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Remembering mama: images of mothers, good, bad, real or fictive abound in our literary tradition.

Mama, mommy, m'dear and mother. No matter her name, the role of mother is often a pivotal one in literature. In fictive and autobiographical works, African American authors have given readers vibrant portraits of what a mother is and what the act of mothering can be. Rarely ideal, the mother in African American literature may in fact be a biological mother or grandmother. Just as often, however, she is a sister, an auntie, an adoptive mother or a teacher who provides the maternal heart of the story. She may be raising her children, mourning their loss or trying, after many years, to find them. Like the mother in Langston Hughes's poem "Mother to Son," most of these characters would profess that "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair." These literary mamas range from being a tribute to real-life mothering to cautionary tales of motherhood gone wrong.

Among our great mothering stories are the memoirs of Maya Angelou. The books, beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, tell her story of girlhood, adolescence and maturity.

They also chronicle motherhood in her life. From the abandonment by her mother to the nurturing of a grandmother and through her own struggles as a young mother, Angelou's cycle of autobiographical works make important contributions to the literary record of black motherhood. Her paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, known to Maya and her brother, Bailey, as Momma, is an archetype of the tough loving, strong black mother who knows when to stand up to the racist culture that threatens her charges and when to send the children to safer environs. She is a fierce and recognizable character whom Angelou acknowledges throughout her work, even in her latest books. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou writes this about her grandmother: "Momma intended to teach Bailey and me to use the paths of life that she and her generation and all the Negroes gone before had found, and found to be safe ones." The archetypal strong, black grandmother shows what a force such a figure can be in a child's and, eventually, a woman's life.

Like a Motherless Child

The absence of or lack of care from a mother figure also has a lingering effect on the lives of children and adults, as portrayed through literary characters. In Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Celie and Nettie lose their mother, whose husband raped young Celie. The girls were vulnerable even while their mother was alive; and Celie's loss of both her innocence and her own children reverberates throughout the novel. In the story, Walker gives us mothers watching over children who are not "theirs." Celie's forced marriage makes her a stepmother, while her sister follows Celie's children to Africa, where she eventually mothers them. It is an acknowledgement of all the black women who have mothered other people's children. Walker, through Celie's nursing of Shug and Shug's liberating influence on Celie, shows how friends can fulfill the role of mother when needed.

Not all literary mothers inspire warm thoughts and happy reunions. Some fictional mothers remind us of how terrible a cruel, indifferent or haunted mother can be. In Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory, Sophie is--years after being reunited with her mother--subjected to physical tests of her virginity and is emotionally scarred by her mother's lack of trust and abuse. In What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage, the infant Imani is abandoned by her young, drug-addicted mother at birth mad endangered by her remaining "family." Joyce, the protagonist's sister, creates a safe haven for the baby and becomes an ideal adoptive mother. Unlike some images depicted in mainstream media, Cleage is careful to provide balance to the image of Imani's biological mother by showing younger moms who are trying to make a difference in their own lives and the lives of their children. Joyce's work with younger women extends her role as a mother and mother figure and counters the actions of Imani's mother and the minister's wife who attempts to dismantle the young women's group Joyce leads.

Anthologizing Motherhood

Cecelie S. Berry, in Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood, gathered poems, stories and essays from many of our most prominent authors that provide a window on images of black motherhood. It is an important record of how black mothers affect their families and communities.

In creating intense mother figures in fiction or recalling them in memoir, African American writers have paid tribute to the beauty, struggles and sorrows of black motherhood. These imagined and real mothers provide an important counter to the negative images of black womanhood circulated in other media. While authors don't turn a blind eye to bad mothers, they prove that the state of black motherhood has more depth than any stereotype.

Mother Lit

The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid Plume Books (reprint). January 1997 $13, ISBN 0-452-27466-4

Beloved by Toni Morrison Vintage, June 2004 $13, ISBN 1-400-03341-1

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat Vintage (reprint), May 1998 $12, ISBN 0-375-70504-X

The Color Purple by Alice Walker Harvest Books. May 2003 $14, ISBN 0-156-02835-2

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou Bantam, May 1997 $14, ISBN 0-553-38001-X

Mama by Terry McMillan Pocket, January 1994 $7.99, ISBN 0-671-88448-4

Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood Edited by Cecelie Berry Doubleday. May 2004 $24.95, ISBN 0-385-50903-0

The Street by Ann Petry Mariner Books, March 1998 $12, ISBN 0-395-90149-9

What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage Perennial, November 1998 $13, ISBN 0-380-79487-X

Bernadette Adams Davis is a freelance writer and playwright in Orlando, Florida.
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Author:Davis, Bernadette Adams
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2005
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