Corregidora is a novel written by Gayl Jones. It was first published in 1975.
Jones's first novel, Corregidora (1975), anticipated the wave of novels exploring the connections between slavery and the African-American present. Its publication coincided with the peak of the Black Arts Movement and concepts of "Africanism." It was precursor to the Women's Renaissance of the 1980s, often identified by its acknowledgement of the multiplicity of African-American identities and renewed interest in history and slavery. Authors associated with the Black Women's Movement include Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, among others.
The novel moves across different geographic spaces, from Brazil, to a moment in St. Louis, but is predominantly set in Kentucky. Ursa Corregidora, the novel's protagonist, is a blues singer searching for "a song that would touch me, touch my life and theirs ... A song branded with the new world" (59). Ursa's search reflects her struggle to construct selfhood amidst the traumatic stories told by her great-grandmother and grandmother of their experiences at the hands of the Portuguese Brazilian slaveholder Simon Corregidora. Ursa's matrilineal line—great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother—make it their lives' purpose to keep alive the history of their abuse and torture, and by extension that of African slaves in the New World. From the age of five onward, Ursa inherits the duty to "make generations" that can testify to the brutal crimes of slavery. But the Corregidora women's obsession with the past burdens Ursa, who struggles, as a singer, to find her own purpose in life. Even as she attempts to do so, she herself is trapped in abusive relationships.
When Ursa and her husband Mutt get into a physical altercation regarding her refusal to stop singing, she falls (or is pushed) down a flight of stairs, loses her unborn baby, and has an emergency hysterectomy. The year is 1948. Unable to birth the generations necessary to pass down the Corregidora narrative, Ursa loses any fragile sense of self she previously had. She divorces Mutt, unwilling to forgive him for taking away her sole purpose in life, and attempts to heal under the watchful eyes of her friends Tadpole McCormick (owner of Happy's Café, where Ursa sings) and Catherine Lawson (bisexual hairstylist, who lives across the street from Happy's). Ursa moves in with Cat briefly after realizing her stay at Tad's is forcing romantic relations with him. However, at Cat's, Ursa receives unwanted sexual attention from a young girl Jeffy, who she realizes is Cat's lover. Confronted with their lesbianism, Ursa promptly returns to Tad's, and the two marry shortly thereafter. Yet, Ursa and Tad's marriage fails to be any different from the abusive, possessive relationship with Mutt. Ursa finds Tad in bed with another woman and moves out. Jones succinctly renders the destructive romantic relationships between Black men and women, a lingering effect of the patriarchal slave system where Black bodies were abused and consumed.
In order to heal, Ursa seeks out her mother's story, a tale overshadowed by Great Gram and Gram's experiences in Old Man Corregidora's plantation-brothel. Mama, similarly taught to associate sex with violence, has only slept with one man, Ursa's father Martin, on one occasion. Despite his willingness to marry her and move in with her, Mama was unable to reciprocate a romantic relationship and eventually caused Martin to hate her. Martin returned the humiliation he felt when Mama visited him after the birth of Ursa. After smacking Mama around, Martin ripped her clothes and made her walk through the streets like a "whore." Mama and Martin's relationship exemplifies what could happen to Ursa if she doesn't find a way to live her own life, rather than just rehearsing that of her foremothers. With this new knowledge, Ursa redoubles her efforts in blues singing and begins to heal. When she reunites with Mutt, 22 years after their divorce, the two attempt to reconcile. During an act of fellatio, Ursa decides not to repeat her great-grandmother's secret act in which she bit the penis of Old Man Corregidora. Critics have interpreted this ending very differently: some seeing Ursa's refusal to repeat the past a sign of a disruption of the obliterating cycle and indicative of her reconciliation with Mutt, while others argue Ursa fails to resist abusive heterosexual relationships and therefore becomes a passive, unrealized heroine.
Incest is a major theme in a novel, and a recurring trope in the works of other prominent African-American writers at the time, including: Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), Maya Angelou's (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), Alice Walker's (The Child Who Favored Daughter), and James Baldwin's (Just Above My Head). Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman, in her book Against the Closet: Identity, Political Longing, and Black Figuration, discusses incest as a "central trope through which black female identity and black familial dilemmas are figured in African American women's writing in the period after black Americans were purportedly granted equal rights before the law". In her close readings of late twentieth century African-American literary texts, Abdur-Rahman's argues that writing about the trope of incest in black women's literature illuminates the continuing impact of slavery on the formation of black families in the post-civil rights period. Abdur-Rahman sees the incest motif as a site to "critique society for its egregious neglect of black women and children." By focusing on the time period of the late twentieth century, when Corregidora was written, Abdur-Rahman reads the employment of the incest motif as a critique on the masculinity inherent in black nationalism and its impact on the formation of black families. She writes, "I argue that representing incest allows black American women writers to highlight he effects of civil rights retrenchment and the waning popularity of a largely masculinist black nationalist agenda on black families in the late twentieth century."
Throughout the novel, Ursa must navigate relationships of control over her body and sexuality imposed by different characters. Her relatives (Great-Gram, Gram and her mother) need her body to serve as a tool of procreation (make generation) and produce a child that represents material evidence of the horrors of incest and rape they experienced during slavery at the hands of Simon Corregidora. The rape and incest that occurs between Great Gram, Gram and Simon can be read as complicating the notions of love and hate, desire and danger. Similarly, Ursa's relationship with her husband Mutt also straddles the line between the two sentiments. Mutt seeks to restrict Ursa's sexuality only for his enjoyment and pushes her down the stairs at the beginning of the novel because of his jealousy at other men staring at her on-stage performance while she sings the Blues. Her second husband, Tad, seeks to engage with Ursa's sexuality in a normative manner that illustrates his ability to provide sexual pleasure for her, despite her hysterectomy and modified sexual desire. Jones complicates notions of sexuality by showing how desire can exist in undesirable circumstances. Or as Ursa sees it, "Two humps on the same camel? Yes. Hate and desire both riding them".
Sparse in language, relying on terse dialogue and haunting interior monologues, the novel stands in the naturalist tradition as it shows individuals fighting with historical forces beyond their control. However, the end of the novel justifies its status as a "blues" narrative exploring both the pain and the beauty of relationships by implying that psychological struggle and an unsparing confrontation of the past may lead to recovery.
When asked about the relationship between literate and oral traditions in Corregidora Jones said, "Ursa in Corregidora tells her own story in her own language and so does Eva in Eva's Man. I was interested in having their language do everything that anybody's language used as a literary language can do. But once after I gave a talk on Corregidora, a professor (I should say a white professor) expressed surprise that I didn't talk like Ursa. That my vocabulary wasn't like hers. The implication of course was that I was more "articulate," at least within an accepted linguistic tradition. So because of that and because of other things—other comments about my language in those books—I've been wondering about my own voice—my other voice(s) and how it (they) relate to the voices of those women. I trust those voices, but always with black writers there's the suspicion that they can't create language/voices as other writers can—that they can't invent a linguistic world in the same way."