Small Great Things

Small Great Things

Ruth's mother. She raised Rachel and Ruth by herself while working six days per week for the Hallowell family as a domestic servant. She delivered Ms. Mina's second baby, and Ruth notes that most of what Mama did for the Hallowells was invisible. When Mama started to bring her daughters to work with her on the pretense that they'd learn practical skills, Ruth initially thought she was raising them to work similar jobs. However, she eventually realized that Mama wanted to teach them to be self-sufficient, unlike Ms. Mina and Christina. Throughout Ruth's life, Mama has been a guiding presence and force. She was there for Edison's birth and she supports Ruth through the early stages of the trial. Mama always encouraged Ruth to do her best, though she also tried to make Ruth understand that she'd always be welcome in the black church community. Ruth doesn't internalize this until Mama dies right before the trial begins. After her death, Ruth feels as though Mama remains with her in spirit in the form of Mama's scarf, which she's had for years.

Mama Quotes in Small Great Things

The Small Great Things quotes below are all either spoken by Mama or refer to Mama. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism: Hate, Fear, and Grief Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Random House edition of Small Great Things published in 2016.
Chapter 1, Ruth Quotes

As Christina held my hand and Ms. Mina held Mama's, there was a moment—one heartbeat, one breath—where all the differences in schooling and money and skin color evaporated like mirages in a desert. Where everyone was equal, and it was just one woman, helping another.

Related Characters: Ruth Jefferson (speaker), Mama, Rachel / Adisa, Christina
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 7, Ruth Quotes

"I'm sure the lady didn't mean anything by it," Mama pronounces.

But it didn't make me feel any less small.

Related Characters: Ruth Jefferson (speaker), Mama (speaker), Rachel / Adisa, Virginia
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 14, Ruth Quotes

"The fact that I'm Black was never an issue in my relationship with my colleagues."

"Not until they needed a scapegoat. What I am trying to say, Ruth—may I call you that?—is that we will stand with you. Your Black brothers and sisters will go to bat for you. They will risk their jobs for you. They will march on your behalf and they will create a roar that cannot be ignored."

Related Characters: Ruth Jefferson (speaker), Wallace Mercy (speaker), Mama, Marie, Corinne
Page Number: 226
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Chapter 17, Ruth Quotes

When you're ready for us, we'll be waiting for you. At that moment, I feel another presence I haven't felt before...It's a community of people who know my name, even when I don't always remember theirs. It's a congregation that never stopped praying for me, even when I flew from the nest.

Related Characters: Ruth Jefferson (speaker), Mama, Rachel / Adisa
Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

It is a picture of a Black woman wearing a maid's uniform, holding a little girl in her arms. The girl has hair as light as snow, and her hand is pressed against her caregiver's cheek in shocking contrast. There's more than just duty between them. There's pride. There's love. "I didn't know your mother. But, Ruth—she didn't waste her life."

Related Characters: Ruth Jefferson (speaker), Ava (speaker), Kennedy McQuarrie, Mama, Beattie
Related Symbols: The Photograph
Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
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Mama Character Timeline in Small Great Things

The timeline below shows where the character Mama appears in Small Great Things. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1, Ruth
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Ruth tells the reader that the "miracle" happened in the big brownstone where Mama worked for Sam Hallowell. It was a snow day, so Ruth and her big sister... (full context)
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Suddenly a piercing scream rang through the house. Mama told Rachel and Ruth to stay in the kitchen, but they followed her to Ms.... (full context)
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
...the birth. The miracle is that for a moment, race and class evaporated and as Mama helped Ms. Mina and Ruth held Christina's hand, there were only women helping women. (full context)
Chapter 4, Ruth
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Mama taught Ruth to read before she turned five. At that point, Ruth and Rachel got... (full context)
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Ruth says that she and her sister look nothing alike. Rachel is dark like Mama, but Ruth is much lighter. This meant that strangers were nicer to her, which drove... (full context)
Chapter 7, Ruth
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Ruth tells the reader that Mama still works for Ms. Mina. Sam Hallowell is now dead, Christina lives nearby, and their... (full context)
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Ruth helps Mama hang the crystal back on the chandelier and finally, Mama asks what's wrong. Ruth leaves... (full context)
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
...as chief of staff if Larry later becomes president. They head downstairs and Christina hugs Mama, thanking her for being part of their family. Ruth thinks that family doesn't get a... (full context)
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
...in a gray world. She screamed that her eyes weren't working, but in the dream Mama and Ms. Mina told her that it's just the way things are. (full context)
Chapter 8, Kennedy
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
...Ruth lives in her neighborhood, that Adisa lives in a difficult neighborhood, and that Ruth’s Mama is a maid. She briefly scans Ruth's indictment as Ruth tells her how Davis died.... (full context)
Chapter 10, Ruth
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Ruth remembers how, when she applied to Yale for nursing school, Mama asked her pastor to say an extra prayer for her. Ruth felt undeserving. The day... (full context)
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
...fifth grade. One morning she read facts out of a fact book, which annoyed Rachel. Mama shut both girls down and then told Ruth to change her shirt; she had a... (full context)
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
...sleepovers with Christina at the brownstone. Sam would run old cartoons for the girls and Mama was always there in the morning to make pancakes. As Ruth and Christina got older,... (full context)
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
...She went to the kitchen when Christina asked if she'd get them something to eat. Mama was making cookies and asked Ruth why she was here, her mouth tight. Ruth quietly... (full context)
Chapter 14, Ruth
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Ruth remembers how, a week after starting at Dalton, she came down with a stomachache. Mama brought her to work and settled her on Sam Hallowell's couch with saltines and her... (full context)
Chapter 16, Kennedy
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
...call from Ruth to invite her to go shopping with her for a gift for Mama. Kennedy agrees. The two women talk about nothing but the weather as they park at... (full context)
Chapter 17, Ruth
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Ruth remembers Edison's birth. She'd had an emergency C-section and Mama had been with her since Wesley was away. When Ruth woke up after the procedure,... (full context)
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Ruth remembers getting a black Barbie one year for Christmas. Mama made Barbie clothes out of socks and a dream house out of shoeboxes, but Rachel... (full context)
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Ruth rushes to the hospital; Mama had a stroke and died in the ambulance. Ruth lets herself into Mama's room and... (full context)
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
Mama's funeral is a lavish affair in her Harlem church. Ms. Mina has bought the fanciest... (full context)
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
The group reconvenes at Mama's apartment after the graveside ceremony. Ruth takes refuge in the kitchen and looks through Mama's... (full context)
Chapter 18, Kennedy
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
...tries to raise a toast, but Ruth swirls her wine and recounts a story that Mama told about being accused of caring for someone else's baby when she was out with... (full context)
Chapter 22, Ruth
Racism: Hate, Fear, and Grief Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
...rule for interruptions, and many people sitting in the gallery are the church ladies from Mama's funeral. Minutes later, Odette begins her opening statement. She tells the story of Turk and... (full context)
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
...he stopped breathing. Ruth thinks of a dream she had last night. She was at Mama's funeral, but the coffin was full of dead babies. (full context)
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
...college, she picked up a black hitchhiker on crutches. When she got home she told Mama, and was shocked when Mama angrily told her to never do that again. She knows... (full context)
Chapter 25, Ruth
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Family and Shared Humanity Theme Icon
...and locks himself in his room. Ruth falls asleep on the couch and dreams about Mama's funeral again. This time, Ruth sees herself in the coffin. She jerks awake to the... (full context)
Chapter 27, Ruth
Racism: Hate, Fear, and Grief Theme Icon
Institutional Racism Theme Icon
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Theme Icon
...realizes that Kennedy is the only person who could've made the jury understand. She strokes Mama's scarf as Odette begins her closing argument. Odette says that, racial issues aside, Ruth didn't... (full context)
Chapter 30, Ruth
Belonging and Community Theme Icon
Ruth remembers that she forgot Mama's scarf in the courtroom. She runs back to get it and stands alone with the... (full context)