Tracing the Motherland: Autobiography, Migration, and Matrilineality in Gloria Naylor's Mama Day
Mensah, Lucy Kwabah
This paper situates Gloria Naylor’s 1988 novel, Mama Day, within the tradition of 19th century African American women’s autobiography. I argue that the slave-narrative can be understood as black autobiography in that ex-slaves used their life story as a political tool in both critiquing slavery and redefining black identity. Mama Day could be understood as a neo-slave narrative since the novel traces a trajectory from Sapphira Wade—a young black female slave living in the 19th century to the youngest descendent of her matrilineal line, Cocoa Day, who is living in the 20th century. The novel is set in Willow Springs, a fictional island where Sapphira Wade was enslaved. I argue that Sapphira Wade is able to redefine black femininity through her use of conjure to reclaim Willow Springs from her master and create a safe space for her matrilineal line of “Day women”. These women follow in Sapphira Wade’s tradition of black female self-empowerment and self-definition. I find that Cocoa Day, too, follows in this tradition, which is expressed by Naylor’s choice to allow Cocoa Day to speak in first-person. This paper explores how Cocoa’s narration can be interpreted as an autobiography and how both her ancestry and migratory experiences shapes this self-crafting of a life story. Furthermore I look at how Cocoa-through her life story-becomes an agent in the construction of a modern black female subjectivity.