments of historical transformation” (Locations of Culture 2). While it may be easy to see Cocoa Day as a character who exemplifies this negotiation, a close reading of this and other passages within the novel reveals that Cocoa’s development lends itself more to the position of syncretism, as articulated by Becquer and Gatti in “Elements of Vogue,” and further discussed in Carole Boyce Davies’s Black Women, Writing and Identity. Syncretism, as Davies explains, describes an “antagonistic relationship,” where the process of relating to an opposite awakens that which is “Other within the Self,” so that both identities can simultaneously be “enabled and prevented from full constitution” (48). If we look closely at this explanation, we can read what happens within the pages of Mama Day between George and Cocoa as “antagonistic,” as each character certainly stirs recognition of Other within the Self. However, even this position of syncretism is not an entirely fitting theory for Cocoa and George’s relationship within the novel or for either character’s pathway to integration and self-actualization.

What Naylor does in Mama Day with black identity is something even more complicated: Cocoa and George do awaken Otherness within each other, but instead of paralyzing that Otherness within the Self and inhibiting integration, Naylor enables full integration by spiritualizing their relationship and allowing the two characters to participate in a dialogue that transcends not only time and space, but death. By having readers eavesdrop on a dialogue that George can only participate in posthumously, Naylor suggests that there is an essential self—or soul—that transcends all boundaries of identity and therefore relegates racial limitations to the flesh. If Cocoa experiences a collision of worlds, it is not only because she has been operating, in New York City, according to white limitations and expectations, but also because her role in Willow Springs demands its own set of expectations. Only after death can all of these limitations be transcended, and that which is Ophelia fully integrated with that which is Cocoa. Mama Day’s pages close before we see this take place, but by “listening” to George’s process of transcendence, we can at least somewhat glimpse Cocoa’s as well. Such glimpses parallel the prediction that Mama Day herself makes, that Cocoa will come back to the island, in time realizing her true identity. But what we do not see is whether or not that realization will take place before Cocoa’s death. What Naylor suggests, then, is that Cocoa, like George, may only be wholly integrated with her ancestral past beyond the boundary of life and death. Thus, George’s presence in Cocoa’s life and in Willow Springs itself prompts us to expand our notions of hybridity and double-consciousness, suggesting that there is a spiritual dimension that transcends such anthropological classifications.

George’s presence in Willow Springs also prompts Cocoa to examine the complex nature of her membership in the community; while she does belong to the community in spirit, her ambitions, and the consequent time she has spent off the island, have distanced her from the everyday lives of the people. Perhaps it is because of this isolation that Cocoa’s voice is not the first we hear; our introduction to her comes not through her own narration but through a mention by the communal voice of Willow Springs that narrates chapter 1. Interestingly, although Mama Day claims Cocoa as “like her very own” during this opening segment of the book (9), the communal voice refrains from doing so. As long as Cocoa remains geographically separate from the island, she cannot be fully a part of its narrative. Furthermore, even though we do hear her side of the story, it cannot be told fully from the perspective of the communal voice, since Cocoa is both an insider and an outsider to Willow Springs. Although many of the townspeople still align themselves with her and consider her a part of them, her time in the urban North has sent her into a state of permanent limbo between communities—a limbo that, while allowing her to be the arbiter of certain kinds of information, prevents her from being privy to others.

Though Cocoa sees herself as being whole only when she is on the island, she is not fully integrated into the island culture, a move that Mama Day hints will only happen in the fullness of time. Through George, Cocoa gleans information that she would not otherwise be privy to, and through George, she recognizes the limitations her gender has placed upon her knowledge of certain portions of community lore. Although Dr. Buzzard and the rest of the men in the barbershop have never actively kept secrets from the women in their lives, there are tales they deliver more readily to other men (189-90). Cocoa does not know these stories in part because she is a woman and therefore not likely to be told them directly, but also because, like Reema’s boy in the opening chapter, she has not asked the right questions of the right people, choosing instead to get her information about these men “filtered through their daughters or wives” in “bits and pieces from Grandma and Mama Day” (190).

What Naylor points out through Cocoa’s realization of her limits as a member of Willow Springs is the failure of any one voice to provide the entire narrative of the community. This is why Naylor must narrate her novel through both the dialogue between Cocoa and George and the consciousness of the island’s collective voice. All three perspectives are needed. All three woven together make the whole, “multi-faceted truth,” which according to Meisenhelder forms a “complex narrative quilt of distinct voices” (“Whole Picture” 418). The obvious Otherness of George thus does not find its counterpart in Cocoa, who is portrayed as neither fully Other to George, nor fully Same. Rather, it is found in the collective Self, represented by the “we” of the island’s communal voice. Naylor uses the plural first person to establish the collective consciousness of the Willow Springs community, a consciousness that holds in tension multiple versions of its own history. Each member of the community knows, for instance, the name Sapphira Wade, and that she is the grand ancestral figure from whom many of them are descended. From this point, however, the legends diverge: in one, Sapphira smothers Bascombe Wade, her master, and lives to tell her story for a thousand days afterwards; in another, Sapphira marries Wade, bears him “seven sons in just a thousand days,” puts “a dagger through his kidney,” and escapes “the hangman’s noose, laughing in a burst of flames” (3).

This lack of consensus is acknowledged by the collective voice, who understands that histories are likely to splinter and shift “down through the holes of time,” but who quickly points us to the two “facts” that remain unaltered: Bascombe Wade is dead, and Sapphira had seven sons. The competing legends about Sapphira exemplify the plurality of perspectives within the communal voice, a plurality that theorist Mikhail Bakhtin would find doubly heteroglossic. Here the voices of many are compressed into a single narrative and translated to us via a mostly omniscient narrator who can see into the hearts and minds of all, but who resists providing an overarching narrative that will expose an objective truth. Naylor’s omniscient narrator is neither human nor divine but rather an amalgamation of spirits that holds within itself a multiplicity of perspectives and impressions. Instead of privileging one narrative, this collective entity is content to give equal weight to all, allowing multiple histories the chance to exist simultaneously and enhance rather than detract from one another.

If Naylor distinguishes the communal voice by its reliance upon the heteroglossic, then she provides a nice contrast to that heteroglossia in the character of George, who attempts to collapse all the voices that inform his consciousness rather than allowing them to remain unique. George has grown up with the monoglossia of the Wallace P. Andrews Shelter for Boys, a place where rules are not only to be respected and followed but also internalized as one’s own inner voice. Because most of the boys have come to the Andrews shelter from either abusive or unknown pasts, the prevailing ethos of the community is “only the present has potential” (23). Mrs. Jackson, the woman who runs the orphanage, exhorts the boys to “keep it in the now,” and therefore divorces them from their painful pasts and the ensuing emotions those pasts create.

Because George knows nothing of his parentage except for the fact that his mother was a whore (130), he grows up accepting and even depending upon the monoglossia of the shelter. The shelter’s rules are predictable, its structure implacable, and George begins to internalize the “facts” of life that Mrs. Jackson teaches (26). Because he has no authentic heritage, George allows his concept of rules and laws to supplant his concept of self, as he discovers a spiritual underpinning in the Western (often white) system of logic and science. Because scientific principles are universals, they are the only ideas he can trust, and he places his faith in them accordingly. Until he meets Cocoa, he eschews the intuitive and the supernatural in favor of what is purely rational and empirical: “I had what I could see; my head and my two hands, and I had each day to do something with them. … I may have knocked my head against the walls … but I never knocked on wood” (27).

George’s choice of profession clearly reflects this dependence upon the literal present and the potential within it. As a mechanical engineer, he must manipulate materials according to their physical characteristics (which are scientifically invariant) and their environment of use. George so associates himself with the principles of engineering that he has commissioned a silver tie clip that he wears on his first date with Cocoa (60), a tie clip that is the essence of his identity. He is proud of the precision with which it is crafted, that is, of the precision expressed in the use of the laws of physics. It represents his identity as a mechanical engineer (60), which in turn represents his identity as a thing in the “now.” It also represents the claim of absolute laws to universality, since they operate across ethnic and racial boundaries, and also across time; they are good for the past, present, and future. No genealogy is required to understand their importance. No spiritual linkage is required to make them relevant to the present. The question is, whether there is something missed by the laws. This is hinted at in George’s indication that not many of the boys in the shelter went on to be artists. The world of art is a world of great power but also of great danger (26-27).

Cocoa’s initial rejection of the tie clip is a rejection of George and the world of laws that he inhabits. Although the internalization of such laws has confined George’s thought, the world in which he operates these laws is in theory broader than Cocoa’s—or at least more diverse. He grew up in a population that was mixed African American and Puerto Rican; thus he is able to appreciate the contributions of different groups. Appreciating these contributions, however, is different from internalizing them into a heteroglossic inner voice, which is what Cocoa has done with the plurality of voices she brings with her from the island. Growing up in Willow Springs has kept Cocoa from an objective knowledge of heterogenic cultures, but in so doing has allowed her to explore fully the diversity of her own culture, something that George has yet been unable to do. Indeed, George even admits to Cocoa after the storm that “words spoken” in Willow Springs “operated on a different plane through a whole morass of history and circumstances that I was not privy to” (256). Although George is not fully aware of the existence of this “different plane” early on in his relationship with Cocoa, it is her language and the promise of authenticity she offers that he is drawn to upon their very first meeting.

Cocoa’s authenticity opens George to the possibility of a genuine heritage for himself. Until he meets her, he has so divorced himself from the African community that he has even been involved with Shawn, a white woman, for five years. He does not see Shawn as Other, but he does recognize something within her that distances her from him. George never specifies what it is that “ultimately couldn’t bring” him “to marry her,” and even insists that it is not her race: “She had stopped being a redhead with freckles a long time ago and had become just Shawn” (53). Yet, Shawn has never inspired in him the visceral physical reaction that Cocoa does when he passes by her in the coffee shop; it is Cocoa, not Shawn, “who has the power to turn” George’s “existence upside-down by simply running a hand up the back of her neck” (33). George’s confrontation with such power makes him realize what is lacking in his relationship with Shawn, and makes him “question silently” whether or not he is just using her (53).

It is not until Cocoa has been married to George for over a year that she is able to bring him fully inside her heritage by taking him with her to Willow Springs. Once there, George finally realizes the connection between genealogy and history, as he watches Cocoa interact with the island and its people, particularly Abigail and Miranda. When George first meets the Day women, he is astonished by their ageless appearance. Like the fragrance of Willow Springs itself, which “smells like forever” (175), Miranda and Abigail radiate an aura of eternity. Strong, steady, and almost free of wrinkles, they possess a mythical quality that contrasts with George’s own ephemeral nature and causes him to ponder whether they will ever die. George is also surprised to find Miranda smaller than he imagined, “barely five feet and could have been snapped in the middle with one good-sized hand,” because she has “loomed” a “big, tall woman” in his imagination based upon the stories that Cocoa has told him (175-76).

From the beginning of their relationship, George has been envious of Cocoa’s ties to her heritage, especially since these ties expose his own lack of ancestral connections. While Cocoa was born in her grandmother’s house and grew up in a community where she could visit the birthplaces of several of her ancestors, George doesn’t “even have a real last name” (129). To George, what Cocoa has is not just a family but a history as well, a history that George himself cannot begin to match. Thus, what Cocoa has that George lacks is a visceral connection to her past; she not only holds within her the folk traditions and legends of her people but also the internalized memories of personal contact with living ancestors. It is the lack of such connections that prompts “a lump” to form in George’s throat at the “gentle pressure” of Abigail’s hands upon his face, as she claims him as one of her own: “Up till that moment, no woman had ever called me her child. Did they see it in my eyes? The intense envy for all that you had and the gratitude for their being willing to let me belong?” (176).

George has never before experienced such a sense of belonging. After all, the only woman who was a constant presence in his early years was Mrs. Jackson, who ran the shelter where he grew up. Although Mrs. Jackson does care for the boys in the shelter, she effectively distances herself from the role of mother in their lives, even reminding them directly, “I am not your mother. I am paid to run this place. You have no mothers or fathers. This is not your home” (26). By including these statements as part of the list of “facts” she recites, Mrs. Jackson not only underscores her lack of maternal connection to the boys but also the anonymity of the shelter itself. The shelter exists without a past or a future, and with no folklore to bind its inhabitants together, save the suggestion that Mrs. Jackson once killed a dorm director who had raped some of the young boys. Such lore serves only to increase the presence of Mrs. Jackson as a foreboding figure, one who does care deeply for her charges but who only displays that concern beyond the confines of her relationship with them.

Mrs. Jackson is also a woman without a race—or at least that is how Naylor portrays her. Never does Naylor provide a physical description of Mrs. Jackson, so there is no clear indication of her race one way or another. Thus, Mrs. Jackson bears no kinship to George—emotionally, racially, or spiritually. He has grown up in a household that is not a home, a place that positions him, along with all the other boys who live there, as Other. They are Other to Mrs. Jackson, to the dorm directors, to each other, and finally, to both the state that pays Mrs. Jackson’s salary and the world outside the shelter’s doors. As Mrs. Jackson says, the boys are not “delinquents, rejects, or somebody’s garbage” (26), but they are not necessarily valuable either, and certainly do not possess the physical kinship that would validate them. As critic Suzanne Juhasz contends, throughout the entirety of Mama Day’s Part I, George exists “beyond the bridge” that leads to Willow Springs, dwelling in a modernity that represents patriarchical hegemony and that remains forever “separate from the magic circle of mother love” (136).

The belonging that George gains on the island extends beyond the bounds of blood relationships. What George gains in Willow Springs is an ancestral heritage that transcends genealogy; when he aligns himself with Cocoa and her living ancestors, he becomes spiritually grafted into their lineage, a lineage that extends beyond the physical boundaries of the island to the continent of Africa itself, of which the island is an extension. This process of spiritual grafting metaphorically reverses the Middle Passage, providing an authentic, rich, and heteroglossic past for George that replaces the provisional, narrow, and monoglossic rule of rationality that has hitherto existed for him as a surrogate heritage.

This grafting is credible because Naylor has positioned Willow Springs from the beginning of the novel as, in Miltonian terms, a paradise regained, or, in this case, an Africa regained. The island’s ambiguous location off the coast of lower South Carolina and north Georgia places it geographically in the middle of the real-life Gullah islands, Sea Islands off the Atlantic coast that linguists and historians recognize for their unique preservation of African American culture and history. As theorist Lene Brøndum argues, “once a ‘reverse Ellis island’ to the African slaves, the islands today have been reversed again into a more positive cultural ‘bridge’ to Africa” (153). In Mama Day, Naylor, according to Brøndum, uses “the rich Sea Island heritage” to identify Willow Springs as an extension of Africa. The tiny island community operates as a microcosm of the continent at large, complete with tribal remedies and customs, reverence for ancestors, and a designation of a particular location, the Other Place, as possessing a concentration of spiritual power due to its ancestral ties.

This continuity of African tradition into the Americas is only made possible by Naylor’s initial depiction of the island as independent, a fact she makes evident in the novel’s prologue. Because, as critic Hélène Christol contends, a “journey back to origins” must “start with the reappropriation of the land” that has once been lost to the black community, Mama Day begins by establishing Willow Springs as a “free” and “black territory,” emphasized in the text by “the importance of … the ‘deed’ that confirms” black ownership (160). From the Willow Springs map that is, according to researcher Cheryl Wall, “itself a sign of black self-sufficiency” (1452), to Mama Day’s larder, which “is always full” (1457), the black community of Willow Springs is heroically independent—liberated in every sense of the word (1457-58). But, as Christol insists, “owning the territory is not enough; reappropriation of land has to go with the reappropriation of time and thus of history” (161), a history that Mama Day will continually reinvent and tie to genealogy. Thus, the book’s structure involves a “creative dialogue between public and private life, history and biography, the past and the present,” with genealogy itself at the center of these intersections (161). Christol contends that such genealogy can only be reconstructed by the recovering of the names of the Day family, names that “the Days own … as they own their land” (162). Once this genealogy is reconstructed, Christol concludes, the “lost unity of man and nature, of men and women,” and perhaps even of black and white, can finally be restored, and “the peace which has been lost” regained (162-63).

George, of course, cannot recover the names of his forebears the way that Miranda and the rest of the Days are able to, since he has no name to connect him to the past. His last name, Andrews, is merely the last name of the man who founded the shelter where he grew up; like the slaves ripped from their heritage and given the names of their white masters, his surname is disjointed from his reality as a man of African descent. George’s redemption into his lost African heritage depends upon a storm that sweeps across the same ocean that the African slaves once traveled. It is this storm that finally severs George’s ties to the patriarchy of America, literally washing out the bridge that connects the island to the mainland. Meisenhelder sees the storm, like the Genesis flood, as a process of purification (“False Gods and Black Goddesses in Naylor’s Mama Day and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God” 1445), sweeping with it the “false gods” that have hitherto existed within the novel “as well as false models of masculinity” (1446). According to Meisenhelder, Naylor sees George’s “rigid masculinity” as having “no place in the purified new worlds born out of the storms” (1446).

The storm, however, is not merely a means of purification. Naylor goes to great lengths to emphasize the storm’s African heritage and its parallels to the Middle Passage. It “starts on the shores of Africa, a simple breeze among the palms and cassava, before it’s carried off, tied up with thousands like it, on a strong wave headed due west. … Restless and disturbed, no land in front of it, no land in back, it draws up the ocean vapor and rains fall like tears” (249). It is almost as if the storm gathers up in itself the ancient tears and the pain of the Middle Passage that created them. After all, the storm traverses the exact path that many of the slave ships took to America from Africa. But the storm does not only gather up spirits lost along the Middle Passage—it begins with the murmuring of the spirits in Africa as well; as they groan through the leaves of the palms cassavas, we can almost hear the cries of grief of the African ancestors whose descendants have been lost to them. After all, the reason that the Middle Passage is so traumatic to begin with is that it does not just encompass the horrors of the transatlantic journey, but the reality of the historical events and separation of families that take place on both the African and American coasts that are its borders. As Maria Diedrich, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Carl Pedersen argue in Black Imagination and the Middle Passage, the Middle Passage “emerges not as a clean break between past and present, but as a spatial continuum between Africa and the Americas,” a spatial continuum that “extends” topographically “from the interior of Africa across the Atlantic and into the interior of the Americas” (8). In Mama Day, Naylor, like many other Black writers, has “reconceptualized” the Middle Passage to include what Diedrich, Gates, and Pedersen term a “syncretic notion of a space in-between that links geographical and cultural regions” and transcends “ethnic, racial and national boundaries” (9). Thus, Naylor’s storm itself experiences and contains the trauma of the Middle Passage, resulting in such a fury that it obliterates the superficial ties that Willow Springs has to America, ties born of convenience and circumstance rather than shared affinity.

Psychologically, it is this fury that George experiences as “God,” or in this case, “Goddess,” as Naylor explains that such fury “could only be the workings of Woman” (251). Such an understanding of “God” adds a new layer of meaning to George’s experience of the storm. On the face of it, George is undergoing a spiritual crisis of the sort well understood in the mainstream American religious tradition: is there “some presence that might be governing what was beyond my own abilities?” (251). Trained in rationalism and self-reliance, George has tried to “engineer” life as he engineers water systems, choosing his beliefs like construction materials to maximize the occasions when “things were under control” and leave him in the position of “a comfortable amnesiac,” desiring only to be “left alone to seek happiness where I could find it” (251). For George, concrete religions like Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam shared a similar goal: control of their adherents through politics and fear (252). Only now, faced with the awesome “pure power” of the storm and his own impotence to do anything other than witness its destructive capabilities, George can recognize the limitations of his rationality.

The storm’s force exceeds all of George’s established parameters, with an untamable wildness and a center at which there is no possibility of negotiation. Faced metaphorically with the force of the voices and tears of millions upon millions of his own forebears betrayed and dehumanized, George can now realize an authentic heritage of his own, a heritage which cannot be destroyed due to “amnesia” or negotiated away through the adoption of a surrogate culture. The storm allows George to experience the Middle Passage for himself, for only in so doing can he regain what has been denied him from birth, and importantly, the revelation of his heritage comes not through his own searching but from Africa itself. The power of the horror of the Middle Passage takes matters into its own hands and forces itself upon George unasked and initially unwanted, an irresistible and inescapable grace no less potent than John Calvin’s. Only now that the past has irrupted into the present is there a chance of peace. Only now, since George has felt “the growing and pervasive realization of my own insignificance” (252) can he stand in proper relation to his ancestors, living and dead, and gain spiritually the position of community member that he holds physically by his marriage to Cocoa.

George’s spiritual transformation is not initially evidenced in his behavior, however. Despite his experience, George longs for nothing more than “to return to work,” to escape back to a world of phones and hospitals, a longing made desperate by Cocoa’s illness. Circumstances dictate otherwise. A possible voyage in a washed-up boat is foiled when the citizens of Willow Springs tear the boat apart to use the wood in rebuilding the bridge. George works tirelessly on the bridge, all night at one point, only to see the work of several days destroyed by a lightning strike. There is clearly a force that will not suffer George to leave the island until he can properly understand the nature of his transformation; George has experienced the Middle Passage and the return to “Africa regained,” but he has not yet accepted his heritage as his own.

It is not inevitable that George must die on the island to fulfill what is required. Mama Day knows that if he so chooses, his self-belief may be guided by her “so she can connect it up with all the believing that had gone before” (285). George chooses otherwise but nevertheless enters the community of spirits that dwell on the island, just as his ashes dwell in the waters around it, a sure confirmation that his transformation was complete, if unrecognized. As Fred Metting observes, “although George remains skeptical … he does participate long enough, and with enough will, to protect” Cocoa (165). In order for George to be capable of this saving power, Metting argues, “Mama Day must convert” him by linking him “to the legacy of the Day men” (165). Because of this grafting into the genealogy of the Day family, in future years, Cocoa will talk with his spirit, as only Mama Day can do now. In future years, George will contribute to the narrative that is Mama Day, a voice from the dead combining with the voices of the living. In future years, perhaps, there will be a variety of legends built upon the basic facts of Cocoa’s recovery and George’s death, a recognition that, as Cocoa says, “there are just too many sides to the whole story” (Naylor 311). In the “now” of George’s death that is mere present, the “now” of the rational, of the Wallace P. Andrews Shelter for Boys, there is room only for tears, for the mourning of the one who has left, for individual loss. But in the “now” of the island that wraps up in one past, present, and future, there is a rope of a million variegated strands stretching across time and the Atlantic, each lending strength to and drawing strength from the whole, and here they mourn only lost possibilities.

Thus, even though Cocoa still does not live on the island by the chronological end of the novel, Abigail and Miranda Day do not mourn her absence, because they know that Cocoa, no matter where she is, embodies possibilities that are not lost, since her spirit is bound up with the other spirits of the island, which are in turn bound with Africa. Even if Cocoa does not fully understand this bond at the time of the story’s telling, she will one day, and, as Miranda reassures George’s spirit, Cocoa will return both to him and to the island community itself: “One day she’ll hear you, like you’re hearing me. And there’ll be another time—time that I won’t be here for—when she’ll learn about the beginning of the Days. But she’s gotta go away to come back to that kind of knowledge. And I came to tell you not to worry: whatever roads take her from here, they’ll always lead her back to you” (308). For Cocoa, then, George’s death is a catalyst that prompts her to grow, but this growth requires that she leave Willow Springs. She cannot “bury” herself “in Willow Springs forever” (308), nor can she divorce herself from it entirely. Although she still does not realize that the spirit of Willow Springs lives within her, she understands that she needs to be rooted somewhere—and that New York is not a place that allows for such stability.

Not only does New York remind Cocoa too much of the George for whom she grieves; the city cannot function as “familiar ground” the way that Charleston does. Charleston’s proximity to Willow Springs allows Cocoa to live apart from the island but close enough to maintain some connection to it, even if she still does not fully participate in such a connection. Charleston also allows Cocoa the opportunity to meet another man and to fall in love again, even though she admits that he can only be “second best” to George. As Cocoa continues to live and grow emotionally, she not only learns to abide the loss of George, but she is able to begin her own family, thus continuing her strand of genealogy.

Just as it is George who attempts to rebuild the bridge between the island and the mainland, George becomes the means by which Cocoa can confront the sublation of her own disparate identities. By aligning George with the white European world of engineering and mechanical logic, Naylor places him as outsider or Other to Willow Springs, forcing Cocoa, in turn, to negotiate between her own Otherness and her sense of belonging. As George reunites with his African past, Cocoa becomes aware of the tenuousness and superficiality of her own ancestral knowledge, and it is only with this awareness that she can begin the process of being genuinely integrated into the core of the community. Such a process of integration must culminate in a final move away from Willow Springs before Cocoa can return; once away, she can finally see the rift between her own understanding of her community and the spiritual realities of her heritage.

Once Cocoa can see this rift, she will be able to understand, like Miranda, that her ties are inescapable, no matter how tenuous her knowledge of them is. After all, Cocoa’s “pure black” skin “brings back the great, grand Mother” spirit of Sapphira Wade, even if Cocoa herself does not know the story of the Day family by the end of the novel. Her “18 & 23” blackness is her heritage and her destiny, absorbing “all the light in the universe” and “even” swallowing “the sun” (48), but her journey must continue beyond the end of the novel before she can fully realize her destiny and fulfill all of its possibilities. Once she realizes that she is truly the kind of gold “only an ancient mother of pure black” (48) can spit out, once she can see where her own lineage fits within the cord of her ancestry, then she will be able to return to Willow Springs for good, because it is only then that her own spiritual journey will be complete.

Cocoa’s and George’s migrations, then, like their narratives, are interdependent and complementary. While George begins his journey completely alienated from his spiritual past, Cocoa begins hers insisting upon observing traditions she has been physically part of but does not fully understand. Cocoa’s initial migration out of Willow Springs to New York enables her to experience the inauthenticity of the modern city and allows George the possibility of reclaiming his spiritual heritage as he becomes grafted onto the genealogy of the island. In turn, George’s integration with the ancestral community initiates Cocoa’s remigration out of Willow Springs in preparation for final reintegration into her spiritual community and thus a fully integrated identity. By suggesting that both characters’ spiritual development depends upon a return to the South, Naylor also aligns herself with several other writers, such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ernest Gaines, and Maya Angelou, who create what Farah Jasmine Griffin calls “artistic” narratives of remigration (146). Such writers, Griffin argues, “are influenced, but not bound by the dominant migration narrative,” and often resist focusing “on the continued racism of the South” (182). Rather than depicting a South that “continues to suffer from a racist legacy,” these “literary” migration narratives portray a South that is both “a place of possibility” (146) and a “homeplace” that offers “a haven of safety” (181).

Ultimately, both Cocoa and George have had to exist within conflicting modernities—the conflict between their African American ancestry and the dominant American culture that neither recognizes nor values it. Although this conflict produces schisms of the self, and the consciousnesses of both characters reflect such fragmentation, in Naylor’s world, there is a way for both of them to reintegrate their fragmented selves into an authentic whole. In Naylor’s world, the dominant culture, then, plays the role of Other, which leads the alienated African American to a crisis of understanding where a lack of integration becomes clear and where reintegration is now possible. Such reintegration functions as a reversal of the Middle Passage, since the individual does not merely return to the ancestral community but also opens up new knowledge and forges new connections.

Works Cited

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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420120309