Our first book club read of 2023 was Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, and it was an experience, ok?
The overarching themes that stood out to me were magic realism, love, loss, mothering, self-determination, and the dichotomy between northern and southern Black people.
The majority of the story takes place in Willow Springs, a sovereign space between South Carolina and Georgia. There is a unique sense of governance and community among the people, despite their separation from the traditional government oversight that we usually associate with cities and states. The mere existence of Willow Springs is a resistance to a long history of systematic oppression, trauma, and racial violence. As I read about this place, I immediately thought about other historically Black, self-determining cities and towns such as Eatonville, FL, Mound Bayou, MS, Princeville, NC, and Allensworth, CA, just to name a few. Like these cities, Willow Springs was founded during or near Reconstruction. During this period of history, Black towns and cities were constantly emerging and becoming established all over America.
In 1823 an enslaved conjure woman, Sapphira Wade, managed to get the deed to Willow Springs. Somehow she successfully transferred the ownership of the land to each enslaved person in the town. The mysteriously supernatural ways of Sapphira offer a refreshing insight into the magic of our self-determination and its healing nature. Sapphira’s story reminded me of how many stories we have lost from our matriarchs during and before enslavement. The people of Willow Springs have a long beautiful memory of their conception. It sustains their collective survival and instills the importance of living in a community.
I found myself highlighting the term “upside down” throughout the book. In my opinion, Naylor uses this phrase to describe the ways of the people in Willow Springs, it eludes to the modernity of the white gaze that has severed the connection to our humanity before colonialism. Furthermore, it offers us a glimpse of what life could be if our Black communities and traditions were undisturbed.
When it comes to keeping a community together, Mama Day is that girl!
Mama Day is a pillar and gatekeeper of her community. She is the ultimate mother in a unique sense. Known for her duality, we get to experience her tell-it-like-it-is demeanor, on the other side, we see her softer and more vulnerable nature. Since a child, Mama Day (a.k.a. Miranda) has been mothering her gifts of midwifery, farming, and healing abilities.
Although the Day family has experienced their fair share of supernatural magic, losses still dampen their doorstep.
The way author approaches the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. At each stage, the main characters become a bridge to the next phase. As a reader, I empathized with the characters at every crossroad.
I loved the comparison of magic found in southern and city culture. New York City is a fast-paced, bustling concrete jungle where everyone only looks out for themselves. It is a stark contrast to Willow Springs, a rural paradise where people move according to nature. The people have no sense of urgency to rush anything because the community will come together to fix any issue that arises. I like Naylor’s take on this long and controversial debate because it uplifts and articulates the beauty of Black life in both places while addressing the misconceptions.
Lastly, I want to discuss Naylor’s use of magic realism. Mama Day’s magic emphasizes some hoodoo, rootwork, and nuance therein. However, Mama Day wasn’t the only one with magic, as Dr. Buzzard and Ruby also dabbled in magic that impacted the community in a myriad of ways. As I read about their magical powers, I couldn’t help but wonder about my own. I thought about all the magical moments I missed or took for granted. In some ways, I felt like this magical metaphor spilled over into the idea of Willow Springs. Cocoa often took her hometown and its magic for granted. As a Day descendant, she was grounded by a magic that people beyond the bridge didn’t believe existed. Cocoa desperately wanted to leave because she never felt as if she fit into magic because of her insecurities. I felt empowered by Gloria Naylor’s reminder that the foundation of all magic is belief. Now, it depends on what your beliefs are; but it ultimately defines the effects of your magic.
Overall, I truly enjoyed this book and it has inspired me in unexpected ways. I look forward to reading more of her work. I wanted our book club to read Mama Day because we don’t hear about Gloria Naylor enough. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to add her work to their bookshelf.
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