Gloria Naylor's novel Mama Day, a bevy of individual characters interact with one another in the American south and in New York City. The characters try to negotiate the differences between mysticism, magical abilities, and reality. At first, it appears that the theme of the novel seems to be how these characters react to the spiritual or magical occurrences in the story, such as the mystical poisoning of one of the main characters, Ophelia "Cocoa" Day, by a jealous woman, Ruby, who thinks Cocoa intends to steal her man. In the story, the main male character marries Cocoa and thus has to justify his understanding of the world with the more accepting and open-minded opinions of the southern people. George is disbelieving in magic as well as the superstitious elements of the people of Willow Springs which is so unique that it does not even reside in any of the fifty United States. This disbelief eventually leads to George's unexpected death from a sudden heart attack when Mama Day asks him to perform a task in order to save Cocoa from her mysterious illness. Certainly the story is full of a series of extremely powerful women who possess amazing abilities that may or may not be explainable through scientific or logical reasoning. However, the mysticism is really just a catalyst for showing the extremes of gender debate and the quest for power by each of the partners in a male-female relationship. Mama Day is about magic, but it is far more about the ways that men and women treat one another in this world. It is about how something that begins as a loving, happy relationship can easily and quickly disintegrate over even the shortest period of time unless the participants of that relationship are willing to compromise with one another, to care, and to attempt to understand. Through four male-female relationships (Sapphira and Bascombe Wade, Cocoa and George, Miss Frances and Ruby and Junior Lee, and finally Ambush and Bernice) the reader sees the different ways that men and women fight for power in a couple and how that power struggle is ultimately unimportant.
The first pages of the novel's introduction tell the narrative of a long ago slave woman named Sapphira Wade who was reported to have possessed amazing magical powers. The stories of this woman have passed down through the community of Willow Springs for generations. Everyone in the community knows about Sapphira Wade and the things of which she was capable. Sapphira's story is the singular folk tale of the region and the people of Willow Springs believe in the story wholeheartedly and use the story to explain and compare their current lives with hers. Among Sapphira's many reported powers was her ability to control the actions of a white male slave owner who was her master until she decided to change their relationship. Although no one knows for certain how Sapphira influenced his life, some say she smothered the slave owner, others that she stabbed him to death in his kidneys, and the rest believe that she poisoned him, what all these stories have in common is the idea that this woman was able to psychologically dominate a person who was supposedly her superior and then physically dominate him by killing the man. Sapphira, in all versions of the story, murders Bascombe Wade the slave owner in 1823 and somehow got possession of all his lands which have then been passed down to black people of Willow Springs upon the occasion of her death. "Mixing it all together and keeping everything that done shifted down through the holes of time, you end up with the death of Bascombe Wade (there's his tombstone right out by Chevy's Pass), the deeds to our land (all marked back to the very year), and seven sons" (Naylor 3). The people of Willow Springs believe the story is true and prove it by proclaiming themselves related to the characters in that ancestral story. The narrator of this section states that Mama Day and her sister Abigail were the descendants of those seven sons. As a woman, Sapphira Wade was supposed to be meek and mild, the epitome example of the weaker of the two sexes. As a black woman, she is doubly supposed to be subservient and dutiful to her white master and to all white people. Despite what she is supposed to be in direct defiance of the dictations of her society, Sapphira is stronger than the other gender and the other race. Through the course of history, the people attributed more and more magical abilities to Sapphira even believing her capable of surviving lightning strikes. The logical conclusion is that since Sapphira was able to overcome the limitations of her gender and her race, the people assume that she must have some magical powers because there is no possible way that an average, good-hearted, proper, Christian woman would be able to do what she was able to do.
What follows in the novel is a direct result of the actions of Sapphira Wade. Her descendants, as Cocoa claims to be one, are all possessed of the same strength of character as this powerful ancestor. Part 1 of the book is told from the first-person perspective of Cocoa Day. She is talking to her first husband George and discussing the first time that she saw him and how she considered him but determined not to pick him up because of the fact that they were in a coffee shop and that would set the timber of their subsequent relationship (Naylor 17). Even before the two people have met, there is an understanding, at least on Cocoa's part that the interactions of men and women are about the balance of power. The setting of their meeting will determine how the woman is perceived in the relationship, where the man will take her based upon what he believes is her class of person. She has seen her friends' relationships and how women become desperate enough to do anything for a man whom she has fallen in love with and has made the determination that this will not be the path she treads.
The next relationship that is discussed in the book is the end of the pairing of Junior Lee and a woman Mama Day refers to as Miss Frances. The woman, finally realizing that the man she loves will never stop behaving in sinful ways, has ended their relationship. This has not seemed to affect Junior Lee very much as he has taken up a more permanent relationship with his mistress named Ruby who is quite a bit older than him, fifteen years according to the gossip of the townspeople. According to Mama Day and her sister Abigail, the reason that Junior Lee takes up with women who are considerably older than him is because he believes that he can use them (Naylor 69). The community of Willow Springs is based upon a legacy of a powerful woman and the females who live there try to live up to this legacy by having strong personalities themselves. Ruby possesses a strong personality in that she is quick to commit acts of violence if she is displeased. Abigail and Mama Day even debate the town rumor that she murdered her former husband for cheating on her. Junior Lee lives in a community where the natural inclination is towards matriarchy. He particularly seems to be a weak individual, easily falling into vice and self-satisfaction. Thus, the only people he believes that he is more powerful than are those who are older than him.
In the next scene, Mama Day is attending to a very sick young woman named Bernice. The woman was trying to make herself fertile and stole medication from the drug store so that she could have a baby with her husband Ambush. It was Bernice's ambition to have a child at any cost, even to the point where she took medication of which she had little to no knowledge and which were not prescribed her by the doctor nor suggested to her by Mama Day. In this scene, the reader sees Mama Day attend to Bernice and find out where her infection is. The reader also sees Ambush trying to do whatever it is that is necessary in order to cure his beloved and end her pain (Naylor 76). This scene is of particular interest in the story because it shows a counterpoint to all of the male-female dynamics that have been present up to this point. Here is a relationship that is based upon love and affection. Ambush does whatever Mama Day orders him to do, including helping Bernice urinate and arguing with the doctor's secretary. Their relationship is not about power, at least not in this singular moment. Ambush first asks if the baby can be saved and then, after learning that there is no baby, begins the process of aiding Mama Day. He does not…