Friday, October 26, 2012

Reading Gayl Jones Corregidora: The Body Text

[By Goyland Williams]

The Corregidora women are haunted. The trauma is evident. Entrenched in a narrative marred by the legacy of slavery, oppression, and the ghost of the past, Gayl Jones explores what Susan Sontag calls “collective instruction” of traumatic narratives that are inscribed upon the flesh of the Corregidora women. Lines become blurred. The personal, familial, and collective remembrances of violent histories collide. In her novel, Jones creates a family legacy of remembering such trauma through passing down stories of terror and horror to future generations. In this moment, remembering and witnessing are kept to make visible both the scars and the blood.
Ursa, the novel’s main protagonist is offered up as a model for dealing with and bearing the existential burden that more often than not, scars and even damages the faint of heart. Beginning at the young age of five, Ursa’s Great Gram and Gram began sharing their experiences as enslaved prostitutes owned by the Portuguese slave owner Corregidora. She vividly and unflinchingly recalls her Grams advice to keep visible both the scars and the blood in order to “keep what we need to bear witness” (Jones 72). Bodies remember. The repetition of the family story of enslavement cannot be erased or burned out; it is deeply marked into the seared, ripped-apart, and divided flesh. While histories may be sanitized and purified, the Corregidora women brings forth their bodies as witness to the trauma, and thus relives it through the repetition. 

Ultimately, it is Ursa who must contend with the past of her female matriarchs encounter with sexual and physical slavery. It is she who must salvage their stories from silence. The passing down of stories is a vow that the women take through biological perpetuation and storytelling of the past. Afterall, “they can burn the papers but they can’t burn conscious, Ursa” (22).  What Ursa knew and the Corregidora women by extension, is that while Western culture privileges the written texts, there exists a community of people (black) who didn’t have access to systematic texts. Bodies are texts. They are deeply inscribed with narratives that are marked up on the flesh. Bodies can be read. Ursa’s own flesh is indication that even if texts are burned, the body exists as proof of those painful memories. 

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