Conjure And Gloria Naylor

’s “Mama Day” Essay, Research Paper

A major source of concern affecting many African Americans today is the loss of their heritage. Gloria Naylor has written a novel about a timeless society where African roots and heritage are celebrated, even in a modern world that smothers cultural identity rather than encouraging or celebrating diversity. Mama Day, a 1988 novel written by Gloria Naylor details the lives and customs of a colony of former slaves who are far closer to their African roots and cultural traditions than any blacks living on the mainland could ever be. The island of Willow Springs where the majority of the story is set, is a small barrier island off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. The reason for the location of Willow Springs is because it is closer to Africa and it lies in the path through which hurricanes often strike. In one interview, Naylor explains the significance of the hurricanes that frequently strike Willow Springs. She states that the inhabitants of Willow Springs, “briefly experience the feelings of middle passage, the voyage of slaves from Africa to the Caribbean islands, and eventually the American mainland” (Carabi 38). One of the most interesting themes that is involved with the rather complex plot is that of conjure. This idea of conjure women likely comes from the tribal religions that were practiced in Africa before slaves were brought across the Atlantic. The use of conjure is deeply rooted it African tradition. Although the residents of Willow Springs appear to be Christian; they have a church and a reverend, it is unusual that both Mama Day and Ruby, the two conjure women on the island, attend services regularly. In Willow Springs, conjure is just as common as medicine or the “typical” religions that people have become accustomed to over time. The use of herbs, tonics, spells, and other methods to heal or in some cases, harm others is widely known and feared throughout the island. George, the husband of Cocoa Day witnessed some of the unusual rituals surrounding religion on Willow Island on his visit. After “Little Caesar” dies he observes the unusual funeral described thusly,The church, the presence of the minister, were concessions, and obviously the only ones they were going to make to a Christian ritual that should have called for a sermon, music, tears – the belief in an earthly finality for a child’s life.(Naylor, 269) According to many sources, including Lindsey Tucker, “For African groups, the afterlife was a reality; death was a journey to the spirit world, which, nonetheless, did not constitute a break with life on earth” (Tucker, 180). The service held for Little Caesar is obviously not one to put closure on an earthly life but is geared toward preparing to meet him in the next life. This idea is much more similar to African rituals than to any rituals practiced in America today. Another reference to this close blend of Christianity and conjure is:Miranda stops at the foot of the porch. “Somebody sure don’t want me and my cakes in their house if they sweeping straight toward me.” “Not you I don’t want, it’s this here dust.” Abigail laughs. “And I ain’t sweeping salt, am I?” (Naylor, 44) This passage makes several close references to the voodoo religion which is often practiced in Africa and the Caribbean islands where there is a strong African influence. “Salt is one of the most common ‘ingredients’ found in a voodoo priests spells.” And “In the various religions practicing some form of Voodoo, the porch of a persons home is considered the most sacred place in the house” (Encarta ‘98). Miranda, otherwise known as Mama Day or Little Mama, is not the only powerful conjure woman on Willow Island. Ruby is a powerful conjure woman who exercises her evil several times during the novel. Ruby tries to place a curse on Mama Day by placing a bundle of salt and graveyard dust under her house, as well as using “roots” to wed Junior Lee, and drive his wife to insanity. This is evidenced on page 134 when Naylor writes, “That them roots she’s working may have got Junior Lee to the altar.” This voodoo induced relationship between Ruby and Junior Lee becomes the talk of Willow Springs, and taking into account the literally hundreds of mentions of voodoo or other types of unorthodox religion lend further support to my thesis of conjure playing a major role in the lives of the inhabitants of Willow Springs. The most important night of the year on Willow Island falls on December 22, when the Candle Walk occurs. This date happens to coincide with the winter solstice, a day that has often been considered a time of magic and other types of conjure. As the people travel about the island with their candles, exchanging handmade gifts and the phrase, “Lead on with light.” The idea of creating things with one’s hands is very important. The gifts are only important if, “it came from the earth and the work of your own hands” (Naylor, 110) This tradition dates back to the death of Sapphira Wade, and is often misinterpreted and misunderstood as the generations pass. The phrase, “Lead on with light”, comes from the story of the island’s creation. The novel contains this description of the islands creation:The island got spit out from the mouth of God, and when it fell to the Earth it brought an army of stars. He tried to reach down and scoop them back up, and found Himself shaking hands with the greatest conjure woman on earth. “Leave’em here, Lord” she said, “I ain’t got nothing but these poor black hands to guide my people, but I can lead on with light.” (Naylor, 110) In the Day women’s younger years, Miranda and Abigail used to travel to the eastern pat of the island where Sapphria finally left the island after breaking Bascombe Wade’s heart, bearing him seven sons, and convinced Wade to free all of his slaves and deed all of the property on the island to them. When she was done with her work on Willow Island, Sapphira “left in a ball of fire to journey back home east over the ocean” (Naylor, 111). Another interesting fact surrounding the Candle Walk, is that it falls on the winter solstice is that December 22 is dark longer that any other day of the year. From that day forward in the year, the light grows gradually each day. One final aspect of the Candle Walk that appears later in the novel is that Miranda feels that this day is also for the Day men who loved their women too much and died for their love.

Another example of African tradition mixed with the doings of a conjure woman is when Miranda and Abigail make a patchwork quilt out of old family clothing as a gift to Cocoa and George for their wedding. This type of quilting has become important to many African American families because it is one thing that they have that can help preserve their roots through the fragmentation due to migration and slavery. While piecing this quilt together late one night, Miranda began to sense her ancestors presence through the fabrics that they once wore. When Cocoa receives the quilt, she knows what it was meant for. She saw the quilt as being the quilt under which they would create their children, and this would further the history that has already been woven into the fabric. One important use of Mama Day’s conjuring skills is centered around Bernice. Bernice and Ambush have been trying to conceive a child, but they were unsuccessful. Recognizing Mama Day’s powers, Bernice asks her for help. Mama Day says that she can not alter nature, but she might be able to help. The four major components of Mama Day’s solution to the problem are a chicken, an egg, the woman and the “other place”. The chicken is a symbol of the woman in African voodoo, as the egg is the most important symbol of fertility in that culture. The other place is an important component because it is the place where the Sapphira once lived, and is considered the most sacred spot in Willow Springs. It is ironic that immediately following this ritual we find the newlywed George studying the menstrual cycle of women so that he can further understand Cocoa and the facts of conception. From her extensive research, Lindsey Tucker has discovered the reality of true African American conjurers.Conjurers are said to be closer to their African roots than other, more acculturated African slaves. Also, conjure abilities are found to run in families; the conjure man or woman inherits his/her aptitude and the mantle of power, along with an expertise in herbal medicines. Conjure women often carry the name Mother and hold considerable power within their communities, and conjurers are, almost without exception, especially gifted with psychic abilities.(Tucker, 176) Mama Day is the perfect conjure woman according to Tucker’s study which helps define a true conjurer. Miranda is much closer to her African roots than any other person in Willow Springs, and she inherited her abilities from Sapphira Wade, her great grandmother, who was a midwife and involved with witchcraft according to the slave papers introduced before the start of the novel. Mama Day follows in Sapphira’s footsteps as a midwife and a master of herbal healing. There are several mentions of all the children that Miranda had delivered and we see several instances of herbal healing including her work to revive Cocoa after Ruby poisons her. Since Miranda is called Mama Day by the entire community, and Little Mama by her family, it is evident that she carries the traditional conjure woman title of Mother. Gloria Naylor said, “Mama is about the fact that the real basic magic is the unfolding of the human potential and if we reach inside ourselves we can create miracles” (Carabi, 42). Mama Day is a wonderfully intricate tale of an all powerful African American matriarch who has the power to heal. Mama Day is able to harness her incredible powers and help people as often as possible, but only for those who truly believe. By staying on Willow Islands for her entire life, Miranda has kept very close to her slave roots, even spending time in the house where her ancestors former master and her great grandfather lived.

Adler, Margo. Drawing Down The Moon. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986 Carabi, Angels. [Interview with Gloria Naylor]. Belles Lettres 7. (Spring 1992). Felton, Sharon, and Michelle C. Lorispied. The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. Fowler, Virginia L. Gloria Naylor: In Search of Sanctuary. New York : Prentice Hall Publishing, 1996 Gates, Henry Louis, and K.A. Appiah. Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present. New York: Amistad Press, 1993. Harris, Trudier. The Power of the Porch: The Storytellers Craft. Athens: University Of Georgia Press, 1996. Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. Bloomington, ID.: Indiana University Press: 1963 Levy, Helen Fiddyment. Fiction of the Home Place. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992 Naylor, Gloria. Mama Day. New York : Vintage Books, 1988. Perry, Donna. Backtalk: Women Writes Speak Out: Interviews. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993 Tucker, Lindsey. “Recovering the Conjure Woman: Texts and Contexts in Gloria Naylor’s, Mama Day” African American Review 28 (Summer 1994): 173-188.


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