Healers in Gloria Naylor's Fiction

Article excerpt

During a 1993 talk in St. Louis, poet Nikki Giovanni asserted, "Black love is Black wealth." Almost nowhere has Black love, manifesting itself in care of others, been better presented than in the novels of Gloria Naylor. Less familiar than the triumvirate of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou, Naylor won a National Book Award in 1983 for best first novel and has published three others. Her works - The Women of Brewster Place (1982), Linden Hills (1985), Mama Day (1988), and Bailey's Cafe (1992) - feature themes of ancestry, generational conflict, economic exploitation, and lost dreams. In particular, Naylor has celebrated the power of love as a force that heals, bringing peace and wholeness. Her characters share their wealth: some through literal doctoring, others through psychic healing, still others through inspirational documents that they have left behind, and finally some through providing a haven for the needy.

Although Naylor's healers sometimes resort to AMA- and APA-approved methods of restoring health, they transcend merely prescribing aspirin and engaging in talk therapy. Rather, they use holistic methods, archetypal practices, and even voodoo, linking themselves to atavistic practices of Africa. They heal heart and soul as well as body. As one of the major, though somewhat overlooked, African-American authors of the past two decades, Naylor herself has become what Marjorie Pryse terms a "metaphorical conjure woman," a medium who, like Morrison, Walker, and others, "make[s] it possible for . . . readers . . . to recognize their common literary ancestors (gardeners, quilt makers, grandmothers, root workers, and women who write autobiographies) and to name each other as a community of inheritors." Like her contemporaries, Pryse notes, Naylor highlights "connection rather than separation," transforming "silence into speech" (5). Her healers connect, and they certainly speak. Through their healing and conjuring they demonstrate, in the words of Pryse, "the power to reassert the self and one's heritage in the face of overwhelming injustice" (16).

Naylor's depiction of unusual women - women with the power to heal - appears first in The Women of Brewster Place in the character Mattie Michael, who demonstrates an almost magical ability to save others, and it continues through her next three works: Linden Hills (1985), Mama Day (198), and Bailey's Cafe (1992). In the first of these Willa Nedeed restores her sense of self by examining the letters, lists, and photographs of three generations of wives in the Luther Nedeed family. In the second "magical powers" appear in the title character, Miranda "Mama" Day. In Bailey's Cafe the allegorical cafe as well as Eve's garden restore life and hope to women on the edge. Naylor's four novels reinforce the theme that one can overcome with the guidance of others, usually a female other.

Through this theme Naylor joins the ranks of other significant African-American women writers. In contrast to a culture that has marginalized African-American women, dictated where they must live, attend school, and eat, denied them economic opportunities, prevented them from voting, and psychologically abused them, novels by African-American women depict heroic struggles and gallant role models who have helped their sisters not only to endure but to prevail. Cut off from support systems in mainstream culture, they have turned to one another. While not an exclusively African-American issue, the practice of women relying on one another for direction and strength crops up with notable regularity in the novels of African-American women. For example, Alice Walker's Celie initially becomes her own healer through letters to God, but with the arrival of Shug Avery, Celie encounters the heart and the hands to comfort her.

Toni Morrison's many engaging protagonists sometimes heal and sometimes wound. Pecola affixes herself to white ideals of beauty and to a "doctor" whose healing drives Pecola into a world of unreality; Sula, the epitome of self-reliance, heals herself but wounds a community; Jadine refuses the wisdom and healing powers of both Son and Aunt Ondine. …


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