Matriarchal Mythopoesis: Naylor's Mama Day

By Cowart, David | Philological Quarterly, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Matriarchal Mythopoesis: Naylor's Mama Day


Cowart, David, Philological Quarterly


J'entends donc par "Femme" ce qui ne se represente pas, ce qui ne se dit pas, ce qui reste en dehors des nominations et des ideologies. -- JULIA KRISTEVA

Like Cat's Cradle, An American Dream, Fiscadoro, The Name of the Rose, Gravity's Rainbow, and Vineland, the novels of Gloria Naylor fall into a category of writing that naturally burgeons as the year 2000 approaches. Naylor's linked fictions, a kind of millennial roman fleuve, discover a startlingly original vision of the last days. One traces in The Women of Brewster Place (1982) and Bailey's Cafe (1992) the mythic chronicle of travail and purgatorial suffering. In the all-black real estate development that gives Linden Hills (1985) its title one sees a parody of white materialism conflated with the false vision of a New Black Jerusalem whose high priest, Luther Nedeed, perishes in apocalyptic flames. Only in Mama Day, however, with the year 1999 as its temporal frame, does the larger eschatological drama come fully into focus.

This novel's end-of-millennium setting invites readers to reflect on the end of the drama that begins in Eden with the Fall and Original Sin, continues through the Incarnation and the fated sacrifice, and concludes with the Apocalypse and the second Coming. But neither the virgin birth of Bailey's Cafe, nor the pit that yawns for Luther Nedeed in Linden Hills, nor the millennial promise of Mama Day represents an exercise in Christian piety.(1) Rather, Naylor proposes a radically feminist revision of traditional patriarchal narrative. In Mama Day she implies that humanity will achieve its redemption only by restoring the proper mythic/religious relations between the sexes. The larger vision here involves recognizing and re-embracing a mother-deity displaced, in remote antiquity, by a host of unhealthy patriarchal alternatives. As corollary to this restoration, she implies, the usurping son or consort of the goddess (the mythographers "solar hero") must accept the immolation of his rationality and return to his divinely subordinate role. Ultimately Naylor subverts the linear premises of Christian eschatology. In our end, she suggests, is our beginning.

Naylor became known when The Women of Brewster Place won the American Book Award. As her subsequent work has appeared, readers have seen the unfolding of an experimental project of no small magnitude--realization of the author's dream of a quartet of interconnected novels.(2) Though not so elaborately linked as, say, the fictions of William Faulkner, Naylor's novels feature abundant cross-references and a modest version of what Balzac calls "retour de personnages." Thus Brewster Place includes among its major characters Kiswana Browne and the lesbian couple Theresa and Lorraine--all refugees from Linden Hills.(3) In the later novel named for that upscale development, a character briefly mentions Kiswana Browne as having gone off "to live in the slums of Brewster Place."(4) In Linden Hills, too, a desperate Willa Prescott Nedeed recalls "being so ashamed of her greataunt, Miranda Day, when she pulled up in that cab each summer, calling from the curb at the top of her voice, `Y'all better be home. Mama Day done come to visit a spell with her Northern folks.'"(5)

This character comes into her own in Naylor's 1988 novel, Mama Day, which the author seems to have conceived as the nexus or center of her larger project. Cocoa, one of the major characters of this novel, is first cousin to the Willa of Linden Hills, and passing reference is twice made to the fire in which she dies. In addition to a redoubtable great-aunt, Cocoa and Willa share a grandmother, Abigail, and both claim descent from the legendary Sapphira Wade. In Mama Day, too, Cocoa and the man she will marry, George Andrews, go through an important reconciliation scene outside of Bailey's Cafe, which gives its name to another Naylor novel, published later but set further back in time (indeed, Bailey's Cafe concludes with George's birth). …

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