"Relate Sexual to Historical": Race, Resistance, and Desire in Gayl Jones's Corregidora.
In her drama, her poetry, and especially in her 1975 novel Corregidora, Jones has made an original contribution to contemporary narratives of slavery, by focusing on the intersubjective relations that talking about slave experiences can produce. She employs a form she traces to Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, in which an ancestral narrative of slavery is "framed within a novel that dramatizes a modem version of it," in which the "grandmother's slave narrative" prefaces, foreshadows, and "provides the dramatic and revelatory pattern" for the granddaughter's own life. Jones demonstrates in Corregidora that the ancestral slave narrative is the site of both enabling and constricting intersubjective relations which are themselves derived from and which dramatically restructure the function of remembering in individual psyches, extended families, and the ideological apparatus of the modern nation-state (Rowell 42; Liberating Voices 125. 132).
Jones's revision of the narrative form Hurston established and Paule Marshall reconstituted for contemporary American culture-- the "palimpsest narrative of slavery" (Rushdy 535)--is significant because Corregidora, like the other palimpsest narratives, challenges the idea of rugged individualism and signals the ways attention to ethnicity since the late '60s spells a "partial retreat from the traditional idea of the self-made man" (Hijiya 549). In addition, Jones traces the specific and complex ways that an ancestral slave narrative works on the terrain of family as the family produces and reproduces the modem desiring subject. Jones focuses on the subject of desire as constituted historically in order to show how both the spectacular and the hidden experiences of slavery, especially the historical subjection of desire, operate in the formation of contemporary African American subjectivity. Jones's focus, then, is twofold, her vision, one might say, bi-temporal. She demonstrates how historical forces contin ue to inform modem social relations--first, by dwelling on the ways an ancestral slave narrative causes unhealthy deviations in the psychic and sexual lives in one family descended from slaves and, second, by attending to the ways that these historical forces are subtly transmuted in contemporary political debates regarding the politics of identity and racial formation in the Black Power era. Jones, in other words, explores how memory operates in both the creation of family and the recreation of a black community, exposing, though not always critically, the connections among race, family, and nation in the debate over Black Power that marked the moment of production for her 1975 novel.
Recent critical work on Corregidora has been richly suggestive in exploring the novel's profound treatment of black women's sexuality as a product of both historical oppression and cultural productivity, as formed and transformed through American slavery and African American blues expressivity, ranging from readings diagnosing the reproduction of trauma in the text to those emphasizing how the blues allow black women to reclaim their bodies and sensuality as their own.  In addition, critics have begun to explore how African American women's novels are "historical" not only in the sense of making history their subject but also in making their own significant intervention into history, especially in the post-Civil Rights era. In the following study, I will be arguing for the important connection between Jones's representation of the slave past and the Black Power present, focusing particularly on the ways Jones shows how performance is both a means of historical recovery and a strategy for creatively resist ing the patterns of identity formation in which inhere the residues of slavery in both the family and the nation.
The first and most prominent site for negotiating subjectivity in Corregidora is the family--in this case, one haunted by a transgenerational set of historical tales that dramatically affect the final descendant's forty-seven-year search for rehabilitation. By recollecting and working through the mixed messages of the oral/familial tales of her childhood, Ursa Corregidora is able to define the limits that a slave past can and should have on her, learning both the value and the dangers of remembering generations. In one of her first comments on the process of remembering family history, Ursa reveals how tales suffer by the accretion of narrators and by the distance of those who tell from those who experienced the events: "My great-grandmother told my grandmama the part she lived through that my grandmama didn't live through and my grandmama told my mama what they both lived through and my mama told me what they all lived through" (9). By the time Ursa herself becomes the teller of these stories, she finds that they have become an "'epic,' almost impersonal history of Corregidora," lacking the intimacy that familial tales require to become part of and give value and meaning to "personal history" (Tate, "Interview" 143). Because Ursa recognizes the importance of her family history, accepting it "as an aspect of her own character, identity and present history," she "wants to make sense of that history in terms of her own life." Yet, she "doesn't want to be 'bound' by that history" or told "how she must feel about that past" (Rowell 45). Here, Jones shows us the tension informing the family story as a site of subject formation. The oral/familial tale in which the past is remembered and offered as a resource for the formation of contemporary identity--a place where "voices that carry through time" produce both "history and personal life memory" (Tate, "Interview" 143; M. Harper, "Gayl" 368)--is also a place where one's identity can be "broken on the edge / of family memory" (M. Harper, History 88). In Corregidora, Jone s casts into a generational framework a dilemma she expresses elsewhere: "I am burdened by memory when I desire to be" (Hermit Woman 21). Ursa's negotiation of her familial tales reflects precisely that anxiety and antagonism between believing in the impossible idea of a rootless identity unburdened by historical memory and the equally impossible idea of an identity wholly suffused with the past.
The past as she knows it does not give Ursa much freedom because she is resolutely told how to feel about her Great Gram's experiences on the Corregidora plantation. Almost completely controlled by the coercive language Great Gram uses to describe the persistent sexual assaults she suffered in Brazil, Ursa finds herself falling into a formulaic and impersonal discourse, using Corregidora as a germinal word that triggers a set of complex associations which ultimately form an established narrative she is indeed "bound" to tell, compelled to repeat the story she has inherited because she's been taught not to doubt its veracity or to challenge its authority (8-9). When five-year-old Ursa asks, "'You telling the truth, Great Gram?'" Great Gram responds by slapping her:
"When I'm telling you something don't you ever ask if I'm lying. Because they didn't want to leave no evidence of what they done--so it couldn't beheld against them. And I'm leaving evidence. And you got to leave evidence too. And your children got to leave evidence. And when it come time to hold up the evidence, we got to have evidence to hold up. That's why they burned all the papers, so there wouldn't be no evidence to hold up against them." (14)
Ursa is taught not to doubt the truth and the function of the Corregidora legend. Skepticism toward the truth of the legend is rewarded with physical violence and a remarkably repetitive insistence on the importance of "leaving evidence." Any feeling of spontaneity Ursa might have possessed in her five-year-old sense of proportions, in her childhood belief in verifying facts by inquiring as to their truth-value, is stunted by her Great Gram's physical and formulaic responses. Ursa learns that any act of communication becomes a vehicle only for rehearsing the crimes of Corregidora.
Even as a child, though, Ursa was aware of the formulaic quality of her Great Gram's stories, cognizant that those stories were losing their emotive strength. As the young Ursa recalls, Great Gram seemed rapt by the words she used to describe the crimes committed against her body and soul. "It was as if the words were helping her, as if the words repeated again and again could be a substitute for memory, were somehow more than the memory. As if it were only the words that kept her anger" (11). What Great Gram exhibits in her attitude toward the "words" she uses to express her emotional valency regarding her personal past is an example of what Kristina Minister called the "dissipation of the original reflexive function" of the oral performer's tale. Writing about this process as it afflicted the famed storyteller Ila Harrison Healy in her declining years, Minister noted that Healy's "originally reflexive personal narratives grow impersonal because performances originally constitutive of self fade into portray als of reflexivity ambivalence and paradoxes." Her own text of her grandmother's story became a "resolution of a search for identity and the exorcism of ghosts of the past" (xvi). In Ursa's memories of Great Gram's slave heritage, there's no ambivalence (since Great Gram had ensured that there would be no questioning her version of the past), no paradoxes since the tale is of pure victimage and equally pure evil, and little feeling that Ursa was supposed to be searching for her own identity at all. The ghosts are not being exorcized; they're being embalmed. The Corregidora story has become a legend, assuming the status of an immutable, inflexible, mythical artifact. When a generational memory stops changing, growing, and circulating, that story becomes dead.
What Ursa has inherited from Great Gram is a formula she rehearses without a requisite amount of revisionist energy, without a sufficient investment of herself and her personal identity, to give that formulaic story a renewed and animated circulation. As Trinh Minh-ha has pointed out, what "is transmitted from generation to generation is not only the stories, but the very power of transmission" (123). From Great Gram Ursa acquired the power of transmission without the concomitant respect for the dialogic nature of those transmissions. Ursa's attitude toward her family history is one of "monological steadfastness" and the logical corollary to a sense of history transmitted through formulaic discourse, estranged from a connection to her own life, is an historical narrative composed in monological and authoritative discourse, a discourse, notes Mikhail Bakhtin, that "permits no play with the context framing it, no play with its borders" (286, 343). The context framing Ursa's memories is her life, and this is pr ecisely what is ignored in her recollections of the formulaic conversations with Great Gram. Elsewhere, Jones states that the oral tradition should provide the storyteller with the resources to reinforce as well as "complement" and "act on" the reality the tale represents (Liberating 105). Ursa, however, does not act on the tale; she repeats it, and is thereby disabled from realizing the pragmatic benefits of narrating an oral/familial tale. Only later, after she hears the stories from her Gram, who lived a generation later but not entirely removed from the original atrocities of the Corregidora plantation, does Ursa come to appreciate the inevitable slippage of memory and the healing process an unstable memory can provide. Unlike Great Gram, Gram does not focus exclusively on the need to "leave evidence." She notes that the act of leaving evidence has its own dangers to those doing the leaving:
"They burned all the documents, Ursa, but they didn't bum what they put in their minds. We got to bum out what they put in our minds, like you burn out a wound. Except we got to keep what we need to bear witness. That scar that's left to bear witness. We got to keep it as visible as our blood." (72)
Gram suggests that, because they didn't burn what they put in "our minds," the former slaves were and the descendants of slaves are still subject to the indoctrinations and psychic injuries of slavery. Here Ursa learns the possibility of both "bearing witness" and surviving the ordeal by not dwelling on it to the exclusion of her own life, by not making herself a monument to the sufferings of the past but by healing herself and leaving only the scar tissue and not the open psychic wound as evidence of the horrors of history.
One of the reasons Gram is able to do this and able to counsel Ursa to follow her lead is that Gram is aware of the treachery of memory, of its sliding, unstable, constructed quality. She reveals to Ursa that one cannot always distinguish between a memory of one's own experiences or those of an earlier ancestor. She says she doesn't remember abolition because she was too young, but she feels "'sometime it seem like I do too'" remember because her own mother may have told her stories that have assumed experiential value in her mind (78). Indeed, Gram goes so far as to talk explicitly not only about how memory is a construct of earlier narratives, but to suggest that memories change because feelings are indeterminate and liable to be transformed. It's "'hard to always remember what you were feeling when you ain't feeling it exactly that way no more,'" she tells Ursa (79). What is absolutely remarkable is that Gram is here describing how she feels about Corregidora, who had been represented without any ambivale nce in Great Gram's memories. No matter the poignancy of the painful experience that originally wrought them, Gram suggests, feelings and the memories of feelings do not always remain constant or clear.
Unlike Great Gram's inflexible and resolutely unambivalent tales, Gram's story is about the difficulty of recollection, the fluid quality of experience, the changing nature of feelings. Great Gram's narratives had been constricting because they constituted an arrested and monumental discourse (relying on "words" to remove the indeterminateness of memory), serving only the purpose of "leaving evidence." Gram's narratives are liberating because they are motivated by the need both to bear witness and to heal the mind and recuperate from slavery; and Gram's discourse is open to changing contexts and altered conditions, not monumental or legendary but intimate and therefore "able to reveal newer ways to mean" (Bakhtin 346). "A story is not just a story," notes Trinh. "Once the forces have been aroused and set into motion, they can't simply be stopped at someone's request. Once told, the story is bound to circulate; humanized, it may have a temporary end, but its effects linger on and its end is never truly an end " (134, 148). The effects of the Corregidora story clearly do linger on; what Ursa has to do is humanize the story by experiencing it rather than rehearsing it, investing by discovering herself in the oral/familial tales.
Like Hurston's Janie, then, Ursa lives her life in the shadow of those overpowering ancestral narratives of enslavement, trying to discover what she herself desires through the filter of tales insistently reiterating what she should want. The intersubjective relations these familial tales make possible are problematic because they contain both healthy and dangerous possibilities: healthy, because they define the self in broad historical terms, providing a rich and sustaining context for contemporary subjects to gauge their actions; dangerous, because they can overwhelm and submerge the contemporary subject, producing deleterious historical patterns profoundly inadequate for contemporary social relations. In Corregidora, Mama represents how dangerous these intersubjective relations can be. Although she is able to produce a coherent narrative of her "private memory" (104), which she had always hidden from Ursa, and tell her daughter the complete story of her own courtship and stormy marriage with her husband M artin (111-23), she finds herself unable to produce a likewise coherent version of the Corregidora past. She either falters in her storytelling--she sounded "as if she were speaking in pieces, instead of telling one long thing" (123)--or is utterly consumed by the narration: "Mama kept talking until it wasn't her that was talking, but Great Gram.... she wasn't Mama now, she was Great Gram talking" (124). The story is so overpowering that "the memory of all the Corregidora women" has become "her memory too, as strong with her as her own private memory, or almost as strong" (129). Mama's example reveals to Ursa the ultimate danger of the intersubjective relations that occur in familial narratives of enslavement, when the oral/familial tales assume such prominence in the psychic life of the subject as to cause her to submerge her identity and lose her own to the dominant ancestral voice. Like Almeyda in Song for Anninho, Ursa's mother can say, "I became / my grandmother," but because the relationship between her "private memory" and the "memory of all the Corregidora women" is not dialogic, she cannot say, as Almeyda can, "and she became me." A freed voice, Jones has written, is neither solipsistic nor self-negating. While a freed voice does not deny the place of the other in self-discovery, it is also insistently "self-defining" (Liberating 178). Mama does not have that freed voice; Ursa learns to strive for it.
Ursa learns different things from each of her maternal ancestors. From her Great Gram, she learns to produce a ritual, formulaic account of her Great Gram's experiences as a way of "leaving evidence" or "bearing witness." From her Gram, she learns that it is important to heal her mind as well as to bear witness, and she also learns that feelings are not static entities; they are transformed by the passage of time and the accumulation of wisdom and experience. This serves Ursa in two ways. It helps her break out of the formulaic discourse which had "bound" her earlier, and it also helps her in her thinking about her relationship with Mutt. Finally, from Mama Ursa learns that the epic, impersonal tale of a family's travails in slavery can threaten to consume the teller and alienate the listener unless it is supplemented with personal, intimate tales that incorporate the teller's and her more recent ancestors' experiences into that epic structure and thereby promote in the listener a more empathetic feeling for the tale. What Ursa has to learn, then, is how to develop within herself the capacity to act on all the lessons she acquires from her maternal ancestors: to pass on the narrative of Corregidora's horrible crimes without losing her own voice and sense of her own historical placement.
For most critics of the novel, Ursa learns to do this by singing the blues, and her singing the blues is likewise a sign that she has learned to overcome the horror of being bound to the past or, better, that she has found a way to translate into a cultural artefact the oppressive history of the Corregidora women, to create from her ancestors' and her experiences a "song branded with the new world" (59). With this reading I have no real disagreement. I would only add that the blues are but one communicative form serving to facilitate Ursa's development; she translates the oral/familial tales into blues songs only after she engages in other mediating oral forms, especially the imagined future conversations with Mutt, or what Jones calls "ritualized dialogue," those italicized portions of the novel in which Ursa and Mutt engage in an imaginary conversation where the meaning is wrought out of "the language, the rhythm of the people talking, and the rhythm between the people talking" (Rowell 45; M. Harper, "Gayl " 359). Moreover, and more importantly, I would argue that what Ursa produces in terms of a cultural form (the blues) depends intimately on her diagnosing the root cause of Mama's and her own inability to talk about Great Gram's history without succumbing to possession or falling into rote repetition. She can do that only by discovering the hidden family secret at the heart of the Corregidora legend because Ursa's and Mama's arrested discourses are in many ways ultimately a product and consequence of that family secret.
The foremost psychoanalytic theorists of family secrets, Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, argue that there is a "phantom" at the heart of a particular kind of psychic trauma. This phantom is a result of the "unconscious suspicion that something had been left unsaid" during the life of the deceased relatives in the family line. This or "silence" affects later generations, who find themselves haunted by this ancestor's "secret" (Rand 60-61). The phantom, then, represents "the gap that the concealment of some part of a loved one's life produced in us." In some inexplicable way, the phantom-the psychic result of the ancestral family secret, the "transgenerational consequences of silence"--passes "from the parent's unconscious into the child's," and continues to haunt that child and his or her children (Abraham, "Notes" 287, 289). In effect, Abraham and Torok conclude, family secrets produce "encrypted" phantoms that "persist through several generations and determine the fate of an entire family line" (Shell 140) . This fascinating theory helps us understand how the present is connected to the past not only materially (because the injustices and inequities of earlier times persist in the present distribution of resources and power) but also psychologically. What happened to an ancestor has both social and psychic consequences for the generations that follow.
This is also a theory that perfectly describes Corregidora, a novel very much about how the later generations of a family line suffer psychic and discursive dysfunctions as a result of the traumas that pained an earlier ancestor. And at the heart of the novel resides the family secret of the Corregidoras. As a child, Ursa learned that Great Gram had done "something that made [Corregidora] wont to kill her," forcing her to flee and leave her daughter on the plantation (79). Nobody is told what Great Gram did to Corregidora. Gram admits that Great Gram "never would tell me what she did. Up till today she still won't tell me what it was she did" (172). And Corregidora also "never said nothing about what it was she did to him." This secret then haunts the later generations who insistently wonder: "What is it a woman can do to a man that make him hate her so bad he wont to kill her one minute and keep thinking about her and can't get her out of his mind the next" (173)? In this secret is contained crucial informa tion about the destiny of the Corregidora women. Because Great Gram's departure after this secret act left Gram to be "raised" and then raped and impregnated by Corregidora (172), this act is responsible for both the extension of the Corregidora maternal line and for hinting at the strategy of procreative "bearing witness" the Corregidora women use to hold up his crimes. Also, in this secret resides the complex of issues affecting the Corregidora women. What act can a woman perform on a man that incites both hatred and persistent desire? What is the nature of desire and its relationship to pain and hatred? Finally, this secret inhibits the later generations' productive inquiry into the past, thus creating a stultifying and incomplete narrative and giving the Corregidora legend its "epic" quality. The silence, the phantom haunts not only the Corregidora family line but also the family narrative.
At the end of the novel, Ursa disrupts the "epic" narrative by deciphering the family secret, and opens up an historical space for her to manifest her stunted desire. Most readings attempt to resolve the ambiguous dynamics between Ursa and Mutt, her first husband, by determining whether or not they are "reconciled" at the end of the novel. Agreeing with Jones herself that the "open-ended" conclusion of the novel points "toward a kind of redemption" (Bell, "Gayl" 285), I would like to explore how Ursa and Mutt's reconciliation is premised on the solution of the family secret, which Ursa uses to exorcize the past that would possess her, and gain instead a qualitatively different and more liberating intersubjectivity from the family narrative she completes. 
In the final scene, Mutt returns after a twenty-two-year absence to tell her he wants her to" 'come back'" (183). Mutt tells Ursa how, after the American courts took his great-grandfather's slave wife away from him for unsettled debts, his great-grandfather "'went crazy'" and started eating "'onions so people wouldn't come around him,' "then eating" 'peppermint so they would'" (183-84). Responding to the loss of Ursa, Mutt tries to do the same thing as his great-grandfather," 'but it didn't do nothing but make me sick,'" he informs her (184). What Mutt is saying to Ursa is that he appreciates the power of the past but that he cannot live according to its regime; he cannot replicate what his ancestor did in an attempt to deal with his modem problems. In other words, this brief relation shows us that Mutt is no longer demanding of Ursa that she "forget" the past, as he had earlier asked her to do, since he himself has attempted to act out an historical incident in order to determine what knowledge it could giv e him. His answer, therefore, is that the past needs to be recalled but not relived, at least not relived in the register in which Ursa has been reliving it.
Following Mutt's lead, Ursa also attempts to reenact her own great-grandparent's historical act, showing that she too has learned to distinguish between a healthy ability to remember the past and a disabling imperative to remain fully immersed in it; and while doing so, she solves the family secret. Thinking it "had to be something sexual that Great Gram did to Corregidora," while she herself performs fellatio on Mutt, Ursa concludes that Great Gram had bitten Corregidora's penis during an act of fellatio and produced that unspeakable tension between hatred and love, desolation and desire, exquisite pleasure and excruciating pain (184).
Ursa approaches this act of sex as an act of historical archaeology and genealogy, in the Foucauldian sense of genealogy--beginning an historical "analysis from a question posed in the present" (Politics 262). As a genealogical study, this final sexual encounter provides Ursa with a chance to determine her place and her displacement as a Corregidora woman, to define her selfhood and her salvation in familial terms that include her mother as part of the "family romance," and, finally, to see in what ways there is some kind of mutual responsibility involved in the lives of the Corregidora women and their men. Here it is imperative that we be careful in assessing what Ursa is saying. While recognizing that what Corregidora had done to Great Gram was no worse than what "Mutt had done to me, than what we had done to each other, than what Mama had done to Daddy, or what he had done to her in return," Ursa is also not "blaming the victim" or assuming that the victim plays as active a part in the victimization as does the oppressor (184). Rather, what she seems to be suggesting is that t he tale of the Corregidora women is not one of pure victimage, but one in which the women have some degree of agency despite the historical and social inequities under which they become subjects of their own lives. After all, the answer to the family secret is an act of one slave woman's resistance, however meager and insufficient that expression of agency and resistance may appear. What Ursa's interpretation of the family secret does is open up for her a set of associations that not only helps her to realize the connections between Great Gram's sexual act of resistance against Corregidora and the potential power Ursa has over Mutt, but also, and more importantly, teaches her and allows her to reveal to us how both Great Gram's and Ursa's acts are historically resonant and part of a collective endeavor of redefining the role of sexuality and desire in acts of resistance and of producing desire out of resistant activity (cf. Robinson 163-65).
First, though, we need to appreciate what resistance means in a patriarchal institution. Discussing the effects of slave "disaffection" and slaves' response to the "paternalism" of slavery in the Old South, Eugene Genovese argues that slaves simultaneously exhibited "accommodation and resistance to slavery." Accommodation offered the slaves a way of "accepting what could not be helped without failing prey to the pressures for dehumanization, emasculation, and self-hatred." Resistance, meanwhile, is either "prepolitical nonrevolutionary self-assertion"--including forms of day-to-day resistance such as lying, stealing, dissembling, shirking, murder, infanticide, suicide, and arson--or "political responses" to enslavement, such as flight or collective violence against the system (Roll 597-98, 591). Challenging this binary distinction, Barbara Jeanne Fields has argued that resistance "does not refer only to the fight that individuals, or collections of them, put up at any given time against those trying to impos e on them." Instead, she suggests, resistance "refers also to the historical outcome of the struggle that has gone before, perhaps long enough before to have been hallowed by custom or formalized in law" (103). Resistance, in other words, is not only a given set of actions premised on transcendent principles but also a complex of possibilities emerging from and responding to historically specific conditions and occurring in particular social spaces. In order accurately to represent historical acts of resistance, we need to examine the context within which resistance is rendered necessary and the avenues through which it is made possible, exploring carefully how resistance entails acts that produce anxiety and danger for the oppressors in specific sites or spheres of activity.
In the case of New World patriarchal slavery as it affected the lives of slave women, the site or sphere of activity was sexuality. In Brazil, in particular, slave women were subject to the sexualized commodification of their bodies. As happened in other slave societies, slave masters in Brazil were afforded limitless opportunities to "live in a state of fornication" with their slaves, as Padre Fernao Cardim noted during his sixteenth-century tour of Brazilian plantations (Freyre 55-56). In addition, though, and uniquely, slave masters in Brazil prostituted slave women. While the prostitution of "slave women as a source of income is virtually unknown in the history of slavery in the United States," Brazilians time and again reported the practice, from the Jesuit Joao Antonio Andreoni's 1711 account of slave women selling "their own bodies" to the 1871 report of Judge Miguel Jose Tavares, who ordered 186 women freed in accordance with the Roman law stating that any master who prostituted a slave woman had to manumit her (Degler 70; Conrad 56-57, 130-32). Given the particular historical circumstances of Brazilian slavery, then, we should expect that resistance would involve that site of activity where oppression was most pronounced: sexuality. As William Andrews rightly observes, "When the sex act becomes politicized, as patriarchal power inevitably makes it, it can be best interpreted as a weapon, either of oppression or rebellion" (252). And because slave women suffered a "dual form of oppression," having to resist their commodification as both economic and sexual beings, their acts cannot fairly be characterized as "nonrevolutionary sell-assertion." Rather, as Darlene Clark Hine points out, the "slave woman's resistance to sexual and therefore to economic exploitation posed a potentially severe threat to paternalism itself, for implicit in such action was the slave woman's refusal to accept her designated responsibilities within the slave system as legitimate" (7).
Readings of Corregidora have rarely recognized that there is much of a representation of resistance in the novel.  Most critics focus on GreatGram's narratives which are, after all, fully and thoroughly imbued with the horror and suffering of enslaved Brazilian women who lived out "days that were pages of hysteria" while bowing down to a slave master's "genital fantasies" (59). But there are important representations of slave women's resistance, and they play a crucial role in Ursa's final assay on the Corregidora family secret. The final scene, in fact, is a point of convergence for several reasons. It is the site where Ursa re-enacts her Great-Gram's actions of sexual resistance, and the point where Ursa literally converges with her great-grandmother ("It was like I didn't know how much was me and Mutt and how much was Great Gram and Corregidora" ), but it is also the space where several interrelated stories of slave resistance come to bear. And in the moment Ursa is attempting to read the family secret, she draws on not only her psychic capacity to "become" her grandmother but also the tales she has heard about the possibilities for resisting enslavement or, in her case, neoenslavement.
At the moment of her possession or convergence with Great Gram and the moment of her ambivalent epiphany ("in a split second of hate and love I knew what it was"), Ursa is offered a choice of what sort of action she could perform on Mutt. Aware of her power over him ("I could kill you," she repeats), she is likewise aware of the dangers of wielding that power (184). And the dangers are not only immediately pertinent--few men would passively watch as their penis is bitten off, as Ann duCille correctly notes ("a sleeping John Wayne Bobbit notwithstanding")--but also historical, for this scene of possible emasculation as personal empowerment resonates with an earlier scene of emasculation as futile slave resistance ("Phallus(ies)" 568). Immediately after she spells out for Ursa the "two alternatives" to enslavement, resistance or submission, Great Gram tells her the story of a slave woman "over on the next plantation" who responded to her master's attempted rape by cutting "off his thing with a razor she had hi d under the pillow." After the master bled to death, the state's police "cut off her husband's penis and stuffed it in her mouth, and then they hanged her. They let him bleed to death. They made her watch and then they hanged her" (67). If one didn't take the alternative of accommodation, Great Gram notes, one had "to suffer the consequences," which included both the "physical cruelty and beatings" attendant on women's efforts to "protect their sexual integrity and resist white men," and risking the lives of their own family members (Bush 114).
Ursa, then, knows the extreme cost of a resistance exercised through the kind of power a woman can possess in a sexual act. A slave owner may be vulnerable during an act of forced sex, but he is nonetheless empowered by the social arrangements existing outside and supporting the plantation. Ursa knows not only the danger of Mutt's response to an attempted emasculation but also, and, more significantly, the history of black men who suffered emasculation and castration at the hands of white slave owners. After all, the story Great Gram tells is about a black woman who does end up with her husband's severed penis in her mouth but only because of the violent state apparatus defining him as "slave" and "black." Great Gram's story, then, defines sexuality as a site of oppression in several ways. The state not only permitted white slave masters to rape the bodies of their African slaves, but they made black sexuality itself a spectacle in the punishment of slave resistance. As Great Gram noted," 'What happened over on that other plantation'" served as" 'a warning, cause they might wont your pussy, but if you do anything to get back at them, it'll be your life they be wonting, and then they make even that some kind of a sex show' " (125). Finally, sexuality is also a primary site of oppression because masters determined the quality and direction of their slaves' desires. Corregidora, for instance, would not allow sexual relations between black men and women, oppressing his slaves by deflecting their desires and corrupting their romantic relations (124). And Great Gram's story is finally like so many others in the novel in being about the historical damage done to the romantic relations between black men and women during slavery, about how the social arrangements policing slave resistance also police black desire.
Under these conditions, then, sexuality for enslaved peoples assumes a different value, no longer only a domain of personal self-assertion or the terrain of accommodation, but rather a site for resistance to the system of slavery itself.  Since acts of overt resistance, such as emasculating a slave master, prove more destructive to the agents of resistance than the purveyors of oppression, slaves on the Corregidora plantation do take a lesson from "what happened over on that other plantation" and attempt to configure their own forms of resistance to the situations in which they find themselves. These take two forms, both of which Ursa alludes to in the final scene as she attempts to solve and interpret the significance of the family secret. First, there is the personal revenge of the sort Great Gram had when, after the state stopped supporting and policing slavery, she finally imitated the woman on the next plantation and bit Corregidora's penis (but without emasculating him). Second, there is the kind of communal activity of creating social relations beyond slavery and fostering sustaining personal relations outside of the master-slave dialectic. This form of resistance is figured in the idea of Palmares, the fugitive slave society in seventeenth-century Brazil. As Ursa hovers over Mutt's midsection, then, she most likely has in her mind two different scenes, two different "moments" that come to her in a split second. The text signals that Ursa is thinking of both scenes by having her recollect the exact words Gram had uttered when she wondered about Great Gram's mysterious action--"What is it a woman can do to a man that make him hate her so bad he wont to kill her one minute and keep thinking about her and can't get her out of his mind the next?" (184,173)--and by having her also recall "Mama when she had started talking like Great Gram," which is the moment when Ursa is told the story of the slave woman on the next plantation and the story of Palmares (184, 125-28).
The person who dreams of Palmares is a young slave boy who flees the Corregidora plantation when he is caught talking to Great Gram about his dream of "running away and joining up with them renegade slaves up in Palmares" (126). It is crucial for us to appreciate the significance of this reference to Palmares, perhaps the single most meaningful collective act of slave resistance in Brazil and the most long-lasting and complete African maroon community in the Americas, because it establishes the terms of resistance in the novel. Palmares, in effect, is an event which, to use Barbara Fields's terms, "refers . .. to the historical outcome of the struggle that has gone before" and therefore provides resources for future acts of resistance.
Palmares is the most famous and longest-standing Brazilian quilombo. Beginning probably before but certainly by 1605, when forty African slaves from Porto Calvo took refuge in Palmares, the quilombo grew to a population of 20,000 and survived almost constant attacks from 1640 to its eventual destruction in 1697. During its ascendancy, Palmares provided its fugitive slave population with a stable socio-cultural existence based on a syncretic but largely Angolan-Congolese political, economic, and social system. Predicated on an "African political system which came to govern a plural society and thus give continuity to what could have been at best a group of scattered hideouts," Palmares stood as a resplendent example of continued resistance in its defense against scores of attacks by Dutch and Portuguese armed forces (Kent 169). As an African social system, Palmares represented "the resistance of a civilization that refused to die (a struggle in which African religion played a key role) as much as a direct pro test against the institution of slavery" (Bastide 198). As an African-based economy, Palmares was both generally a rejection of the "Portuguese economic and social order" as well as specifically a "reaction to a slave-holding society entirely out of step with forms of bondage familiar to Africa" (Kent 173, 166). The Palmares community eventually developed its own complex economic support system, producing not only its own food and tools but also developing a class of skilled mechanics and craftsmen (Genovese, From Rebellion 61-62).
As a successful act of communal resistance and socioeconomic stability, Palmares stood as a self-supporting community that could inspire and draw on the slave population of neighboring plantations and thereby deplete the slave-labor force of Pernambuco. In a 1671 letter, Governor Fema de Sousa Coutinho noted that the "example and permanence" of Palmares "each day induces the other Negroes to flee and escape from the rigorous captivity which they suffer" (Ennes 115). In fact, it was even more than an inspiration to slave populations on neighboring plantations; it was a system of perpetuating freedom through a systematic attack on slavery and slavishness. According to a contemporary report, the citizens of Palmares were considered free if they fled the plantations of their own accord, but they remained slaves in Palmares if they were "stolen" from their plantations. They would remain slaves in Palmares until they earned their freedom by going back and stealing another slave from the plantation (Kent 169). In o ther words, because Palmares provided its citizens (called palmaristas) with an opportunity to free themselves by freeing another, they effectively created a genuine sense of collective being. That, perhaps, was the greatest psychological accomplishment of this, the most famous of the New World maroon societies. Before and after its final destruction in 1697, highlighted by the turning point of the suicide of 200 palmaristas in the late night and early morning of February 5-6, 1694, after forty-two days of seige, Palmares provided the slave population of Pernambuco and other parts of Brazil with a sparkling and edifying example of slave resistance that translated itself into a counter-cultural formation. It was a lesson not soon, and not yet, forgotten. When Arthur Ramos made a search for oral traditions of Palmares legends in the late 1930s, he found an annual stage play in the township of Pilar which recalled the "sequence of events as it persists in the memory of the people" (Kent 170). And recently, in 19 95, the 300th anniversary of the end of Palmares was marked by concerted efforts to create celebratory monuments on the site, attempts by the Palmares Foundation to win land titles for the contemporary descendants of escaped slaves, and continued research into the materials uncovered by the Palmares Archeological Project ("From Brazil's Misty Past").
Palmares has certainly remained a profoundly important memory in Gayl Jones's work, from her earliest play, "The Ancestor: A Street Play" (1975), to her latest narrative poem, Xarque (1985). For the most part, Jones uses Palmares as a symbol of an heroic and continuing heritage, a point of psychic communion with the past, and a site representing the historical possibility of healthy loving relations between black women and men. For latter-day Americans of African descent in Jones's works, Palmares provides both a legacy--"we are a continuance / of their flesh and voices"--and a place where twentieth-century individuals feel an intersubjective connection with the seventeenth-century past, feeling as if they "were there." Most of all, though, Jones uses Palmares the way Paule Marshall uses slave resistance in Daughters: to signify "a time when black men and women had it together, were together, stood together" (94). Palmares is the real and mythical place where love "between men and women" flourished as it had in the "old country," a place where former slaves could begin to shed their servitude by creating love and leaving not only a heritage of heroic resistance but also a "legacy of tenderness" (Jones, "Ancestor" 89-96; Song for Anninho 9, 19, 32, 43, 66; Xarque 11, 43). And the connection between an unfettered desire and an unfettered body is crucial. Palmares represents a revolutionary potential in Jones's work, as it had in history, because it was predicated on the connection between personal and collective freedom (one freed oneself by freeing another) and between domestic and public space (between where people loved and where they labored, or, more precisely, the social arrangements of their labor).
In Corregidora, Palmares likewise operates as a symbol of the possibility of a "free" love in that place where it has "always" been possible for men and women to commune. In Palmares, in the condition of freedom and a social system based on African societies ("like the old country"), men and women of African descent can live and love without the pernicious presence of either a Corregidora or the political system supporting him. Even though the woman and man on the next plantation suffered horrific deaths, and even though their murders acted as spectacles of "warning" for the slaves on the Corregidora plantation, as long as slaves kept alive the idea of Palmares they had reason to hope for freedom and autonomy and they had sufficient incentive to perform acts of resistance toward gaining their freedom. The dream of the young slave boy on the Corregidora plantation was not only to join the society of "Palmares, where these black mens had started their own town, escaped and banded together," but also to create a space where it was possible to love, to "have him a woman, and then come back and get his woman and take her up there" (126). For him, Palmares was not just the historical place where, as Great Gram tells him, "way back two hundred years ago," white men had killed all of the palmaristas. Palmares for him remains a symbol, both the hope for and the possibility of a place where a man and a woman are free if they create the time and space for their love. Palmares, he pronounces, was not "way back two hundred years ago.... Palmares was now" (126).
For Jones such a history of resistance represents a means for present African American subjects to produce narratives of temporal disjunction in order to appreciate the legacy of their own history (of both resistance and tenderness) and thereby create the conditions for continuing that legacy. The slave boy who wishes to escape the Brazilian plantation in the mid-19th century in order to join a community destroyed in 1694 gives us a sense of how an idea of a resistant community exceeds its historical placement. So, too, does Ursa's final act of reconciliation with Mutt attest to her using the past to construct the present, of using an act of historical resistance to create the conditions for a contemporary love. And it is a choice, Jones makes clear, by showing us the conscious effort Ursa makes to construct a version of the past in the final scene. After stating that the answer to the family secret came to her in an epiphany--"In a split second I knew what it was, in a split second of hate and love I knew w hat it was"--Ursa gives that answer in a highly ambiguous way: "A moment of pleasure and excruciating pain at the same time, a moment of broken skin but not sexlessness, a moment just before sexlessness, a moment that stops just before sexlessness, a moment that stops before it breaks the skin" (184). Ursa does not describe a "moment." She describes, in the style of a gradation, a set of options. A moment of "broken skin... just before sexlessness" is not the same thing as a moment that stops "before it breaks the skin." It is important to note that Ursa casts this epiphany into a gradation, describing various options from emasculation to harmless nibbling, because it alerts us to the fact that Ursa is choosing amongst possibilities, not only as a model for her own present activity (to bite or not to bite) but also as a way of asserting what kind of past she imagines and what role that past will play in her present life.
If there is a "moment" in this scene, it is the moment when Ursa has to choose among the resonant historical scenes of resistance she has available to her-to imitate the woman who emasculated her master, to imitate Great Gram who broke the skin on Corregidora's penis in biting it, or to set her own course based on the imperatives associated with Palmares. In the end, Ursa does not follow the example of the woman on the plantation and emasculate Mutt, nor does she emulate her Great Gram and bite Mutt's penis enough to break the skin. She stops before breaking the skin. Just as Mutt had discovered that he was not made healthier by emulating his great-grandfather, so does Ursa discover that she would not achieve wholeness by imitating her great-grandmother. Choosing instead to pursue a course of action in which she would initiate the possibility for Mutt and her to create the space and time for a loving relationship, Ursa essentially chooses to believe that "Palmares was now." Palmares, then, provides Ursa with a way of understanding how most effectively to use the past, and it is therefore a story which helps her overcome the part of the education she received from her Great Gram about the more destructive ways of replicating the past. In the final scene, recalling the time Mama "had started talking like Great Gram," Ursa is able to discern the meaning of the story Great Gram passed on to Mama who then passed it on to Ursa. At the end of her rendition of this story to Ursa, Mama notes: "They just go on like that, and then get in to talking about the importance of passing things like that down" (128). "Things like that," it turns out, are stories about options for resistance and the connections between different kinds of resistance. And as Ursa discovers, these stories, even when they are told by someone in a state of possession, retain their residual potential for liberation. The story of Palmares, which Great Gram passed on to Mama without believing, which Mama passed on to Ursa without understanding its significance, becomes for Ursa an opportunity to discover and use in her own life another version of the multiform past.
Unlike Gram and Mama, and even Great Gram, Ursa is able to solve the family secret, complete the family narrative, and resuscitate the voice she had lost to history because she is the beneficiary of several advantages her foremothers did not have. Ursa sees the connections among her greatgrandmother's act, other acts of slave resistance, and her own actions in the present, transforming the family narrative from one of pure victimage to one of agency. She simultaneously changes her own position within the family narratives from a state of debilitating possession, entailing the loss or arresting of voice, to a state of healthy intersubjectivity.
Ursa is able to reinterpret the family story because of a shift in the historical discourse of slavery from the 1940s, when Ursa first begins to meditate on the past, to the late 1960s, when she is able to decipher the family secret and reinvigorate her own life with the possibilities for her own resistant acts. When in 1947 she recollects the events of Great Gram's life, Ursa discovers tales of slavery as overwhelmingly oppressive and slaves as unalterably slavish; when she recollects those events in 1969, she sees resistant slaves who form communities and provide useful models for the present. The point Jones is making, I think, is that to keep alive the memories of slavery is to keep them available for interpretation and reinterpretation so that they can serve each passing generation in the particular ways that generation chooses to view the slave past of the New World. And because the generation of the '60s chose to focus on resistance and community and cultural productivity in the slave past, an interpr etive framework that was largely a product of the Black Power Movement's influence on American historiography, Ursa was able to recreate a version of her familial narrative that emphasized the possibility for more productive social and romantic relations (Genovese, "Influence"). What is important, then, is that the answer Ursa finds for the family secret and likewise the interpretation she makes of her family narrative are not necessarily "correct" (witness the inherent ambiguities and incoherent contradictions), but they are appropriate, interpretations that work best within the spirit of the late '60s and the ones most suitable for Ursa's present life.
By creating this history, by acting on her Gram's knowledge of the past as a flexible entity and memory as an unstable tool for discovery, Ursa is also able to alter her relationship to the family narrative so that it is no longer the space where she loses her voice, and becomes instead a site for her recovery, allowing her to see how her life is in dialogue with the past, not merely reflective of it or the container of its meaning. Because of the different historical sensibility she brings, because of her creative impetus in recreating the past, Ursa finally does not remain confused in her convergence with the past--"I didn't know how much was me and Mutt and how much was Great Gram and Corregidora"--but emerges from that intersubjective moment to enter a "blues duet" with Mutt in which they together work at defining the relationship between the past and the present as it affects their relationship. By reenacting an event from each of their great-grandparents' lives, Ursa and Mutt come to a knowledge about the confused desires produced out of enslavement, as Mutt imitates an enslaved ancestor who wants people simultaneously to love and abhor him, and Ursa an ancestor who feels both "hate and love" (184). But out of this knowledge, out of a remarkable series of narratives about historical failures at coupling, Mutt and Ursa gather together the lyrics of a blues song that will in turn provide them with the resources for understanding and producing a desire less fraught with anxiety and confusion.
A fact that goes unstated in the criticism because it is understated in the novel is that the final reconciliation scene takes place in 1969, which strikes me as being important not only because it marks the twenty-two years since Mutt and Ursa have last spoken but also becuase it suggests the considerably different social circumstances in which the reconciliation takes place and signals the political dialogue Jones is having with the historical moment of her novel's production, the moment of Black Power. Written in the early '70s, published in 1975, coinciding, that is, with the crest and waning of the Black Power Movement, Corregidora challenges the "reading codes of Black Aesthetic ideology" and engages in a debate with "black nationalist discourse" (Dubey, Black Women Novelists 72, 84). Indeed, the novel deeply questions the very bases of Black Power as a movement partly premised on valorizing one quality of "blackness" and partly premised on dismissing various "outdated" black cultural ideas and formatio ns. Taking up the tenets of black identity and racial formation in the post-Civil Rights, Black Power era, Jones critiques the ways Black Power intellectuals, particularly some of the cultural nationalist camp, employed "blackness" as a weapon against other black people. Some cultural nationalists articulated a "new consciousness of Blackness" that repeatedly drew attention to the "social division within the black populace," attempting to establish a positive black subjectivity "not on any sense of inclusiveness with respect to the black community" but rather by producing a "negative foil" in "intraracial division" (P. Harper 239. 250-51; Henderson 183). Jones finds flawed this cultural nationalist strategy. She also challenges the facile assertions of those cultural nationalists who dismissed and proscribed cultural forms like the blues as "invalid" and "not functional" because these cultural forms "do not commit us to the struggle of today and tomorrow, but keep us in the past" (Karenga 38).
Critiquing what she calls the "new strictures of exclusion" and the "new hegemony" established by the Black Power intellectuals and Black Aesthetic theorists, Jones complicates the racial formation operative in Black Power by exposing its historical roots, by dwelling on the ways that contemporary concepts of authenticity in black communities are connected to historical master discourses on plantations. She also uses the proscribed cultural form of the blues to structure and give force to what she refers to as the "blues relationships between black men and women," showing that the blues are a site for the serious examination of the complicated interplay of identity and desire (Liberating 191, 160). Troubled by the ways black cultural nationalists eschewed cultural forms (blues), downplayed the importance of formative historical periods (slavery), and argued for rigid regimentation of racial identity (black is, black ain't), Jones used her palimpsest narrative to explore how the complex of desire, sexuality, and racial identity, like the intersubjectivity created in family narratives, offers both enabling and constricting options. And, as was the case with family narratives, Jones is again showing us the ways performance is at the heart of the strategy she outlines for challenging the constricting parameters of racial formation.
Recognizing the limited hold the past can have on her, negotiating between the imperatives of an historical legacy of enslavement and the demands of lived experience in the present, Ursa discovers another feature of genealogy, namely the specific ways that her body is "totally imprinted by history." Genealogy, primarily "an analysis of descent," writes Foucault, is also therefore a discourse of the situation between "the body and history," of the processes through which historical episodes mark the body as "the inscribed surface of events" (Language 162). Ursa feels distressed at the knowledge that she is "stained with another's past," having "their past in my blood" (45). Although the past she knows is the product of family narratives, her body, she also comes to recognize, is literally formed of that history--she thinks of her veins as the place of "centuries meeting" (46)--and transformed by it, particularly in its capacity for desire and its embodiment of sexuality. Indeed, the family secret she solves b y understanding the connection between resistance and sexuality and the primal scene she re-enacts as a site of confused desire shed light on the national secret regarding the historical creation and recreation of racial schemas through the formation and manipulation of sexuality and desire.
Aware of having been early educated to desire reproduction for the sake of keeping alive the history of Corregidora's horrors--to "make generations" is what "all Corregidora women want. Have been taught to want" (22)--Ursa is yet unaware of how the rest of her desiring function is also fraught with the weight of the past. When she looks at her great-grandmother and her grandmother, she sees "hate and desire both riding them" as they try to deal with the persistent effect Corregidora's sexual regime has on their present lives (102). When she looks at her mother, Ursa realizes that all she ever saw was a well of "desire, and loneliness," another life left desolate by the plantation culture at its roots (101). Yet Ursa does not readily see that her own life is also deeply imbricated into the sexual politics of the Corregidora plantation, her own desires likewise frustrated because of the social relations that the plantation culture inaugurated and yet maintains. For her, the fact that Mutt denies her sexual int imacy or even temporary release when she is "exhausted with wanting" appears unrelated to the past relations between black women and men in the time of slavery (64-65). Nor does Ursa see how she recreates this pattern and the social relations on which it's based when she herself learns to use sex as a weapon in her battles with Mutt. After Mutt starts using sex to get Ursa to quit her singing career--" Whenever he wanted it and I didn't, he'd take me,... [b]ut those times that I wanted it, and he sensed that I wanted it, that's when he would turn away from me"--Ursa gets to the point where she "tried to learn from him, play it his way" (156). The results of this sexual warfare are comic as well as tragic. They are comic in that each spouse acts on what she or he thinks the other does not want. Mutt decides to have sex with Ursa because he thinks she is unwilling. Acting on his misperception, Ursa decides to withhold sex from Mutt because he is acting on what he perceives to be her unwillingness. This comedy o f misperceived desires does have its dire consequences, though. Having repelled his advances, Ursa believes she has emerged victorious--"...it was the first time I hadn't given it to him when he said yes"--only to discover she has confused herself about her own desire: "Maybe it was because I did want it" (157). By acting on what she believes to be Mutt's lack of desire, Ursa is left to wonder about the precise state of her own desire.
This state of confused and frustrated desires in the realm of sexuality has its basis, of course, in the patriarchal, capitalist order where "heterosexual coupling functions as a domain of male power," where "legitimate compensation for man's labor is the conspicuous consumption of the surplus value of women's leisure: her female sexuality"; and male "ownership" of women's bodies "extends to the abstract ownership of what women produce in such relationships: desire" (duCille, "Unbearable" 301). More specifically, in the case of African American heterosexual coupling, this specific state of confusion about desire and sexuality has its roots in the slave past where a master class had organized a method of simultaneously policing the desire of slaves, commodifying their sexuality, and racializing their bodies.
The stories of plantation life in Brazil in Corregidora focus on the ways that slave women's bodies were subject to a particular kind of discipline which commodified their bodies at the same time that it policed their desires. Forced into plantation prostitution, the slave women on the Corregidora plantation were transformed into the objects of sexual labor. At the same time, Corregidora defined the range of their sexual activity along racial lines. While white men could purchase access to black women, black men were not allowed to have any kind of sexual activity with black women. As Great Gram recalls, "'He didn't wont us with no black mens. It wasn't color cause he didn't wont us with no light black mens'" (124). Simultaneously, then, Corregidora was creating the boundaries of racial definition and racial privilege--who was black, who had access to black women's sexuality--while regulating the sexual desire in the social relationships he was promoting. Black women were prohibited from having sexual relati ons with black men and prohibited from developing anything but sexual relations with white men since Corregidora forced his slaves to "make love to anyone, so they couldn't love anyone" (103-04). As was the case in the United States in the seventeenth century, this racial schematic was meant not only to produce "blackness" as a virtual absence but also simultaneously to create "whiteness" as a state of privilege and power (Higginbotham). Black men denied access to black and white women were forced to see how their thwarted desires and the limitation on their sexuality were defining characteristics of their "blackness," while black women were racialized by being made subject to sexual domination and losing whatever subjectivity they could exercise in directing their own desires. By having open access to black women, meanwhile, white men were able to ascertain the unlimited range of their forceful desires and to see sexuality as a form of racial domination, thus defining the imperial power of "whiteness." It is worth noting that Corregidora would get "mad and beat" anyone who doubted his authentic whiteness by suggesting that his dark complexion made him look "like one a them coal Creek Indians" (11, 23). The point Jones is making by showing us the historical connection among the governing of desire, the patrolling of sexuality, and the racialization of the populations of the New World is that "color" is a register and not a cause in the production and distribution of power. Corregidora denied sexual access to "light black mens" as a way of defining the privileges of "whiteness" along lines of power, not color. The slaves who might have been tempted to think of Corregidora as "colored" were quickly disabused of this notion, just as they learned to define as "black" even those slaves who were "as light as [Corregidora] was" (124).
Having set the historical conditions of racial formation in relief, Jones asks pertinent questions about the ways the contemporary state and the descendants of slaves continue to recreate this policing of desire, commodification of sexuality, and racialization of lived experience. She traces how this reenactment of the disciplines of plantation culture occurs in both the legal institutions of the white state and the discourses of the black community. We saw how Corregidora was able to inscribe race onto the bodies of his slaves by governing their desires and defining their sexuality in commercial terms. He is supported in this strategy by the state's police and legal apparatus. When a black woman attempts to resist her commodification, refuses to prostitute herself, determines that her desire for her husband is more important than her subjection to her master, the police punish her by viciously reasserting the sexual claims of the state on her body and the governance of her desire. When a black man frees his wife by purchasing her, the law makes that relationship one of commercial ownership and reclaims as property what the man thinks of as romance (150-51). The novel shows us also how in the present the state's legal and police apparati continue to reinscribe race onto the bodies of people of African descent, but it is less through the institutional channels than the informal discourses of the society that this reinscription occurs. It is true that, when a crime occurs involving the body of a black woman, the police "put it in the nigger woman file, which mean they ain't gon never get to it" (134); but Jones attends less to ways the formal state apparatus defines sexuality, desire, and race in contemporary America and concerns herself more with how these ideas get rearticulated within black community discourses.
It was the state that had auctioned off Mutt's great-grandmother as a piece of property, but it is Mutt who threatens to auction off Ursa as a sexual commodity (159-60). It was the master Corregidora who prostituted his slave Great Gram, but it is her husband Martin who makes Mama "walk down the street looking like a whore" (12021, 184). In the past, the state and slave masters defined the parameters of racial identity (who was white, who was not); in the present, black communities deploy color as a gauge to determine inclusion. Ursa recalls poignantly those scenes in which she is called out on account of her coloration and her long hair. In Bracktown she is called a "red-headed heifer" trying to take "everybody's husband away from them" (73). In Hazard, Ursa "feels resentful" when people suggest that she is not black enough, that she could "pass" or that she is racially "mixed up every which way" (70, 80). Certain people befriend her only after she marries someone darker than herself (69). The point Jones i s making here is that black community discourses, relations between black women and men, and among black women alone, have bought into the racial schemas formed on the plantation and re-enacted in contemporary state apparatus. It is this kind of black communal thinking that Gram says is the "wound" slavery "put in our minds" (72). This is the "wound" Jones holds up by showing us how contemporary social relations continue to recreate debilitating ideas about racial identity by regulating black women's desire and commodifying black women's sexuality. After all, Mutt threatens to auction off Ursa as a "piece a ass for sale" immediately after he has tormented her by denying the demands of her desire (159). Like Corregidora, then, Mutt controls Ursa's sexual desire at the same time that he commodifies her sexuality and rearticulates the site of her racial identity. The auction block, in this novel as much as in the first African American novel, Clotel, is a point of the convergence of discourses about sexuality, d esire, and race (Brown 66-68).
It is crucially important to note that Jones does not demonstrate how white hegemonic values established in plantation culture infiltrate and pervade black community discourses in order to argue that black men have replaced white men as the immediate oppressors of black women, as some of her earlier critics believed and criticized her for believing. Rather, Jones shows that "the past" which some cultural nationalists had facilely dismissed as having nothing to do with the present and the future is and remains an integral part of the ongoing search for African American liberation. Not to acknowledge the "wounds" of slavery would be to leave them festering; not to address the ways subjections of the past get rearticulated in the present is to let them retain their force. For that reason, Jones dwells on the ways the past forms the present, demonstrating the overt and hidden ways that those mores created in slavery continue to be refurbished and refined as part of the lexicon of "race" in modem America. By expo sing these complex historical continuities that have both psychic and institutional manifestations, Jones draws the connection between the "secret" of the family and of the nation. Having shown how what she calls Black Power's "new strictures of exclusion" have become part of the black community's ways of defining race, and demonstrated how this racial formation is intricately involved in the regulation and policing of sexuality and desire, Jones posits for us a solution to the "national secret" akin to the solution Ursa had employed for her "family secret."
The ways a contemporary descendant of slaves can contest this process of subjection, of being subject to a prohibitive racial formation with rigid definitional boundaries circumscribing sexual desire, is to perform as a subject of desire. The way to heal the wound is not to ignore but to cauterize it; the way to deal with the effect of the past is likewise not to transcend or forget or even to continue to speak incessantly about it but to re-enact it, to perform it with a difference. Drawing on Gram's hints regarding the instability of memory, Ursa had solved the family secret by reliving it, by drawing on other episodes from history to recontextualize it, and ultimately allowing herself to perform that scene in a new and liberating way. Drawing on her recognition of the historical basis and therefore the pliability of racial identity, Ursa likewise shows us that the solution to the national secret is neither to accept nor to deny the strictures of the past but to flaunt them in a different kind of re-enactm ent that simultaneously accentuates the performed quality of desire, sexuality, and racial identity. For Jones, the blues--with their "strategies of remembrance," their connection of "individual and group experience," and their capacity for "carrying us beyond the apparent stereotypic" -- constitute the cultural form best suited to that performance (Liberating 74, 39, 107).
Critics of Corregidora have early and long noted that the novel is a compelling portrait of a "blues relationship," an intensely profound representation of a "blues life," and a remarkable set of observations about the generational creation of one family's blues song. Ursa uses the blues to compensate for her inability to "make generations" by producing "generations in song and using "her mouth as her mother and grandmothers used their wombs," creating in effect in the blues a "surrogate daughter who bears witness" to Corregidora's legacy (duCille, "Phallus(ies)" 568). The blues also allow Ursa to go through a process of reconciliation both for herself, by making "the necessary claims of kinship with her past" while achieving "a degree of separation from it," and with Mutt, by learning that "justice is not a blues solo of ambivalence or alienation, but a healing communication between reconciled lovers" (Tate, "Corregidora" 140; Lindemann 115; Dixon, Ride 110- 13, 116-17). Given the various functional roles the blues play in the novel, then, what seems most striking about the representation of the blues is that the "new world song" (59) that adequately captures the sufferings of the Corregidora women and allows Ursa to achieve for herself what Jones calls "whole and consummate being" is largely nondiscursive (Liberating 162). While the songs help Ursa "explain" what she "can't explain," the blues do this "without words, the explanation somewhere behind the words" (56, 66). The blues Jones represents in Corregidora, it seems to me, are functional not so much because they are expressive or communicative through verbal facility but because they are per- formative. "What's a life always spoken, and only spoken?" Ursa asks (103). For her, life is not to be cast into a discursive narrative form but to be lived, history not to be answered with another verbal construct but to be rendered suspect through an extravagant performance. The blues, for Jones, are performative because they are a cultural form generated less for reflection and more for change. The "internal strategy of the blues," she approvingly quotes Sherley Anne Williams, "is action, rather than contemplation," and, we may add, for Jones the mode of the blues appears to be performance not articulation (Liberating 71).
First, it is important to note that blues are work--in other words, not just expressive as a form of communication, but performative as labor. Jones makes a crucial point concerning the ways the blues operate in the social and economic arrangements of a nation whose primal labor arrangements are based on slavery. Blues singing as a career represents Ursa's financial independence from Mutt, who insists he married Ursa "so he could support" her (3). As a form of social production and means of gaining access to a salary providing her with economic autonomy, singing is Ursa's way of challenging the conditions produced by slavery, especially the processes through which black women's labor capacity was exploited and their sexuality commodified. The African American women in Corregidora realize that American culture provides twentieth-century women with few socioeconomic opportunities that don't replay that plantation dynamic. For them, prostitution, real or symbolic, is one of the few things "you can do to keep yo ur own hours" (30). Nobody understands this better than Cat Lawson, who most clearly sees the ways that the American labor market prostitutes black women who are either subject to sexual harassment as domestics or physical hazards as factory workers (29-30, 64-66, 17677). Because Ursa's career is singing the blues, her form of cultural production and thereby her form of contributing to the social and economic market, it is a talent providing her with an alternative to the dangers of factory labor and the frustrations of domestic labor, giving her a degree of freedom in controlling her labor and her body in a way that other women don't have.
But the blues in this novel do not simply free Ursa and leave other black women subject to the forces of American institutional life. What is most important in the blues, Jones argues, is that they contest primary ideological premises in the national narrative that make sex into commerce and black women's bodies into fungible items. In performing the blues, Ursa challenges the dominant racial formation and its inherent process of subjection inherited from slavery and rearticulated in contemporary social relations. Having shown that the enracing of black women largely occurred through the commodification of their sexuality and the coercion and control of their desires, Jones goes on to demonstrate how the performance of an unfettered sexuality and a liberated desire provides an answer to and a way of undoing the historical legacy of that enracing process. The blues performance gives Ursa what it had given black women singers historically--an opportunity to produce a "truer sexual self-image," explore the hist orical "black female sexual experience," and become the "primary subject of her own being." As several black feminist critics have noted, the classic women's blues singers of the '20s used their performances to contest the "objectification of female sexuality within a patriarchal order" and reclaim "women's bodies as the sexual and sensual subjects of women's songs" (Spillers 86-88; Carby 239, 241). Following in their footsteps, Ursa also uses her singing to reclaim her sexual subjectivity and express the range and breadth of her desire. In one particularly resonant moment, she uses the blues to resist the fetishistic way Mutt commodifies her sexuality when he talks about "his pussy" as the "center of a woman's being" by performing for him and informing him that "I sang to you out of my whole body" (46). Her desire, her sexuality, is not centralized and not subject to his control, his fetish, or his possession, and she informs him of this by performing with her whole body, not just singing with her voice.
It is in the final scene, though, that we see how the blues most explicitly contest the racial formation that emerged out of slavery and gets rearticulated by those who continue to commodify black women's sexuality. At the end of the novel, after the final scene in which Ursa alludes to the ideal of Palmares as a social space where black women and black men had positive, healthy relations, after both Mutt and Ursa re-enact but creatively deviate from an ancestral scene of enslavement, the two lovers "replace the ambiguity of language and the pain of violence with a direct exchange of feeling" as both characters sing" a blues song of reconciliation (Dixon, Ride 116). This song, the only time Ursa sings a duet, is about the connection among desire, sexuality, and racial identity. The final blues duet--in which Mutt claims," 'I don't want a kind of woman that hurt you,' "and Ursa responds," 'I don't want a kind of man that'll hurt me neither'" (185)--not only signals the beginning of reconciliation between Ursa and Mutt, but also raises questions about the historical source of desire (who "wants," how are we taught to want), the pain (the "hurt") of coupling both historically and in the present, and, most importantly, the dilemma of identity (what "kind" of man or woman a particular history and set of social circumstances produce for romantic coupling). In this blues duet about a "blues relationship" between a black women and a black man in 1969, the culminating moment in a final scene that had been insistently about the replaying of the past in a different measure, we see how performance, especially the blues performance that demonstrates the historical connection among desire, sexuality, and racialization, enables or at least promises the possibilities for undoing that racial formation.
The blues performance, like Palmares as a symbol of resistance, also promises the positive consequences of resisting and undoing that racial formation, for the blues performance is a cultural form that likewise provides a forum for the creation and sustenance of the same kind of healthy intersubjective relations produced by those familial narratives about slavery. Following the lead of Ralph Ellison, who noted the "feeling of communion" that emerges when the "spirit of the blues" is able to "evoke a shared community of experience" (244, 219, 245, 246), Jones argues that "the blues and blues vocabulary" of African American life produce, or can produce, a "unifying effect, which brings a sense of wholeness to the individual, not in solitude ... but in communion" (Liberating 49, 122, 53). As Jones asserts, the blues "pull together and assert identity (self and other) through clarification and playing back of experiences and meanings" (93). They are neither a process seeking a static end-product nor a form of co mmunication premised on the idea that what is communicated is some tangible thing, some identity which is complete. The "playing back" is the constant state of performance on which experience and the search for identity are premised; the fact that "self and other" are imbricated in this search tells us that the blues performance is capable of producing a state of "intersubjective" communion, providing a forum for the" 'I' voice of the blues" to merge with that of the ancestral "other," producing what Houston Baker calls the blues's "energizing intersubjectivity" (194, 5).
The blues performance, then, like the performance of history, challenges the codes and categories through which one can understand the experiences of the past and the politics of the present. The sexual and racial categories inherited from plantation culture can be contested through the blues because they offer a productive cultural' formation. Like the family narratives to which the blues are so closely aligned throughout Corregidora, the blues performance produces an enabling version of the past and reproduces a healthier set of resources for the reconstitution of the desiring subject, because the blues also follow the practice of the family narratives in contesting the representations of a desiring subject either utterly freed from or utterly imprisoned by the past. Both forms of oral narration and self-representation attest to the palimpsest imperative in Jones's work, the desire both to share the story of enslavement and to demonstrate the strong but not disempowering hold the slave past has on contempor ary social relations. In her most recent work-in-progress, Jones has made even more clear this palimpsest imperative by having her narrator (a fugitive slave living in a New World nunnery in 1637) "write [her] story" on an actual "palimpsest." The idea of having "new documents written over old ones," where sometimes the "old ones show through," makes clear at the level of the actual material text the symbolic nature of the documentation of the slave experience. The image of the palimpsest is a metaphor for the complexity of human identity defined through rational existence ("New reasons written over old ones, and sometimes the old ones showing through the new. And you never know how many layers of reasons there are"); for the multiplicity of writing subjects within a given text (a seventeenth-century fugitive slave writing her experiences over those of a sixth-century Spanish nun); but, most significantly for Jones and for the palimpsest novelists who follow her, it is a metaphor for the intricate ways that l ives and life-stories are inscribed on parchments through which the slave past always shows ("From The Machete Woman" 399, 402).
In the case of Corregidora, the palimpsest imperative serves Jones's intent of creating a work that challenges the nostalgia and amnesia Americans conventionally exhibit toward the past. Slavery is neither an unrelentingly series of horrors effected on unresistant victims, nor is the time before slavery ("the old country") or those places of respite from slavery (Palmares) spaces where patriarchal black men ruled over submissive black women. Slaves could be resistant and people of African descent could form relationships premised on parity and equality, freed from both the slavery of European masters and the master-slave dialectic that governs those social relations. But Jones also shows us that the master-slave dialectic is pervasive and enduring, how it occupies too central a place in contemporary social relationships, and how it still structures both inter-and intracultural intimacies. Jones's achievement, it seems to me, is to have reformulated the form of the palimpsest narrative in order to raise quest ions about the performative nature of identity, both for the individual who learns to tell stories of family and sing songs of desire in order to recognize but not become defeated by the brutality of the past, and for the community which Jones would have become more inclusive (dispensing with what she calls those "new strictures of exclusion") by undergoing an honest reassessment of those institutional forces that continue to exert power over social relations in contemporary America.
Ashraf H. A. Rushdy is Associate Professor of African American Studies and English at Wesleyan University and is the author of The Empty Garden: The Subject of Late Milton (1992) and Neo-Slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form (1999). The quotation in the title of this study is taken from Jones's "Fiction Study" in The Hermit-Woman (18).
(1.) The earliest critics of Corregidora studied how the book: (1) exhibits pan-African themes (Bell), Notes (2) allegedly represents black men in an unflattering way (Reckley, Barksdale), and (3) traces the ways disempowerment creates either victimization or significant sources of covert power (Ward, Byerman). Later critics discern how the novel: (1) deals with history by creating a counter-narrative (Coser), (2) shows the effects of history in the reproduction of trauma (Simon), (3) talks about the historical formation of the mother-daughter bond (Kubitschek), and, (4) in a related way, represents a tradition of matrilineal descent in African American women's writing (Pettis, Dubey, Lionett). The dominant trends in the critical work have been intent on showing how the novel is about the reclamation of identity through: (1) the singing of the blues (Kent; Tate, "Corregidora"; Harris), (2) the use of voice more generally (Dixon, "Singing"; Dixon, Ride), and (3) the reassessment of black women's sexual self-re presentations (Gottfried; Lindemann; duCille "Phallus(ies)"; Robinson).
(2.) For readings of the final scene, see duCille, "Phallus(ies)" 569; Pullin 201; Barksdale 156; Ward 99; Dixon, Ride 112; Byorman 180-81; and Lindemann 116.
(3.) Cf. Ward 99-100: "Ursa never rebels, never seeks alternatives, never breaks free of the constrictive role ordained by others."
(4.) I have focused primarily on Jones's representation of the ways the master-slave dialectic regulates heterosexual desire and how heterosexual coupling can become a form of resistance under particular conditions. A different reading might have equally emphasized the ways that the master-slave dynamic creates and controls homosexual desire and how lesbian coupling can be a way of undoing the patriarchal order. While Jones, I think, produces a more elusive statement on the matter of lesbian sexuality in general, she does trace the same kind of historical contour from Brazilian slavery with Corregidora's wife's sadistic sexual attraction for Gram to American emancipation and Ursa's various relationships with Jeffrene, Cat, and May Alice. Robinson provides a compelling reading of lesbian sexuality as subversive of a patriarchal sexual regime in a study comparing Corregidora to Jones's second novel, Eva's Man.
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|Author:||Rushdy, Ashraf H.A.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2000|
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