Black feminist utopianism and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day
The feminist utopia was a prominent literary genre for women writers throughout the 1900s. Otherworldly separatist societies in novels such as Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Female Man (1975) by Joanna Russ featured speculative elements to present feminist issues to readers and advocate for a space created by and for women. But often lacking from popular depictions of feminist utopianism is the inclusion or even the presence of Black women’s voices and perspectives. Many of the most integral texts of the “feminist utopian” genre are largely white-centered and feature white women’s voices at the forefront. The questions then arise: where do Black women and their voices enter in? Is there such a thing as a Black feminist utopia? I posit that Black feminist utopian literature does exist, but that it often does not align with the same set of standards that a non-Black feminist utopia, as it was popularly conceived by 20th century white women writers, would adhere to. This project seeks to locate and articulate possible features of Black feminist utopianism that may then allow such fictions to be ‘read’ as utopian. Some of these characteristics may include connections to African folk traditions, a focus on the lived experiences of Black women and their communities, and a home place that is created against systemic oppression. Through a Black feminist theoretical approach, I will illustrate how possible Black feminist utopias exist in many spaces and places, with Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day as an exemplary text. Through the figure of Sapphira Wade, who is mother, goddess, and creator of the utopia, and through her descendants, nuanced portrayals of traditions such as conjure take prominence. And the island itself is a liminal home for a community that challenges Western paradigms, in a space that is built and owned by its people. In her depiction of the island of Willow Springs and the women of the Day family, Naylor presents us with one version of a Black feminist utopia, and in particular, one that endures through its centering of Black women’s intersectional experiences.