Black History Month: Corregidora by Gayl Jones

It’s Black History Month, so I’ve made a promise to myself to read as many Black authors as I can from as many heritages & cultures as I can manage in one month. Also, because I conveniently left “keeping up with the blog” out of my New Years resolution list, I’ve decided to make a Black History Month resolution to do just that.  First up, Corregidora by Gayl Jones

From the description of it (not to mention the tragic story of the author), you’d think Corregidora would be the second most depressing book you could read (the first, of course, being Push, Sapphire’s tale of wiley-coyote-ish-ly unrelenting misery ). But the story is told too beautifully, the narrative form too unique and fluid for this to be a masochistic read. And ultimately the heart of the story is that we are all walking around so hurt and broken and selfish – all of us, every single last one of us; and, well, maybe that’s why we all need each other so much.

With a soulful fluidity, Gayl Jones relays the story of blues singer Ursa Corregidora and the battles she must wage with the ghosts of her ancestors, the men who love and hurt her, and the children she can never have. Through this antagonistic arrangement of her past, present, and future, we are presented with a “trapped” Ursa. The movement of the story is almost nil, a good chunk of the story taking place with a bed-ridden Ursa living in an apartment above the bar she sings in.  Yet the form of the time-jumping, stream-of-consciouness narrative gives the sense of intense movement, almost like a wave of water that takes sudden sharp turns as it crests. Or actually, now that I’m on the wave metaphor, it is very much like our character is caught in an unrelenting undertow – unsure of which direction she is going, yet undeniably moving … violently, in several directions, all at once.

Ursa is descended from a line of women who were all born to the same man, Corregidora, who raped and pimped many of his female slaves. She grapples with the consequences of this, including the light skin color that makes her attractive to many men.

The legacy of slavery, colorism in and outside of Black communities, and Black sexuality are undeniable themes of the book, but these themes as Jones presents them, and like the legacy of slavery itself, do not limit the story’s relevance to Black Americans.

Ursa/Jones says it best: “Shit, we’re all consequences of something. Stained with another’s past as well as our own. Their past in my blood. I’m a blood.”

Jones writes about Black women and men, and about slavery and the blues and sexuality, but this book is exemplary of the tragedy of the ethnonym-ization of novels written by authors of color, because to call it an African American novel would be to deny that it speaks overwhelmingly to Americans, Black or otherwise. It is a rarity, I’d argue especially in a lot of contemporary literature, to find stories that are so encompassingly true and transcendent. Sure Ursa’s story is very particular to her and her family, but there is no doubt that we all feel as Ursa does, constantly tangled in the past, present, and future of our lives, and this is the beat-you-over-the-head point of the novel.

To make it even more keenly human, Jones presents the story entirely from Ursa’s point of view, without any of those cheap author cut-ins to show us how the other “side” characters are feeling or thinking. In other words, with the same blindness and ignorance that any individual approaches any other with. The narrative form is so successful as to make us forget there is an author at all. Nonetheless with a reader’s privileged distance from Ursa’s painful entanglement, and with Jones’ deft dialogue writing, we are pointed to the same hurt and fear and selfishness that inflicts all of the characters.

Also, I should point out, it’s not exactly PG-13.  It’s a heavy, explicit read, so you might want to check it out post-Valentine’s day…

(full disclosure: I’m not uninterested in the press that published this work)

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