Eye Contact and Eyesight

Throughout the story, the presence or absence of eye contact and strong eyesight reveals the difficulty that Mama, Dee, and Maggie have in relating to one another and, in Maggie and Mama’s case, to the outside world. Mama is unable to look a white person in the eye, suggesting that she has never managed to embrace the idea of equality, whereas Dee can do so easily. Maggie can’t look anyone in the eye at all, hanging her head as she walks, portraying herself as a silent victim. In describing Maggie’s ability to read, Mama says that Maggie does the best she can despite not being able to see well. This qualified vision is associated with a lack of intelligence or mental acuity. Walker describes Dee as wide-eyed, always taking in the world around her. During the house fire that happened when she was a child, she was transfixed by the flames consuming the home that, to her, represented ignorance and poverty. Mama claims Dee’s attention was often so rapt that she would not blink for long stretches of time. Dee’s easy eye contact and intense gazes reveal her critical, condescending nature. Soon after arriving at the family home, Dee and Hakim send “eye signals” to each other, silently registering their disdain for Mama and Maggie’s simple, rustic world.

Naming and Renaming

The act of naming—or, in Dee’s case, renaming—is a way of connecting to the past and an indication of the fluid nature of identity. Walker doesn’t tell us the origins of Maggie’s name, and Mama’s name is never given, but we know that these two characters are unchanging and have strong ties to their heritage. It therefore makes sense that their names and identities are stable and unremarkable. Dee, on the other hand, attempts to transform herself and embrace what she considers her true heritage by adopting an African name. Her boyfriend, Hakim-a-barber, may have taken on his name for similar reasons, as he grew to embrace Muslim ideas. Renaming is a sign of these two characters’ attempts to leave behind their true selves by taking on a new identity. Dee believes that the name Wangero holds more power and significance than Dee, the name passed down through four generations. Dee’s belief that she was named after her oppressors shows a critical lack of understanding. Quick to judgment, she sees her given name as an emblem of a racist, abusive world, as opposed to a tribute to a long line of strong women. Dee’s decision to take on a new name highlights the confused views she has of her own heritage.