Scar Tissue: The Painful Beauty of Gayl Jones’ Corregidora
“She got so she received all things with the stolidness of the earth which soaks up urine and perfume with the same indifference.” -Zora Neale Hurston
Gayl Jones’ confrontation of the nightmarish legacy of slavery in her protest novel, Corregidora, lends the reader added degrees of compassion, courage, and maturity–elements, scholar Cornel West deems necessary to expand democracy. It is a dubious notion to imagine Jones herself, with these lofty, but equally pragmatic thoughts in mind as she put pen to paper. More likely, she was thinking, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Taking on the legacy of slavery as a central theme in her novel, Jones makes personal what is too easily minimized as just another cold, hard fact in history books, and lectures. She achieves this humanization of history by focussing on family dynamics and love relationships, the place where we all–white, black, red, and yellow–play out, for better and worse, our genetic and cultural inheritance. Jones uses her “zoom lens” to provide a context for understanding and empathy, and therein lies the novel’s significant value. Particularly so, for our highly combustible, racially charged society.
Corregidora puts the reader in touch with an enigmatic American character. Arguably, there is no more enigmatic character in American life than the black woman. She is the embodiment of a double negative. She gets shit on for being black, then again for being a woman. She is largely powerless in a society fixated on power and wealth. She is the property of men, both white and black. She is beat on, cheated on, and ignored. Ursa Corregidora, the novel’s protagonist is one such woman. She is the victim of much suffering, certainly. Yet, she is more than that. Ursa is a truth teller. She is a vehicle for the truth, like the blues itself.
In the hands of a less gifted author, Corregidora would be merely a polemic, for Jones’ fearlessly exposes ugly truths that must be told, and told again, if our nation is to ever progress toward the advanced, enlightened society, we hold up as an ideal. Thankfully, the narrative’s engaging heroine, vernacular dialog, romantic plot line, and stream of consciousness sequences work to keep the reader entertained, thus lending credibility and palatability to the novel’s disturbing, hard to face themes.
Gayl Jones is clearly a character equally enigmatic to any of her literary creations. A look at this writer/personality may help us grasp what she is up to in the novel. Prominent social critic and Harvard professor, Cornel West, in his essay, “The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual,” speaks of four types of black intellectuals. The bourgeois model, the Marxist model, the Foucaultian model, and the insurgency model. Jones typifies the latter category, black intellectual as critical, organic catalyst. West pontificates, “prevailing Euro-American ÃŽregimes of truth,’ must be demystified, deconstructed, and decomposed in ways that enhance and enrich future black intellectual life.” (313) Gayl Jones is a up to the task. What West asks from black insurgent intellectuals seems to echo Gram and Great Gram’s demand for the “making of generations.” In other words, tell your story, or the master’s story stands.
Living with seething black rage is no picnic. Gayl Jones, who has a BA from Connecticut College and Ph.D. from Brown, resigned her faculty position at University of Michigan, with a letter to the university (a copy of which was sent to President Ronald Reagan), which said, “I reject your lying, racist shit.” This, at a time when Jones and her husband, Bob Higgings, who later took his wife’s name, fled to Paris to escape charges Ann Arbor police brought against him for allegedly making threats with a shotgun at an AIDS rally. Gayl Jones spent time in the ivory tower, but found it lacking. This lady is radical. A freedom fighter dressed up in provocative novelist’s clothing. Her work is her weapon of choice.
Jones has been likened to J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon for her reclusive ways. She refuses to talk on the telephone and communicates with her publisher via email, only. In 1998 Jones’ was admitted to a mental health facility after her husband killed himself in a police standoff in Lexington, Kentucky. That appears to be the last word on Jones. Whether or not she is out of the hospital and writing her next book is a mystery. And she is unlikely to make any announcements. No press releases are likely to be sent out and no book tours will be bringing her your way soon.
“Was your mama mulatto?” Mutt asked once. (59)
One of the great ironies of colorism is the lighter skinned one is, the more likely one is the product of violence. Mutt Thomas’ question is loaded. For, the tendency to find beauty in lighter shades of black is a well-known practice among African Americans. So, in some ways Ursa might be tempted to delight in her whiteness, as does Clare Kendry in Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing. But no. Lighter skin is also a living testimony to the fact that white men owned every part of their female slaves. Ursa is darker than her mama, because her father was black. Yet, her physical attractiveness is never in doubt.
Cornel West, in his essay, “Black Sexuality,” says, “White supremacist ideology is based first and foremost on the degradation of black bodies in order to control them.” (85) This practice lies at the core of the novel. Corregidora, the slave owner, exerts absolute control over the black bodies in his charge. His terrorism is personal, in that he “takes” the best looking slaves first, then it is complete, by turning all but his best women into whores for his friends and associates to enjoy.
Ursa’s answer to Mutt’s question is therefore no simple, nor laughing matter. That Ursa’s mama and Gram are mulatto occupies the surface of the novel. The psychological subtext is the heart of the book. What it means to be mulatto in Ursa’s case is the important thing and the premise for the story.
Corregidora’s opening passage depicts Mutt’s stupid act of jealous rage where he throws Ursa down a set of stairs, putting her in the hospital, where she loses her baby. A turbulent beginning, with all the painful echoes of abuses past. Mutt feels he has lost control. Ursa is her own woman, plus her role as blues singer puts her in the public eye. Eyes too often filled with lust. Mutt can not stand to have his woman “messed with” in such a manner. In Mutt’s effort to control the situation, he loses his cool and his wife in the process. Ursa and Mutt are hardly a shining example of black love. For, in his desire to control Ursa as an object, he forgets to respect her humanity, and is not much better than the misanthropic old man Corregidora.
Ursa’s rejection of Mutt is quickly followed by her acceptance of a new man, Tadpole. Tadpole is her employer. He takes care of her during her convalescence. And he keeps Mutt at arm’s length by banning him from Happy’s. Ursa’s friend, Cat warns her that she does not love Tadpole, whom she sees, correctly as it turns out, as just another dog of a man. Or, “a dick between the legs,” to use the parlance of the novel. Cat, the lesbian, has rejected men outright. There is nothing attractive there for her. But, for Ursa there is. Ursa has been programmed to make generations. Her destiny has been linked to that of a man’s by her mama, Gram, and Great Gram. The fact that she can no longer make generations, does not prevent her from needing a man. The phrase, “co-dependent” comes to mind here.
A central issue in the novel is Ursa’s frigidity. She can not please her man. This fact blows up in Ursa’s face when she catches Tadpole in bed with Vivian. She chases the tramp out of bed with borrowed words, “If you want something to fuck, I’ll give you my fist to fuck.” (87) But her raunchy tongue makes words only. Tadpole wounds her with, “She got more woman in her asshole than you got in your whole goddamn cunt.” (89) Not until the novel’s denouement does this affliction resolve, when Ursa gets back together with Mutt and performs oral sex for the first time.
Looking to the African American canon for a more perfect model of black love, some might choose to hold up Janie Starks and Tea Cake from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Yet, even there we find abuse as Tea Cake’s jealous nature parallels Tadpole’s.
“Still and all, jealousies arose now and then on both sides. When Mrs. Turner’s brother came and she brought him over to be introduced, Tea Cake had a brainstorm. Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relived that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss.” (147)
“That awful fear inside him” may provide a clue as to why black men beat and mistreat black women. Massuh could, and often did, kick husbands from their very own beds. Black men have that psychic scar to live with. Their love for their African Queens was not strong enough to protect them for the brutality of rape. Rape on a programmatic level. For, it was part of the program during slavery. “Degradation of black bodies,” as West says.
Ursa makes her living singing the blues. Hence, the blues is her literal means of support. But more importantly, it informs her soul. Charlie Parker’s famous admonition “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn,” helps explain the deepening of Ursa’s connection to the blues following her “accident.” But even before being scarred, Ursa command of the blues idiom is at the core of her being.
“When I first saw Mutt I was singing a song about a train tunnel. About this train going in the tunnel, but it didn’t seem like they was no end to the tunnel, and nobody knew when the train would get out, and then all of a sudden the tunnel tightened around the train like a fist.” (147)
Aside from the deft application of metaphor here, there is also a haunting peek into the complicated affairs of human sexuality. Not knowing when the train would get out of the tunnel, frankly, scares men, who often fear being swallowed whole by the power of female sexuality. Mutt knows this power all too well. He knows he’s spellbound and he knows other men can not help but fall victim to his woman’s bountiful charms.
Like other aspects of the story, the jazz/blues aesthetic is finely woven into the fabric of the novel. Ursa’s blues allow her artful expression of her woes. The release, or sharing, provides uplift for the artist and her listeners, alike. It is also important to note that Ursa makes the blues her coping mechanism. Mama, Gram, and Great Gram made generations. Ursa is unable to carry on the maternal tradition. So she gives birth to blues expressions. Nightly.
The Oral Tradition
One might approach Corregidora as a Survivor’s Guide–a field guide to surviving generations of institutional rape and incest. Naturally, the novel is much more complex and giving than something as mundane as a self-help book. Yet, there is no escaping the story’s value as scar tissue. Jones opens old wounds that never healed properly. That is the right thing to do. Open the wound. Reset the bone. Hope it heals correctly this time.
Cornel West in his essay, “The Ignoble Paradox of Modernity,” points out,
“The American government–the mouthpiece of the American people–has not yet ever acknowledged the impact of slavery on the present. It has erected no monuments, admitted no memory, made no reparations, accepted no responsibility for the lives lost, wasted and stunted by the ugly legacy symbolized by the Henrietta Marie. The dominant American tradition of myopic denial, evasion and avoidance of its root paradox still encourages us to turn our backs on the spirits of the Africans who suffered, unacknowledged, during and after the Middle Passage–and on the spirits of their descendants.” (53)
Jones effectively shatters this myopic denial. Corregidora is heroic testimony. A neo-slave narrative that pulls no punches. Jones can no doubt relate to her protagonist’s need to expunge her painful past. The Corregidora women’s striving to make generations is akin to the writer’s own need to expose the crimes and name the guilty. There is a mirror here, reflecting both Ursa and the author. Just as blues is a method for absorbing the pain and making something positive of it, so too is the art of storytelling. Jones uses the black vernacular like a blues riff to take back the night.
Corregidora is not an easy read. It is a book that provokes whilst it educates. Confrontational in nature, the novel lingers in the reader’s psyche, much in the way Ursa’s ill-begotten genes linger in hers. Social justice is a cause many artists have tackled. Many unsuccessfully, for art and politics, when mixed, can turn toxic in a hurry. The alchemy requires a master, and Gayl Jones rises to the occasion with Corregidora.
Cornel West’s social criticism, quoted liberally throughout, compliments Jones work, for her fiction achieves much of what he seeks from fellow black artists and intellectuals. Speaking on C-SPAN’s “Booknotes” program, West, in his own inimitable style, calls for a higher ideal in American life, one that may only be reached by applying Jonesian fearlessness and honesty to the situation.
“There is a connection between cultivating the art of living and fighting courageously for the expression of democracy. See the art of living is learning how to die, and what I mean by that is, is that if you’re really going to live life intensely, then something in you everyday ought to die–some bad habit, some prejudice, some faulty presupposition–so that you’re continually in a struggle to better yourself, become more mature, more compassionate, more courageous. And we need that compassion and courage and maturity to expand democracy, because in the end, that is still the best ideal that we fragmented, cracked vessels called human beings have been able to come up with.”
Amen, preacher man.
Eckhoff, Sally. “The Terrible Mystery of Gayl Jones.” Salon Feb. 1998. Accessed 28 April 01. http://www.salon.com/media/1998/02/.
Hurston, Zora Neal. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1937. Reissued by Perennial Classics, 1998.
Jones, Gayl. Corregidora. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975.
Larsen, Nella. Passing. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929. Reissued by Penguin Books, 1997.
West, Cornel. “Black Sexuality.” Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. 83-91.
West, Cornel. “Booknotes Transcript.” Booknotes (date unknown). Accessed 3 April 01. http://www.booknotes.org/transcripts/50555.htm.
West, Cornel. “Malcolm X and Black Rage.” Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. 95-105.
West, Cornel. “The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual.” The Cornel West Reader. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999. 302-315.
West, Cornel. “The Ignoble Paradox of Modernity.” The Cornel West Reader. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999. 51-54.
©2001 David Burn Some rights reserved