The actual, physical book of Mamba’s Daughters: A Novel of Charleston published by DuBose Heyward in 1929 by Doubleday Doran present itself as a novel about the social life, society and societies of Charleston, South Carolina. From its colorful jacket filled with people, as it seems, from all different classes and races: the white aristocracy with lace and parasols to African- American mine workers with dirtied, old shirt to the subtitle: A Novel of Charleston, the cover of book lends one to thinking that this novel must truly be “A Novel of Charleston”. This novel might fit in with the bestseller genre, along with novels such as Giant by Edna Ferber and Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith, which focuses strongly upon a particular region, be that Texas, the American South. Although Mamba’s Daughters does fall into the bestsellers subgenre of regional novels, it is also, perhaps predominantly, in the bestseller subgenre of novels that look to be an agent of political and/ or social change, such as: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, etc.
Upon opening the book, in the first sentence of the author’s note, Du Bose Heyward names Mamba’s Daughters as part of the “regional literature” genre and makes a declaration that “even though it [“regional literature” be avowedly fictional, [it] should be unequivocal in its identification with its locale… [by] apply[ing] the correct names to the city, streets, and outlying districts”. Heyward’s vow and conviction that “regional fiction” should be accurate with the names of location shows even more clearly that part of the motive or effect of the novel is to be a window into the Charleston area region.
As is inferred in the introduction of this novel, through the cover art and authors note, the novel is really centered in the Charleston region. The two main families within the novel are the Wentworth family with the mother and two children: St. Julien de Santigny, otherwise known as “Saint” and Polly and Mamba’s family: Mamba the matriarch, Hagar, Mamba’s daughter, and Lissa, Hagar’s daughter. “The Wentworths, as was well known, had been wealthy plantation people before the war” (Heyward, 3). Thus, the Wentworth family is presented as having fallen from one of the highest and richest social positions to still being a family with relative power, but being humbled into living on the low side of white aristocracy.
The two families are irreversibly and innately bound together by Mamba, the clear matriarch of her family, who cunningly, even manipulatively, yet endearingly weaves herself and her into the Wentworth household. The first sentence of the book begins “It was no mere chance that, during the first decade of the new century, brought Mamba out of the darkness of the underworld and into the light of the Wentworth’s kitchen. Casual as that even seemed, there is good evidence for the belief that it had its origin in some obscure recess of the woman’s mind; or in perhaps some deep and but half comprehended instinct” (Heyward, 3). This passage portrays Mamba as animalistic. She is described as having been “brought… out of the darkness of the underworld and into the light of the Wentworth’s kitchen”, as if she were some sort of savage-like creature, who prefers to reside in “darkness”. This analogy of her being summoned or lured by an “instinct” from her “darkness” and into “the light of the Wentworth’s kitchen” seems rather jingoistic in its regard and firm distinction of Mamba being an “other” and possessing some sort of otherness. Although in this passage and in many other instances in the novel, Mamba is portrayed as being remarkably clever, there is often some sort of explicit or implied reference to the fact that her intellect is only “half comprehended”. In other words, Mamba’s ingenuity is not all hers or maybe that she is not confidant and aware of her own creative intelligence.
While Mamba is often compared or likened to an animal, even in her name, she described as being very clever, and there is always a suggestion that there is some unrealized, unfulfilled incredible intellectual prowess. In the Wikipedia page on the “Mamba”, mamba’s are described as “fast-moving, terrestrial, venomous snakes… they are feared throughout their ranges, especially the black mamba. In Africa, there are many legends and stories describing these snakes”. There is a very strong possibility that Heyward was thinking of the black mamba when he named his central character, also his central figure, Mamba. While Mamba is never described as being feared, like the black mamba, she is well-known and respected within the white aristocracy, that she finds herself associated with throughout her life, with her fellow Gullah people, her daughters, and really almost everyone she come into contact.
Mamba also uses her intellect and being for clever, plans and schemes to provide for her daughter and granddaughter. After many years of helping out the Wentworth family and working for them she shows up with the intent of getting a letter that would certify her to work as “a real house-raise' n*****” (Heyward, 35).
“She was not there to be amusing now. Four years had gone into building toward this moment;
four years of cajolery, flattery, clowning… She was emerging as a new entity now… Mamba
stood before them re-created in her own conception of the ideal toward which she had been striving.
In some strange manner she seemed to dominate the little room in which she had until so recently
come and gone on sufferance. She brought a new, compelling element into the atmosphere that
seemed subtly to disturb the ancestral rhythm of thought and action… These white people had
given her much, but she had been careful to pile up the countless little uncompensated tasks against
this day" (Heyward, 34- 36).
On the day Lissa was born, Mamba went to the Wentworth home, ingratiating herself with them so that one day Mamba might fulfil her plan of finding a white aristocratic family with whom she can get a ‘“pay job now... Ah gots tuh get money f uh somet'ing p'tic'lar. An' Ah gots tuh fin' uh white boss whut kin look attuh my chillen when dey meets dey trouble”’ (Heyward, 35). Mamba is this independent, strong, astute, money-earning woman providing for her family, a sort of revolutionary idea and figure- defying not only the racist but also the sexist status quos.
Instead of merely receiving gifts in return for her work for the Wentworth family, Mamba is after a job that will provide her more stability and independence for her children by having a steady and reliable income paid to her in real cash, rather than gifts that have value in and of themselves, but does not allow for choosing what to do with the earnings. Mamba, like the mamba snake, has the ability to use the guise of “cajolery, flattery, and clowning” to achieve her goals. She is even able to shed skins, so to speak, to “re-create [herself] in her own conception of the ideal toward which she had been striving”. Within that “emerging into a new identity”, Mamba is given the rare moment plainly to show her power as an individual human being to the white people; “she seemed to dominate the little room… [She] subtly disturb[s] the ancestral rhythm of thought and action”. This scene where she fully emerges as an individual, so much so that “Mrs. Wentworth studied the figure before her... How little she really knew of Mamba, after all. Where had she come from? Why had she sought them out?” (Heyward, 36). Mamba’s power and full self is so evident and “dominat[ing]” that, for the first time, in the four years in which she has shared her life with Mamba, she sees her as an individual, as someone to “stud[y]”, as someone to wonder about. Mamba’s strength of perseverance is so high that she is able to break down even the “ancestral rhythm”. In a non-violent, manner, in a state where she finally does not have to hide or cover up herself in the mask of the servile “negro”, she is realized and understood as being at least equal to her ‘“white folks”’ (Heyward, 14). In a way, Mamba has accomplished more than even the Broaden family, upper middle class, African-American banker family, and their associates.
The Broaden family and the other African-Americans who strongly and exclusively associate and operate in the ‘“highbrow”’ (Heyward, 223) society. ‘“They seem to spend all their time saying how glad they are to be negroes and all the time they're trying their damnedest to be white"’ (Heyward, 224). Their mission seems to be to prove that they can reach and be equal with the same “white” artists and artistic performances. The African- American “highbrow” way of living is described consistently described or presented in a way that makes it seem stale and confined. Therefore, even though Mamba must don a guise and attitude in order to be able to provide for herself and her daughters, in the scene where she confronts the Wentworths as an individual, it becomes clear that she has not lost herself and is quite able to, like a snake, to shake loose and shed those constraints.
In difficult situations Mamba is quick-thinking, deft, and affective even when she herself has been tired out. Towards the end of the novel, before the final and most severe circumstance the narrator states that “Sundays, after the long hot walk to meet Hagar, there would be moments when she would forget names and faces and the steady light of her purpose would be obscured by blowing mists. Then she would summon her forces and pull her faculties together again, but it was an effort that always left her shaken” (Heyward, 207). After many years of hard, concentrated living, this temporary fog only descends on Mamba on a rare occasion. However, she still has the control, force, and determination with which to fight the haze that descends as a part of aging.
Mamba’s intense determination and dedication to the support and advancement of her Lissa allows her to even temporarily transcend nature’s natural course of aging and senility. Even when Mamba has stayed up all night, even until “the single clear note announcing the new day” (Heyward, 251) waiting for Lissa to come home, her first words to Lissa’s teenage friend, Gardinia are, ‘“Ah been waitin’ fer yo’ to come fo’ me. Whar yo’ t’ink she gone?’ Gardenia’s voice was edged with hysteria… [Even after a rant revealing Lissa was drugged] Mamba’s voice came urgent, steadying: ‘Where dat n***** Prince lib”’ (250)? She has such a compassionate, selfless, controlled and steady love for Lissa that she already generally knows what has happened although she had never being told. Despite the sickeningly terrible situation and the “hysterical” friend Mamba is still “steady”. She is the one who asks direct, simple, most pressing questions, standing strong amid the desperation and panic of the moment. She is the one who leads the successful rescue mission quite deftly. It is as if her intelligence and determination supersedes her role in society, each situation she finds herself in, and even her emotions. Rather, her emotions might be so controlled that they are channeled straight into her intellect and her determination loyalty, and love for her family.
Her body is shrunken with the actual physical contraction of age… But this
inevitable physical mutation which in another would denote senility has,
instead of diminishing the force of her personality, in some strange way
intensified it, so that those who speak to the old woman as she sits there feel
it in the air about her like an aura. The negro children who come and go
sense it and grin delightedly at her word of affectionate abuse. The cur… has
gone there for refuge from a world that has no pity upon an unlicensed mongrel
(Heyward, 310- 311).
Although Mamba has been outdated and outlived her own time period, living in a newer commoditized world where even a dog, usually shunned, banned and pretty much altogether unrecognized by society, is even expected to be “licensed”, her mere presence demands respect and notice. With the outward shrinking of her body and physical features, her true character and self has been able to “intensify” to such a degree that “as she sits there [one can] feel it in the air about her like an aura”. In a way, her being’s essence has extended herself to break the boundaries imposed by the outward appearances.
Thus, in many ways, Mamba’s Daughters is a revolutionary, expository bestseller. Even though there are many elements of this novel that describe and show Mamba and other African-Americans in a racist, prejudiced light, for example, in the way that is constantly likens Mamba and Hagar to an animal or savage, in the era of Jim Crow laws, Heyward has succeeded in “using his writing to become more openly a social reformer and to adopt a more critical view of race and class in the South. In fact, in the late 1920s and early 1930s Heyward openly aligned himself with several liberal reformers (Hutchinsson, 34). This novel holds the bestseller characteristic of working to show that beyond a doubt, in every acclaimed character trait: intelligence, hard work, creativity, perseverance, dedication to family, etc. either Mamba or one of her daughters matches or surpasses the white folk, and at the same time is able to uphold and keep their own selves and culture in the process.
Heyward, DuBose. Mamba’s Daughters. Garden City, NY” Doubleday Doran, 1929. Print.
Hutchisson, James M., ed. DuBose Heyward Reader. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2003.
"Mamba." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Apr. 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. .