Unmaking Generations: On Gayl Jones's Corregidora and the Pastness of the Past.
There are, admittedly, excellent reasons to endorse these readings. In the second sentence of her master's thesis, titled "Toward an All-inclusive Structure," Jones declared: "I believe that verbal authenticity is crucial to the understanding of what people essentially are" (quoted in Clabough 2008, 3). She went on to call her major critical work Liberating Voices (1991) and to argue in it, as Casey Clabough puts it, for "the significance of the African oral tradition amid a backdrop of undeniable, though not always debilitating, European cultural hegemony" (5). (2) Viewed through this lens, the Corregidora women combat not the loss of history but the waning of its emotional authenticity, which looms whenever the only remaining accounts of events--irrespective of their historical accuracy or inaccuracy--are those written down and thus alienated from their origins in human bodies and voices. Moreover, Jones's making Ursa a blues singer suggests that any possibility of her transcending the imperative to breed, or at least of making it signify differently, must come through the transmutation of trauma into music--a transmutation cast not just as an individual process but also as an indication of the survival of the African diaspora itself. In Ashraf H. A. Rushdy's words, for instance, her blues singing is "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'" (2000,278 [C 59])." What do blues do for you?" Ursa asks herself at one point; when she replies, "It helps me to explain what I can't explain" (56), she encapsulates both the need to work through trauma and the impossibility of this work issuing forth as a narrative that can be mastered or concluded.
In this essay, I propose an alternative reading that has affinities both with work in queer theory and with recent critiques of the assumed political and ethical significance of historical continuity. Against both the claim of Ursas grandmother that "making generations" prevents the loss of history and the claim of many critics that Ursas blues affords an exemplary way not only to remember but also to redeem trauma, I argue that what is at stake in Corregidora--and what the novel struggles mightily, albeit ambivalently, to overcome--is what Stephen Best has recently called the desire to make the past present. Starting with the observation that "currently, it passes for an unassailable truth that the slave past provides a ready prism for apprehending the black political present," Best asks, "Why must we predicate having an ethical relation to the past on an assumed continuity between that past and our present and on the implicit consequence that to study that past is somehow to intervene in it? Through what process has it become possible to claim the lives and efforts of history s defeated as ours either to redeem or to redress?" (2012, 453, 454). Best argues that a great deal of contemporary criticism, instead of attempting to answer these questions, has unthinkingly fallen back on the over-quoted Faulknerian dictum, "The past is never dead. It's not even past" (Faulkner 1951,92). In the context of novels about slavery and its legacy, this amounts to conceptualizing the slave past as "not simply an object of experience or epistemology but the grounds of memory" (Best 2012, 460)--a process that reaches its apotheosis in Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) and in the widespread adoption of the term "rememory" not as a thematic internal to that novel but as a description of how the actual past manifests itself in the reading of African American literature. (3) The example of Corregidora, however, suggests that Best might have understated how literally the notion of rememory might be applied: a full twelve years before Morrison proposed the term, Jones's novel proffers--but adamantly struggles against--the hypothesis that we can "claim the lives and efforts of history's defeated as ours" if we are their biological descendants. By the same token, if the claiming of the past is meant to have ethical value beyond a mere personal identification, it requires the projection of a future--the literal begetting of children. Only with the guarantee of a biological future--and the unbroken chain of testimony that it entails--can the ethical significance of the past be maintained, can historical traumas be both remembered and redeemed.
Rememory, in other words, is not just a matter of deliberate cultural preservation, available to anyone who participates in common traditions or shares memories; it functions, rather like transubstantiation in Roman Catholic theology, as a literal embodiment of the past, a "representing" experienced by those who are biologically (and therefore, as it were, apostolically) legitimate. It is also implicated in what Lee Edelman has called "reproductive futurism" (2004, 3) not only in its insistence on biological continuity but also in its ethical-cum-political hope that such continuity betokens future redemption--as Ursa's mother puts it, one day Corregidora and his fellow slaveholders will face God's judgment. I argue, then, that what Ursa struggles to realize in Corregidora is precisely the pastness of the past, the possibility that the past need not determine the present, that her desires need not be subordinated to projects of justice and redemption. At the same time, I argue that this realization remains ambivalent in the novel because it is predicated on a kind of futurelessness--namely, Ursas infertility. In short, the novel's undoing of reproductive teleology invites a queer rejection of the claim that (in Edelman's words) "the biological fact of heterosexual procreation bestows the imprimatur of meaning-production on heterogenital relations." It presents this queer possibility, however, not as a joyous shattering of social and familial relations but as a conclusion slowly arrived at. Embracing this possibility--endorsed by the novel's own structural teleology but regarded more ambivalently by Ursa herself--means recognizing that there will be no justice (save perhaps God's) for Corregidoras crimes, no future for Corregidora's family.
I'll begin by asking just why the Corregidora women view the command to "make generations" as sacrosanct. Early in the novel, Ursa repeats Great Gram's justification to Mutt, her husband: "When they did away with slavery down there they burned all the slavery papers so it would be like they never had it" (C 9). Ursa first hears the story of Corregidoras violence at the age of five. When she asks, "You telling the truth, Great Gram?" she is slapped and rebuked: "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 be held against them. And I'm leaving evidence" (14). Initially, then, Ursa is told that making generations substitutes for documentary evidence that criminals have destroyed in order to escape punishment for their crimes. But this explanation is only plausible if making generations is meant to remember and avenge the personal victimizations of the Corregidora women themselves, not the atrocities of slavery writ large. The historical record, after all, affirms both that slavery existed in Brazil and that it was distinguished from slavery in other New World societies by forced prostitution on a massive scale--as distinct both from the widespread rape that masters inflicted on enslaved women and from socially recognized forms of interracial concubinage, such as placage (Rushdy 2000, 281). While the burning of official records might make it impossible for Corregidora's descendants to "prove" their victimizations in a court of law, this does not entail that without such documents, "it would be like they never had [slavery]."
Indeed, suggesting the degree to which historical forgetting is inextricable from historical remembering, Gram implies that slavery cannot be "forgotten" if one wishes to commemorate its abolition, and that the destruction of some historically significant objects necessarily entails the preservation and even fetishization of others: "And then they called Isabella, that was the princess, they started calling Isabella the Redempt'ress, you know, because she signed the paper with a jeweled pen" (C 78-79). "Forgetting" slavery is not in the offing in Corregidora, and it seems likely that the story begins in Brazil not because that context provides a more apt illustration of the persistence of slavery's traumas or of the desire to forget them, but because slavery was abolished in Brazil only in 1888, a full generation after the Thirteenth Amendment formally abolished it in the United States. A woman who is Ursa's age during the novel's present (1947-69) could more plausibly have had both a great-grandmother and a grandmother impregnated by a slaveholder, and could have heard their memories firsthand, if the story originates in Brazil--but even then, Great Gram's choosing to remain with Corregidora after the end of slavery there seems necessary to make the timeline fully credible.
Critics who sympathize with the project to make generations tend to cast it as a corrective to the omissions, whether deliberate or accidental, of official historiography and to hold up against these failures the authenticity of memory, transmitted orally. If this involves merely a claim that history itself depends on the prior existence of memory, then of course this is true, though that truth has been obscured by a tradition of scholarly writing that tends to pit memory and history against each other--or, in a more recent turn, to cast what Houston Baker calls "poetic intuition" (2016, 3) as something that perpetually renews both history and memory. (4) But the implicit stakes of this claim--that in the absence of orally transmitted memory and the bodies required to transmit it, justice can never be served--seem questionable. After all, Corregidora and all of his fellow slaveholders are long dead. When Irene, Ursa's mother, looks forward to their fate at the Last Judgment--"when the ground and the sky open up to ask them that question that's going to be ask" (C 41)--one wants to reply: but surely God doesn't need your evidence to convict them? Young Ursa may have no good reason to question the facts of what happened to Great Gram, but she is right to question their significance and the imperative to repeat them ad infinitum. Her suspicions are aroused both by the relentlessly formulaic nature of the repeated narratives and by the fact that Great Gram has withheld some crucial information from her descendants--above all, the reason why she initially chose to remain with Corregidora. As Ursa puts it, "Corregidora was easier than what she wouldn't tell me" (102).
If making generations will neither serve the purposes of justice nor ensure that history will not be lost, it at least--tautologically--perpetuates the family Family in the novel is figured both as biological continuity and as the unbroken transmission of memory; one without the other would spell its end. Moreover, the mystery of what Great Gram "wouldn't tell" Ursa foregrounds the problem of agency in relation to the perpetuation of the family. On the one hand, it's certainly true that while slavery required procreation, it had no use for families and indeed systematically worked to destroy familial bonds. To preserve the Corregidoras as a matriarchal family, in which fathers appear only as "breeders," might be read as the forging of a measure of agency within the narrow limits where it might be exercised. (5) Yet once slavery has ended, why does Great Gram choose to remain with Corregidora, and why does she not explain her decision to Ursa? And why does "making generations" thereafter require such close adherence to a script in which men are (or are presumed to be) racially mixed? One of Ursa's forebears--we're not told which--tells her, "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" (C 72). This strikingly mixed metaphor suggests a desire to make memories visible, a scar that can be perceived on the skin. But because blood is not ordinarily visible, it seems likely that "blood" refers to a skin tone that suggests an admixture of white ancestry and therefore a history of sexual coercion. As Robyn Wiegman might observe, the Corregidora women enforce the "visual knowledge regimes" (1995, 3) that ensure their stigmatization in a racist society.
Equally necessary to the continuation of the narrative is the begetting of female children. When Ursa asks Great Gram "if Grandmama had any brothers or sisters," she is given a "real hateful look" (C 61). Afterward, Irene tells her that Corregidora had also fathered male children with Great Gram and Gram and had sold them off, but when Ursa asks why, Irene responds, "Don't ask them that. The only reason I'm telling you is so you won't ask them." While it might be possible to read this as evidence that the loss of their sons is even more painful to Great Gram and Gram than the knowledge of the sufferings endured by their daughters, such a reading does not explain why Ursa must never ask this particular question, since Great Gram insists so stridently on her other victimizations at Corregidoras hands. Hostility to Ursa's question makes more sense if Gram and Great Gram have already internalized the notion that male children cannot "count" as members of the family, because they are unlikely to become prostitutes and thus to serve the specific purposes of the family's narrative. Such an explanation would also help to account for Irene's claim that immediately after Ursa's birth, "I knew they hated me then. Cause you come out all baldheaded.... They hated me, but then your hair start to sprout, and got real long. I used to put a little ribbon on your head so people would know you was a girl. People didn't know whether you was a boy or a girl" (117).
Making the past present, however, requires not just the reproduction of female children and the repetition of narratives of victimization but also, insofar as it is possible, the reenactment of those narratives. It's bad enough that younger members of the family cannot remember the entire history of victimization, and that even the feelings associated with what they do remember alter over time. As Gram puts it, "Naw, I don't remember when slavery was abolished, cause I was just being born then. Mama do, and sometime it seem like I do too.... But it's hard to always remember what you were feeling when you ain't feeling it exactly that way no more" (78-79). What's even worse is that the men necessary for making generations have no interest in playing Corregidora, and so managing them requires manipulation and entails obvious contempt. Though Irene conceives Ursa with Martin and later marries him, she emphatically tells Ursa she did not initially intend to become involved with Martin and had even thought dismissively of "making generations" because "I was never out looking for no man" (112). When Martin expresses interest in her, however, she immediately feels a desire for children, and even though she attributes it to having heard her family's narrative--"If Corregidora hadn't happened that part of my life never would have happened" (111)--she nevertheless perceives it not merely as an ethical demand but also as a biological one: "It was like my whole body wanted you, Ursa. Can you understand that?" (117).
Because he functions as Corregidora's avatar, it should not be surprising that Gram and Great Gram hate Martin. But, strikingly, their stated reason for hating him is that his skin is too black. Corregidora, we learn, always insisted that the enslaved women he kept as prostitutes only have sex with white men, and Gram and Great Gram make a point of frequently repeating this when Martin can overhear--"a black man wasn't nothing but a waste of pussy" (124)--as if to suggest that he is an inadequate fit for his role. In light of the Corregidora women's injunction to keep their "scar" as "visible as their blood," their dismissal of Martin seems clear: any offspring Martin fathered might be darker, might less visibly bear the "scar" of racial mixing, and thus might present less compelling evidence of Corregidoras crimes. The appearance of such children might not immediately suggest that sexual violation and slavery were implicated in their begetting.
When Martin eventually walks in on Gram naked and powdering her breasts--an encounter she may have contrived in order to provoke a crisis and remove him from Irene s life--she calls him a "nasty black bastard," and he calls her a "half-white heifer" (130), a confrontation that marks the effective end of the marriage. Irene later observes that Martin asks Gram and Great Gram "what I never had the nerve to ask.... How much was hate for Corregidora and how much was love" (131). The idea that they might have loved Corregidora even as they hated him makes sense given how insistently he is figured as the origin of familial identity. To love him--even while violently disavowing this love--is to love oneself. If any dissociation of these two loves is possible, such a process would begin exactly with Martin's question.
Ursas husband, Mutt, is also unwilling to play Corregidora, but by this point family history has made any sexual relationship based on mutual desire all but impossible, even though, wanting more than a mere a sperm donor (156), Ursa, unlike her mother, has unambiguous sexual desire for her husband. Understanding that to accede to the requirement to "make generations" would be to endorse what she calls the "slave-breeder's way of thinking," Mutt tells Ursa, "I ain't your slave neither" (160), but then proceeds to assert his ownership of her--referring repeatedly, for instance, to "my pussy" and suggesting that he might sell her off when she sings in public, exposing herself to male gazes--in ways that nonetheless echo Corregidora. Indeed, he comes to enjoy denying sex to Ursa when she desires it, concluding--not without reason--that sexual pleasure for her is inseparable from the possibility of propagation. Their marriage ends after Ursa either falls or is pushed down the stairs during an argument (the text here is ambiguous) and, as a result of her injuries, must undergo a hysterectomy. Later, in imagined conversations with Mutt, Ursa tells him, "It bothers me because I can't make generations.... It bothers me because I can't fuck.... It bothers me because I can't feel anything" (90), as if each statement were the necessary consequence of the preceding one. Notwithstanding Mutt's (imagined) response that "long as a woman got a hole, she can fuck" (100) and her discovery (perhaps over-determined in a novel of the 1970s) that during her subsequent, abortive marriage to Tadpole she experiences some intimations of sexual pleasure centered upon her clitoris and her anus, the novel does seem to bear out Tadpole's claim that immediately after the loss of her womb, Ursa can no longer achieve orgasm.
The temporal framing of the novel--we learn about Ursa's hysterectomy even before we hear of the Corregidora family's narrative-- poses the narrative as Ursa's attempt to come to terms with the fact that "making generations" is for her no longer possible. Many of the novel's most affectively charged passages, presented in italics, consist either of memories of Great Gram's and Gram's narratives or Ursa's imagined conversations with Mutt about the meaning of their relationship, but even though many of these suggest an immediacy between the past and the present--or at least of Ursa's need to work out the relationship between them--they vacillate between, on the one hand, apparent claims that the past determines the present both biologically and affectively and, on the other, laments that Ursa herself never wanted to perpetuate the Corregidora narrative. At one point, Ursa maintains, "I was made to touch my past at an early age. I found it on my mother's tiddies. In her milk" (77), suggesting that her role within the Corregidora family's narrative was determined virtually at birth; at another point, she protests that the story of her mother's marriage--and, indeed, her own--has been subordinated to Great Gram's and Gram's: "I would rather have sung [Irene's] memory if I'd had to sing any. What about my own?" (103). Clearly, Ursa wishes to define the scope of her own agency, though she must hear her mother's own account of her own relationship with her husband, which Ursa learns only belatedly, in order to realize that other possibilities exist beyond those represented by Great Gram and Gram.
If hearing Irene's story provides a catalyst for Ursa, it does not do so immediately. It is twenty-two years after Ursa and Mutt's separation that they meet again and, at the novel's end, begin an apparent reconciliation. Ursa performs fellatio on Mutt, having just realized "in a split second of love and hate" the secret that Great Gram has concealed from her--that she must have bitten Corregidora during the same act: "What is it a woman can do to a man that make him hate her so bad he won't [sic] to kill her one minute and keep thinking about her and can't get her out of his mind the next?" (184). Stephen Best evokes Faulkner as a presiding spirit of literary rememory, and we can see in the imaginative identification with the past that Quentin and Shreve perform in relation to Henry and Charles Bon, in Absalom, Absalom!, a precursor of Ursa's similar identification: "It was like I didn't know how much was me and Mutt and how much was Great Gram and Corregidora.... But was what Corregidora had done to her, to them, any 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?" (6) Yet here, instead of biting Mutt, Ursa pauses only long enough before he climaxes to say, "I could kill you." The final sentences of the novel suggest to most critics that their relationship has a future, that their mutual hostility is dissolving into a willingness not to hurt each other anymore:
He came and I swallowed. He leaned back, pulling me up by the shoulders.
"I don't want a kind of woman that hurt you," he said.
"Then you don't want me."
"I don't want a kind of woman that hurt you," he said.
"Then you don't want me."
"I don't want a kind of woman that hurt you," he said.
"Then you don't want me."
He shook me till I fell against him crying. "I don't want a kind of man that'll hurt me neither," I said.
He held me tight. (185)
The most optimistic readers can here apply Judith Butlers model of reiterated performativity, familiar from Gender Trouble (1990). The past is not dead, and Ursa is indeed repeating it, but in repeating it differently she has made space for more beneficent possibilities than existed before, even if the novel hesitates to affirm these possibilities unequivocally. As Rushdy puts it, "The solution ... is neither to accept nor to deny the strictures of the past but to flaunt them in a different kind of re-enactment that simultaneously accentuates the performed quality of desire, sexuality, and racial identity" (2000, 291-92). I concur that something like this seems to have been Jones's intention. But the more fundamental question, perhaps, is why such a breakthrough on Ursa's part has been possible.
The most obvious reason is that the possibility of making generations has now been removed. Divorced from the imperative to procreate, sexuality can now assume a wider variety of expressions--not just fellatio but also, perhaps, the lesbianism represented in the characters of Cat and Jeffy, which Ursa may now be in a position to view as less threatening. Although the novel portrays Jeffy's sexual advances toward Ursa as predatory--in keeping with a larger pattern in Jones's work that has led some critics to decry it as homophobic--Ursa proleptically suggests that the violence of her reaction both to Cat and to Jeffy sprang less from knee-jerk homophobia than from anxiety about how she might experience heterosexual intercourse after her hysterectomy: "It wasn't until years later that I realized it might have been because of my own fears, the things I'd thought about in the hospital, my own worries about what being with a man would be like again, and whether I really had the nerve to try" (C 48). (7) Indeed, Stella Setka has suggested that Ursa's singing and her performance of fellatio are thematically linked: "The sense of empowerment that she gains from artistic expression in turn enables her to move toward sexual healing in her intimate relationships, which she effectuates by shifting the site of her sexuality from her vagina to her mouth, a symbol of testimony, creation, and personal agency" (2014, 129-30).
To establish a link between nonprocreative sexuality and Ursa's singing is, of course, to return to the significance of the blues aesthetic. Undoubtedly, Jones situates her novel in an avowed blues tradition and intends for her readers to discern in Ursa's performance an empowering strategy for living with her traumas. In Liberating Voices, Jones provides a glossary of terms, and in the entry on "blues," she comments: "As writers from Douglass to Baldwin have noted, outsiders often hear only the surface sounds, the entertainment value, but not the 'deep song,' its ritual significance and wisdom" (1991, 195). (8) We know almost nothing about what occurs in the twenty-two years between Ursa's visit to Irene (during which she hears the story of Martin) and the reappearance of Mutt, but we do know that she has been working continuously at the Spider during that time (C 168), so we can presume her ongoing immersion in the blues' "ritual significance and wisdom." Moreover, well before this moment, the novel provides hints that Ursa s performance seems more authentic as a result of her sufferings; Max, the club owner, tells her, "You got a hard kind of voice.... You know, like callused hands. Strong and hard but gentle underneath. The kind of voice that can hurt you" (96).
I would like, however, to express a modest skepticism about whether the blues can bear such tremendous, even fetishistic power, about whether they can function as a form of Morrisonian "rememory," by which the past is made present again, yet somehow tragically redeemed. There remains an important difference, after all, between historical knowledge and aesthetic experience, however blended they might be in the experience of a given text or artifact, however self-consciously artists and critics might pursue such blurring. But my skepticism also reflects a resistance to notions of racial and cultural authenticity that lie in wait when such arguments are proposed--as, for instance, when Jones emphasizes that "outsiders" see the blues very differently than others-- and to the ostentatious piety that often accompanies them. Where Jeff Karem argues that "essentialism, a concept usually regarded as dead in contemporary cultural studies, has survived and is thriving, having gone incognito under the rubric 'authenticity'" (2004, 9), I suggest that Corregidora provides an exemplary case of how essentialism and even "race" itself seem incomprehensible without a covert appeal to the biological. Even racialized cultural expressions, such as the blues, gesture toward the notion that biological descent is the best if not the only guarantor of their continuing vitality. As Ursa puts it in one of her imagined conversations with Mutt, singing the blues is a response to a metaphorical insemination: "They squeezed Corregidora into me, and I sung back in return" (C 103). (9) It seems significant here that Irene, who tried to defy the demand to make generations but ultimately succumbed to what her "body" wanted, also distinguishes between producing the blues and consuming them: "Mama would say listening to the blues and singing them ain't the same. That's what she said when I asked her how come she didn't mind Grandmama's old blues records."
Is it possible, then, to render to the blues in Corregidora a measure of the power Jones attributes to them while still declining the virtually theological significance critics are primed to seek (a position perhaps analogous to Irene's claim that listening to and singing the blues are not the same)? Moreover, if singing the blues is still to be understood as a demand of the body (to which Irene was not immune), then can we at least grant some legitimacy to this dimension of the blues even as we question their claim to make the past present? It does seem clear that while "making generations" extends the cycle of prostitution and objectification into the future, the blues might well have beneficent psychic effects on Ursa and her listeners, perhaps constituting an alternative to biological continuity. Yet, importantly, Ursa's blues have no life beyond her and those who hear her singing: in Corregidora, reproducibility in music, no less than in human beings, seems necessarily tainted with the likelihood of traumatic repetition and of appropriation by sinister forces. Although the possibility that Ursa might have had a successful recording career is suggested in the novel first when Ursa tells Tadpole, "I coulda sung with Cab Calloway.... That time him and his band come out to Dixieland. He ask me to come up on stage with him, but I wouldn't do it" (C 81), the prospect of reproducing music seems troubling, as when a drunk man listening to Ursa sing proclaims, "Sinatra was the first one to call Ray Charles a genius.... And after that everybody called him a genius. They didn't call him a genius before that though. He was a genius but they didn't call him that. You know what I'm trying to tell you?" (169). Speaking of Billie Holiday, he suggests: "If you listen to those early records and then listen to that last one, you see what they done to her voice. They say she destroyed herself, but she didn't destroy herself. They destroyed her.... It's a sin and a shame" (170). Better, the text suggests, Ursa's obscurity in Lexington, Kentucky, than these fates of commercialization, appropriation, and destruction.
The queer critique of reproductive (and, ultimately, political) futurity suggests why the end of Corregidora might be read as a liberation from a burden imposed on Ursa by her forebears. And it also might help to illuminate why sexual pleasure in the text is frequently associated with violence. Ursa finds the violent, overbearing Mutt more desirable as a sexual partner than the solicitous Tadpole (who eventually despairs of satisfying Ursa and seeks his pleasures elsewhere), and Cat and Jeffy's relationship, full of violence and threats, stands as a challenge to those who want to identify lesbian relationships primarily with a nurturing mutuality. Perhaps this commingling of sexual pleasure and pain is itself an index of the novel's potential queerness, extending even to the possibility of sexual pleasure in the original relations with Corregidora himself (and thus to another possible reason why Great Gram initially remained with him after the abolition of slavery in Brazil). What might make such a queer reading troubling for some is precisely the degree to which African American politics and literary traditions have been conceived of as family matters. There are, however, signs of recent commerce between queer theory and African American critical work. Sharon Patricia Holland, for instance, has suggested that "since 'the family' has not only been the cornerstone of liberal ideology but also black community belonging, it is important to ask ... whether or not the preservation of the idea of the 'black' family is working for us" (2012, 6). And, arguing that we "might have to resist the impulse to redeem the past and instead rest content with the fact that our orientation toward it remains forever perverse, queer, askew" (2012,456), Best specifically "invites contemplation of the gains to be derived from extending the queer acknowledgment of nonrelationality between the past and the present to the racial case" (455). (10) Perhaps the ancestor of all of these arguments can be found in Edward Said's discussion of the turn from "filiation" (and therefore from the realms of "nature and of 'life'") to "affiliation" (and therefore "to culture and society" [1983,20])--and in his caution that this turn might not always be an unambiguous good, that too often affiliation "reproduces the filiative discipline supposedly transcended by the educational process" (21).
If Corregidora struggles to overcome the desire to make the past present, however, it is, again, an ambivalent struggle. Suffering from the imperative to make generations, Ursa might indeed appreciate being freed from it, even at significant cost. And my pivoting away from a hermeneutics of trauma, rememory, and primordial authenticity, toward a reading more alert to rupture, lack of resolution, and even futurelessness, certainly stands as one way of accounting for the power of Jones's novel. Yet the novel maintains mixed feelings about its own queerness, partly because, even though we see Ursa's apparent reconciliation with Mutt, we do not hear her own interpretation of its significance. There is, indeed, no future--no more generations and, after Ursa's own death, no more testimony to Corregidoras crimes. Nor will her blues survive her. The possibilities of desire and mutual fulfillment, toward which the novel gestures in its concluding sentences, are real but highly ephemeral.
We may like the idea of replacing terms that carry an implicitly essentialist charge, such as "family" and "race," with others that seem more about affiliation, constructedness, and the possibility of change--for instance, "culture," "tradition," "community," or "blues." But two significant difficulties persist across such an exchange of terms. On the one hand, in light of Edelman's brand of queerness, all of these terms appear suspect by virtue of their investment in continuity, in both a past and a future that may have little to do with desire in the present. On the other hand, those who remain committed to families, who value their biological reality and resist having it explained away, might well think that the price Ursa pays for her freedom from the imperative to breed is too high; they might also find it suspicious that Ursa does not herself voice such doubt. For several decades now, cultural criticism has granted a certain privilege to "the body," though always on the condition that it be understood not as "biological" but as thoroughly "cultural"--and therefore, at least theoretically, as unfixed in its meanings. Such a framing has, however, always been uneasy with the body's intractability, and with the limits its very materiality places on the transformative power of our desires. In this light, perhaps Corregidora's most immediate value lies in the starkness with which it poses the various dilemmas--racial, historical, and sexual--presented by that intractability. Perhaps a past that is truly past has no body at all. Perhaps the only way to be free of it is to unmake generations.
(1.) For examples of readings of Corregidora that draw upon trauma theory more generally, see Freed 2011, Griffiths 2006, and Setka 2014. A global emphasis on the African diaspora is evident throughout Jones's work but perhaps most foregrounded in her book-length narrative poem Song for Anninho (1981), published twelve years before Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic (1993).
(2.) It is, however, possible to overstate how much Jones emphasizes the orality of African and African American literatures in contradistinction to other traditions. In her postscript to Liberating Voices, written ten years after the chapters preceding it, Jones praises Henry Louis Gates, Houston A. Baker, Mary Helen Washington, Valerie Smith, Hortense Spillers, Hazel Carby, Abena P. B. Busia, and Deborah E. McDowell for their involvement in "this restoring of the voice" (1991, 192). Yet she also holds that "the problems of the freed voice apply not only to African American literature and criticism, but to all the world's literatures and criticisms." Jones s model of orality as a revitalizing response to the tyranny of rigid forms holds just as true for non-African and non-African American literary traditions, and she identifies Geoffrey Chaucer, Miguel Cervantes, Federico Garcia Lorca, Murasaki Shikibu, James Joyce, Mark Twain, and Margaret Laurence as exemplars (3-11).
(3.) In Beloved, "rememory" is Sethes coinage. As she explains it to Denver, "If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place--the picture of it--stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there in the world.... The picture is still there and what's more, if you go there--you who never was there--if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you waiting for you" (Morrison 1987, 36). Such a conception of rememory as history is indeed specifically literary, as Best argues: "Literariness is key here, for narrative and the act of reading together sustain the feeling of loss. It is a feeling that literature produces, not history, because literary texts, as intentional objects, possess silences and ellipses that are structural, whereas silence in nonliterary discourse is not always the sign of an intention" (2012, 461).
(4.) Paul Ricoeur puts it most succinctly: "We have nothing better than memory to guarantee that something has taken place before we call to mind a memory of it. Historiography itself, let us already say, will not succeed in setting aside the continually derided and continually reasserted conviction that the final referent of memory remains the past, whatever the pastness of the past may signify" (2004, 7). In his recent work on the notion of an "intuiting archive," Houston Baker associates "poetic intuition" with the work of Edouard Glissant and contrasts it to familiar modes of understanding history: "History's everyday use is to mold written self-defenses against the ever-beating sea of the repressions and suppressions of fractured memory. By contrast, Glissant valorizes the poetic intuition.... The problem with conceptualizing 'archive,' 'canon,' or 'history' in the strains of normal disciplinary practice of literary history is that in the absence of poetic intuition, one merely makes another deposit in history's consignments without troubling its fervid limitations and fissures" (2016, 3). I'm happy to agree that there are "limitations and fissures" in history, but does poetic intuition always necessarily "trouble" them--or, indeed, is this "troubling" always a beneficent or brave act, instead of (as it often appears) a reflex toward novelty or the product of a demand to keep the publication mills churning? Might it be that the need to go on producing new and different accounts of the past--and so extending our scholarly identities and projects into the future--is, like politics itself, yet another expression of Edelman's reproductive futurity?
(5.) Thematically, Hortense Spillers's influential article "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe" (1987) suggests itself here: the "matriarchal" descent of the Corregidora women is verifiable. But if the origin of the family is to be found in an original trauma, then the principle of biological continuity suggests that the trauma be reenacted: the paternity of Corregidora's daughters must be in some sense uncertain, illegitimate, aligned with or implicated in racial mixing and violence. If Morrison's Beloved provides the primary literary touchstone for rememory, it can be argued that Spillers s article provides an equivalent theoretical grounding. As Best puts it, "The history of the black Atlantic comes into existence only through loss and can in turn be sustained only through more tales of its loss" (2012, 458). From the perspective of Great Gram and Gram, it would seem that if these "tales of loss" can be anchored materially in verifiable biological descent, so much the better.
(6.) Compare a parallel passage in Absalom, Absalom!:
Shreve ceased. That is, for all the two of them, Shreve and Quentin, knew he had stopped, since for all the two of them knew he had never begun, since it did not matter (and possibly neither of them conscious of the distinction) which one had been doing the talking. So that now it was not two but four of them riding the two horses through the dark over the frozen December ruts of that Christmas eve: four of them and then just two--Charles-Shreve and Quentin-Henry. (Faulkner  1990, 275)
(7.) Ursa later imagines a conversation with Cat in which she seems to suggest that she had been afraid of clitoral pleasure and that this might have been part of the failure of her marriage to Tadpole: "Afraid only of what I'll become, because those times he didn't touch the clit, I couldn't feel anything" (C 89). See Jacobs 2014 for a useful summary of critical responses to Jones's alleged homophobia--and, in my view, a more productive reading of such moments in Corregidora.
(8.) Jones appears to allude here to the passage in Douglass's Narrative in which he speaks of "those rude and apparently incoherent songs" sung by his fellow slaves, to which he "trace[s his] first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery" (1845 , 290). Interestingly, however, Douglass's text seems in fact to contradict Jones's meaning. Douglass maintains, "I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension." Where Jones's formulation poses an understanding of slavery as a "rememory" accessible even to African Americans who are generations removed from it, Douglass seems to emphasize distance from the immediacy of the trauma as a necessary precondition for understanding it. It should also be noted, though, that some theorists have questioned whether the singing that Douglass speaks of should be identified with the blues; Amiri Baraka, for instance, insists, "The Blues is secular; it is also post-chattel slavery. The drumless African choir sound of the Sorrow Songs ... gives way to a sassier--actually 'more' African and more contemporary--American" (1991,102).
(9.) Walter Benn Michaels has argued that "there are no anti-essentialist accounts of identity" because "the essentialism inheres not in the description of the identity but in the attempt to derive the practices from the identity--we do this because we are this" (1995,181). Without necessarily accepting Michaels's claim so categorically, I do think it explains the logic of action in Corregidora quite precisely: we do this (make generations) because we are this (Corregidora s descendants). It seems to me an open question whether even queer theory escapes this logic. Edelman s alignment of queer desire with the death drive, for instance, would seem to augur a "refus[al of] identity or the absolute privilege of any goal" (2004, 22), yet even though he eventually arrives at the claim that the death drive renders us all in some sense "queer," we can still distinguish "queer" individuals by virtue of their embrace of negativity, in contrast to those who attempt to do things contrary to their own death drive but cannot ultimately succeed: "Defenders of futurity, buzzed by negating our negativity, are themselves, however unknowingly, its secret agents too, reacting, in the name of the future, in the name of humanity, in the name of life, to the threat of the death drive we figure with the violent rush of a jouissance, which only returns them, ironically, to the death drive in spite of themselves" (153). We do this because we are this, even when we don't want to do it.
(10.) On what Best calls the "queer acknowledgment of nonrelationality between the past and the present," see especially Heather Love's Feeling Backward (2009). To be sure, the question of just how much queer "identity" (a particularly problematic word in this context, since "queer" is so often taken to be anti-identitarian) can function as something like what Leo Bersani calls "an anticommunal model of connectedness" (1995, 127-28) does not seem altogether settled.
Thomas E Haddox is Lindsay Young professor and associate head of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he teaches courses in twentieth-century American literature, southern literature, religion and literature, and literary theory. He is author of Fears and Fascinations: Representing Catholicism in the American South and Hard Sayings: The Rhetoric of Christian Orthodoxy in Late Modern Fiction, and the coeditor, with Allen Dunn, of The Limits of Literary Historicism.
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Douglass, Frederick. (1845) 2000. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. In Slave Narratives, edited by William L. Andrews and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 267-368. New York: Library of America.
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--. 1951. Requiem for a Nun. New York: Random House.
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Griffiths, Jennifer. 2006. "Uncanny Spaces: Trauma, Cultural Memory, and the Female Body in Gayl Jones's Corregidora and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior." Studies in the Novel 38, no. 3: 353-70.
Holland, Sharon Patricia. 2012. The Erotic Life of Racism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Jacobs, Bethany. 2014. '"Woman Like You': Troubling Same-Sex Desire in Gayl Jones's Corregidora and Eva's Man" Callaloo 37, no. 5: 1196-213.
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--. 1991. Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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Morrison, Toni. 1987. Beloved. New York: Knopf.
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Setka, Stella. 2014. "Haunted by the Past: Traumatic Rememory and Black Feminism in Gayl Jones's Corregidora." Mosaic 47, no. 1:129-44.
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Wiegman, Robyn. 1995. American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender. Durham, NC: Duke University.
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|Author:||Haddox, Thomas F.|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2018|
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