People of Willow Springs in Mama Day by Gloria Naylor: A Life Analysis

Categories: Mama Day

The Culture of Willow Springs; Disregard at One's Own Expense Gloria Naylor's book Mama Day is an intricately woven story of love and loss on the mystical island of Willow Springs. Willow Springs is a fictitious island off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina connected to the mainland physically and metaphorically by a rickety handmade bridge. It is governed by its unique culture which is loosely based on the African slave culture Gullah. The culture is best defined by its communal nature and its emphasis on working together with people, nature, and the spirits of ancestors.

Miranda Day (known as Mama Day), the main character, is the matriarchal figure on the island. She is the symbol of the culture which defines life on Willow Springs. Mama Day's actions, which mirror the culture, are the set of unwritten and universally understood rules of conduct on the island. Those who do not follow these rules, such as Ruby and George, cannot survive.

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Mama Day's values and day-to-day life shed light on the culture of Willow Springs. She is the oldest and most powerful person on the island. She is a midwife by profession and her hands are known for making life. She also deeply values working with nature. When one of the women on the island is having trouble conceiving, Mama Day is worried that any action she might take might be working against nature.

“Would G-d forgive her for Bernice? But she wasn't changing the natural course of nothing...just using what's there” (139).

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Mama Day needs to be certain she isn't affecting nature's course before she can proceed. She doesn't believe in fertility medication because “it ain't natural” (42).

She instead believes in "using what's there” to make life. "Can't nothing be wrong in...knowing how to get under, around, and beside nature to give it a slight push...but she ain't never...tried to get over nature” (262). She takes the same approach to gardening. “No fertilizer, no pruning—no nothing, and they'll beat her flowers blooming by three weeks" (139). She trusts that with the right skills one can work with nature to create life.

Mama Day believes in the importance of letting nature take its course in every realm of life The inhabitants of Willow Springs feel similarly about working with and respecting nature. One of the most successful people on the island, Ambush Duvall, is a farmer. “He takes care of most of the fresh produce for the big supermarket” (42) across the bridge. Moreover, Mama Day respects him more than any other man on the island. “There ain't a politer boy in all of Willow springs than Ambush Duvall” (70). Ambush is down to earth and compassionate. Being told that one is similar to Ambush Duvall is a compliment in Willow Springs. He is described as the quintessential Willow Springs native; a polite boy who attends church and respects and works with what nature has to offer. People like Ambush are the most successful on the island and the most respected by Mama Day. In this way the social structure of the island is set up in part so that those who work with nature are higher than those who work against it. To be successful in her life and profession Mama Day has to work with people. She cannot do anything without working together with someone else. Mama Day works with her sister, Abigail, in almost every aspect of life. They have lived together or next to each their whole lives. “... [Abigail and Miranda) are four arms and legs, two heads, and one heartbeat” (36). Mama Day and Abigail raised Abigail's granddaughter, Cocoa, after Abigail's daughter died. When Abigail and Mama Day's mother committed suicide they stuck together in order to live past the pain. Mama Day is the one to whom everyone on the island comes when someone is sick. Despite how powerful Mama Day is, she knows that she can't help those in need unless they agree to work with her. Mama Day can only do so much to help the woman get pregnant but she knows that "in the end, Bernice would have to step over the last line all by herself” (97). Mama Day succeeds because, despite her immense power, she understands the importance of working with people. The community of Willow Springs is equally communal. It is not governed by a person. It is instead governed by the community as a whole. When there is a death on the island everyone stops what they are doing and makes their way to the church. There is no bell that signifies when they should go. They all get up and go the church in “mass” (268). The ritual is not Christian.

Everyone in the community "stands forth” to let go and move on with their lives. They all work together through the pain. In contrast to a Christian funeral with run by a priest, this tradition highlights the communal nature of Willow Springs Respecting and working with the spirits of ancestors is also a chief component of Mama Day's life. When she is near the graveyard of all of her ancestors or her father's house she often hears the spirit of her great-grandmother telling her about the future or the past. According to Mama Day, the spirits speak, all one has to do is “listen” (151). A tradition that she and Abigail continue is the making of quilts. Mama Day and Abigail work together on a quilt for Cocoa and her husband George as a wedding present. The quilt is made using the fabric of the clothing of all of Cocoa's ancestors. It is a way of keeping the stories of the ancestors alive for Cocoa, George, and (Mama Day hoped) their children. When Mama Day is working on the quilt, she has moments of clarity about the future. She hears her great-grandmother telling her that Cocoa will not come to visit with her new husband for a few summers. Furthermore, the spirits themselves work together. Mama Day has trouble attaching the fabric of her mother Ophelia who committed suicide. In order to do so she has to back it with the fabric of her great-grandmother. Through the quilt the spirits live on and work together to weave the stories of the past, good and bad, together.

This tradition underlines the importance of the proximity of the living to those who have been long dead. The greater community also believes that the spirits live on. The traditional funeral proceedings involve "standing forth.” This is a ritual in which people get up and recite their first memory of the deceased and then say what they will be doing when they “see” them again. For example: "When I first saw were wearing a green bunting, being carried in your mama's arms ... When I see you'll be sitting at my dining table, having been invited to dinner...” (268). The community moves past the pain by “standing forth” and believing that the spirit will live on. The tradition emphasizes not only the communal nature of Willow Springs but a belief in the ever presence and importance of spirits that eases the mourning process. Those that don't follow the culture of Willow Springs, be it either by deliberate choice or an inability to understand, cannot survive on the island. Ruby is an example of someone who deliberately takes action that opposes the culture. She is the true antagonist of the story. She is almost as old as Mama Day, but she is not part of the greater community. She is married to a younger man with whom she is completely obsessed. She is paranoid about him and believes that all the women on the island are conniving to take him away from her.

Her focus is on her happiness with Junior Lee. She is not at all worried about the community as a whole and takes action against members of the community that she irrationally suspects are sleeping with her undesirable husband. She lacks the sense of community that most of the islanders have.

She also uses herbal medicine to create poison. She mixes nightshade into hair solution to poison Cocoa without her knowing. She uses what nature has to offer to alter its course and kill someone in the community. Mama Day defeats Ruby in the end by bringing about a storm that strikes Ruby's house twice. Ruby goes against the communal culture and works against nature.

Mama Day is in the end her superior. She brings about a storm that strikes Ruby's house twice and kills her. Ruby's story speaks to the fate of those who work against Mama Day and therefore the culture of Willow Springs.

George's story is that of someone whose inability to understand and adapt to the culture of Willow Springs leads to his death. George is a New York native who marries Cocoa and goes to Willow Springs with her to visit one summer. She leaves, but he stays. George was brought up in a state home for boys and that experience shapes his outlook on life. He beats all the "odds” (27) through individual hard work and ends up in Columbia Engineering School. Every life battle he battled alone and he believes that it is his responsibility to do so. He also believes that the facts are the most important pieces of information. He sidesteps "feelings” that throw his balance of life off as best he can. His relationship with Cocoa is the first time he puts fact and rationality aside and goes with a "twist in [his] gut” (33). When he visits Willow Springs he is faced with a situation that requires him to drop all of his principles. When Cocoa gets sick, Mama Day understands that she cannot save her on her own. She needs George's help to do so, but George is unwilling to work with Mama Day. He wants to get a doctor by rebuilding the bridge that crosses to the mainland, and if that does not pan out plans to swim across to the other side though he doesn't know how to swim. All of the solutions he can come up with require his own individual effort and his own individual effort alone. What makes it difficult for George to work with Mama Day is that the forces at play in Cocoa's sickness are not of "this world" (268). The story that he is told (which the reader is not privy too) about how to save his wife goes beyond fact and rationality. When he hears it he sees it as a “pathetic” attempt to tell a story that he “just cannot believe” (286). When George can find no other way to save Cocoa, he goes to Mama Day. She tells him that he needs to take her father's cane and her great-grandfather's ledger and go to the chicken coop and find what's under the old red hen. What he hears is “mumbo-jumbo” (295) and he fails to understand the importance of the ancestral tokens. He thinks that Mama Day is a "crazy old woman.” When he gets to the chicken coop he reaches under the old red hen and pulls out "nothing...except... [his] hands" (300). He takes this as proof that Mama Day didn't know what she was talking about. He proceeds to go into a mad craze, killing all the chickens in the coop and then dying of a heart attack. What George failed to understand and what killed him in the end was that all Mama Day wanted were his hands. She wanted him to be willing to work with her to save Cocoa. Instead he took his own, individualistic path that ended in him trading his life for hers. George's story underscores that even if someone means well, if they cannot adapt to the culture of Willow Springs they cannot survive their. Unlike other classic works of American literature, which tend to emphasize individuality, Gloria Naylor's Mama Day emphasizes the centrality of community and conformity to ritual. The characters who value the community's nature and its history are rewarded and are portrayed as having a true understanding of their place in the world; the characters who value their own individual abilities over the community's wisdom experience bad luck and tragedy. Mama Day's talent for bringing new life into the world without interfering with nature's order is symbolic of these principles, and solidifies her place as the protagonist on the island. George and Ruby's individualistic and selfish actions illustrate that straying from the culture's norms is a dangerous decision. Ultimately, Mama Day's status as the powerful protagonist and exemplar of the culture in Willow Springs and the result of George's refusal to conform point portray Naylor's vision of African and African-American culture as fundamentally more communal than individualistic.


Updated: May 03, 2023
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People of Willow Springs in Mama Day by Gloria Naylor: A Life Analysis. (2022, Apr 14). Retrieved from

People of Willow Springs in Mama Day by Gloria Naylor: A Life Analysis essay
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