Reflecting on GayL Jones’ ‘CoRregidora’ and its excavation of transgenerational traumas on the body
For Ursa, losing her womb is the literal erasure of memory.
Editor’s Note: May is Mental Health Awareness Month and National Masturbation Month. This is also the month that we celebrate Mother’s Day. At BYP, we will be exploring these topics alongside the theme of Imagination and the Arts, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.
This essay contains discussions of reproductive and sexual violences, including r/pe and incestual abuse, and spoilers for GayL Jones’ CoRregidora
by Donnie Moreland
I feel that there has hardly been a literary excavation of post-slavery racial and gendered performance more critical than GayL Jones’ 1975 novel, CoRregidora. I believe that despite the depictions of historical and domestically relational horror, the novel is, first and foremost, about freedom. Freedom, not in the ways in which we understand reparation, but freeing the body from the transgenerational — that which spans generations — terror of historical atrocity.
Ursa, our titular lead, acts as a vehicle for which we can understand, not only the body’s relationship to sensation after trauma, but also the bodies relationship to sensation as a product of trauma. The womb and the vagina, here, are both evidence of generational subjugation, and it is through the very literal removal of the womb that Jones begs the question: When even the organs are soured with horror, how does one properly purge the body of its meaning, as that which has suffered?
How does one recover from injury which is done to both the body of a person as well as the persons from which that person is derived? Jones seeks resolve by offering up Ursa’s flesh for the audience to imagine where, and how, transgenerational terror poisons the body in an effort to renegotiate the rules of freedom with the knowledge that, as much as anything else genetic, pain is tightly threaded into our DNA.
Our first encounter with Ursa is after she’s been pushed down a flight of stairs by her drunkard husband, Mutt. This, after the two were involved in a domestic squabble (p.1):
I didn’t see him at first because he was standing back in the shadows behind the door. I didn’t see him till he grabbed me around my waist and I was struggling to get loose.
“I don’t like those mens messing with you,” he said.
“Don’t nobody mess with me.”
“Mess with they eyes.”
That was when I fell. The doctors in the hospital said my womb would have to come out.
Ursa, after this episode of agony, must reconcile with the meaning of her body absent the womb, and the generational call to “make generations.” Ursa is the descendant of CoRegidora, a brutal Brazilian slave owner, who rapes and impregnates both Ursa’s Great-Grandmother and Grandmother. This practice of intergenerational incest, quite literally, breeds a transgenerational trauma where the physiological informs the psychological.
The womb, as an organ, is corrupted, yes, but it is also evidence of that which has occured. For Ursa, losing her womb is the literal erasure of memory.
Christina Sharpe, author of Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects, refers to the womb as evidence, as a part of “Generational Genital Fantasy.” Sharpe asserts that, “Confronted with truths expunged from records and with truths not to questioned but to be reproduced, the older Corregidora women even years later and in a different country compel each other and their daughters to repeat and make visible their histories……..The history in question, however, is such that even in the event of written records one is compelled to remember and repeat.”
Not only is Ursa’s tie to the memory severed upon her hysterectomy, but now she can no longer produce the evidence of memory via the experiences of sexual violence corroborated from mother to offspring.
The vagina, in CoRregidora, prompts the reader to inquire the role of sex as mirror. How do our sexual organs, in the performance of sex and in the memory of sex, reflect back to us our desires, fears and fears associated with desire? Whether it is Mutt, her first husband, or Tadpole, her second husband, the primary conflict between Ursa and the male figures of the novel is sex. More specifically it is Ursa’s inability to give over, sexually, all of herself to her partners.
The men, both of whom she marries in contempt, abuse her for not emboldening their fantasies of the eternal virginal bride. Ursa’s vagina doesn’t, nor does the rest of her body, respond to stimulation, because she feels her sex, her vagina belongs to another man — CoRregidora.
Sexual fantasy, the sensations of the act, and CoRregidora’s incest and incestuous sexual desire, from which she would not exist without, are inseverable. Desire and the hatred of desire keep Ursa from experiencing sex outside of that which is performative, as mimicry of spousal behavior.
It is during a dream, in which Ursa is haunted by CoRregidora, that Ursa’s relationship with her vagina and the meaning of her vagina manifests in a manner not far removed from the aesthetics of body horror (p.77):
I dreamed that my belly was swollen and restless, and I lay without moving, gave birth without struggle, without feeling. But my eyes never turned to my feet. I never saw what squatted between my knees. But I felt the humming and beating of claws in my thighs. And I felt a stiff penis inside me.
“Those who have fucked their daughters would not hesitate to fuck their mothers.”
Who are you? Who have I born? His hair was like white wings, and we were both united at birth. Who are you?
“You don’t even know your own father?”
Your not my father. I never was one of your women.
“CoRregidora’s women. Yes you are.”
Ursa is confronting CoRregidora immediately after having sex with Tadpole. From this, we can argue that from she cannot conceive pleasure from sexual stimulation because of how affecting, and pervasive, the memory of her genetic history is to her sexual organs and orgasm.
Freedom, as imagined by GayL Jones
CoRregidora concludes, twenty years after Ursa’s hysterectomy, with a moment wherein Ursa, in the act of performing felacio on Mutt, finally reconciles what was negotiated between her and Mutt, her and her women, her and CoRregidora and her and her body, long before her birth. She does so by breaking the skin of Mutt’s penis, because by penetrating his flesh, she’s claiming something which belongs to her. Her ability to redefine herself, her organs, her sex and her life (p.184):
It had to be sexual, I was thinking……What is it a woman can do to a man that make him hate her so bad he want to kill her one minute and keep thinking about her and can’t keep her out of his head the next? In a split second I knew what it was, in a split second of hate and love, I knew what it was and I think he might have known too.
For Ursa and Mutt, this act changes the rules of desire between the two. Ursa, in command of the interplay between their bodies. Mutt reaching out his hands to her, much like he had done to harm her twenty years prior, but here all he can do is cry. His body, changed. Freed, for a moment, from the memories of the plantation, manifested in the sexual frailties of the Black Male relationship to that which is phallic, as that which bears imagined power.
With CoRregidora, GayL Jones writes in honor of the terrors which, quite literally, make us, because it is only when we re-contextualize our relationship to the horrors of our bloodline that we can come to healing.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.