I just reread Mama Day by Gloria Naylor, one of my all-time favorite books. You talk about your primal earth mother, matriarch, offspring-protector, healer, midwife, and southern woman – that’s her! Mama Day, the title character, is a direct descendant of the Mother of all Days, as Naylor puts it. 

I’d been thinking of rereading it for quite a while, years perhaps, with that idea just bobbing around in the back of my thoughts. Even though I find it easier to talk about books than real life, I rarely read them more than once. What pushed me to pick up a copy was an article in the New York Times (10-21-08), “Under Maryland Street, Ties to African Past.” Archaeologists in Annapolis unearthed a “bundle,” as in a wrapped up collection of objects that a practitioner of West African religion left at the edge of a street, circa 1700. The archaeologists found it notable that it was distinctly African rather than African-American. They also said it was left out in the open, rather than hidden, and made two very interesting observations:

Dr. Leone said the bundle’s visibility suggested “an unexpected level of public toleration” of African religion in colonial Annapolis. Most of the artifacts indicating that the practices were conducted in secrecy came from 50 years later. According to articles in a newspaper of the period, white people in Annapolis engaged openly in magic and witchcraft, of the English variety.

“So both European and African spirit practices may have been more acceptable then,” Dr. Leone concluded. “That changed after 1750 with the growing influence of the Enlightenment.”

What did my Scots-Irish great-grandmothers know? Did they swap secrets with their African counterparts before the Enlightenment clamped down on unsanctioned use of the supernatural? Mama Day and her community are African-American, but she in her strengths has a lot in common with the southern women I’m descended from.

In Mama Day, Naylor conjures up an archetype of pure female power – fertile, riding the wind and waves, wresting freedom from owner / husband / patriarch, and departing in a fireball back over the ocean.

Early cartographers conveniently missed the island home of Mama Day and family, somewhere off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, leaving it outside the flow of time and history. Naylor makes many references to time moving slowly or not at all on Willow Springs. At one point a character overcomes infertility by, in part, slowing down. She gets less busy and gets more done.

The family traces its origins to time outside history. An asterisk on the sixth child on the family tree at the beginning of the book leads to the note, “‘God rested on the seventh day and so would she.’ Hence, the family’s last name.” The title character is descended from the seventh son – off the edge of the chart, where footnote shades into myth – of an entire brood somehow conceived and borne in a thousand days, which start around the time that the ancestress killed the husband / owner / patriarch. Details are lost to legend because that ancestress “don’t live in the part of our memory we can use to form words.”

Naylor also uses the Days’ island paradise home to evoke that one story about the couple in the garden with the snake. Just as the novel parallels The Tempest, only with a strong female lead, it also invites a reconsideration of humanity’s relationship to the Garden of Eden. Snakes twine up Mama Day’s cane. At one point a character suggests, “Let’s play Adam and Eve.” Despite being a great guy, that character doesn’t make it out alive, due to a failure of belief. He is Enlightenment all the way, which is his undoing.

Mama Day restores some of the magic that’s been lost to the world. I always knew I wanted to be the magical type of mom, but somehow I thought it would be automatic. Along with Motherhood 1.0 came a few new widgets – being able to detect a fever, waking up just as they needed feeding – but there’s a whole lot that I think was supposed to be handed down via oral tradition, that got squelched out by the Enlightenment.