Mama Day and Daughters of the Dust


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Mama Day and Daughters of the Dust

For emigrants of any country it is difficult to maintain the individual culture of their homeland while assimilating to the ways of the new country they have entered. For slaves of the 19th century, the acculturation process was a necessity. If they did not conform to the Western way of life, they would perish. However for some slaves, their geographic location sequestered them enough from the European worldview that they could continue to practice their own culture and religion. Most of these groups were found off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, the exact location of two important African-American narratives – Daughters of the Dust and Mama Day.

Although the islands did not offer complete sanctuary from the harshness of post-colonial American culture, it did afford the Africans living on those islands more latitude to practice their beliefs. Especially for the younger generations, there was a beckoning from the dominant culture to take part in its opportunities and advantages, which created a drawback for Africans still trying to carve their niche in the Western society. Daughters of the Dust and Mama Day are fictional narratives that vividly recount the experiences of the black slave family during the 1800’s. Although they take different narrative forms, the former as a movie and the latter as a book, there are still several important themes concerning the emerging African-American culture – a way of life that incorporates the native African worldview with the newly acquired American lifestyle – that the two stories address. Although there are differences between the two works, they are really structural in nature, such as plot and point of view, and are thus not necessary to address currently. Instead, it is important to focus on the values that dominate the African culture and the attitudes that enhance and interfere with their way of life in Western society. The narratives share two main themes of which all other themes can be derived. One is the struggle between the lifestyles and values of the mainland and the islands and the second is a belief in logic and science versus intuition and African folklore.

For both stories the island is an integral part of the story, almost becoming a character unto itself. The nature of an island is such that it has its own personality and dynamic, which is appropriate since it is physically dislocated from the mainstream.

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One of the differences between island life and "other" life in Mama Day is reflected in medical practices. Mama Day has her own way of healing that sharply contrasts to the mainland, especially when she consults Dr. Smithfield. However, there is a certain respect to be found in each of their methodologies. “Although it hurt [Smithfield’s] pride at times, he’d admit inside it was usually no different than what he had to say himself – just plainer words and a slower cure than them concentrated drugs.” This dichotomy would not have been able to survive had Mama Day lived on the mainland. This non-scientific way of approaching problems is also seen with Nana Peazant. She uses voodoo and superstition to solve problems and heal wounds. For the families in both narratives, their respective islands not only serve as a place to live but also serve as their connection to Africa. Yellow Mary expresses this belief in Daughters…. Similarly, although Cocoa has moved to the city, her essential identity remains in Willow Springs. The island is the "base" from which her city life emerges, and it appears that her city life, as yet, lacks depth and meaning. She has left home, but she has yet to find out who she is in her own world, the sign of complete adulthood or maturity. Conversely, Yellow Mary has had more travelling experience than most of her family, and yet she returns to her true home in the Sea Islands. The Ibo Landing of Daughters … and the Willow Springs of Mama Day could very well have been the same island.

The isolation from the mainland has helped to sustain much of the original African culture. The African worldview holds emotion and intuition in high regard, and the geographic layout of both fictional islands have allowed this value to remain true to the families, conflicting with the scientific, reasoning mindset of the mainland. These contrasting ideologies provide an endless source of inner conflict for the main characters in both narratives. For example in Mama Day, Cocoa and George alternate descriptions of their exploration of New York and the growth of their relationship. Cocoa describes how she is beginning to care about George. Cocoa's voice is softer than before; she has lost the hard-edged cynicism present in her earlier narratives. George's feelings are also changing, and this causes him to become nervous. He decides to end his excursions with Cocoa. He has been talking with his white girlfriend about making things more permanent, and after five years together, this relationship makes more sense to George than his feelings for Cocoa. The practical George is becoming increasingly overwhelmed by emotions, which cannot easily be controlled. For the family members in Daughters of the Dust, particularly Viola and Ely, there is a growing discontent with the superstition and voodoo they have been raised on. Belief in Nana Peazant’s charms and trinkets is being replaced with a more cerebral approach to problem solving. Again, the separation of the island from the mainland is the original reason that the African traditions have been allowed to continue this long; thus the island is not only there salvation but it may also be there downfall.

Overall, both accounts provide excellent descriptions of the African and African-American way of life. The joys and hardships of these characters mirror those of the real Africans who experienced this metamorphosis of their culture. However, despite the conflicts between European and African worldviews, tradition and modernism, there is one element that transcends it all – and that is family.


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