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Book Review: Corregidora by Gayl Jones

Cover of the book Corregidora

Summary:
First published in 1975, this explores the adult life of Ursa Corregidora, a Black woman blues singer haunted by trauma – both intergenerational and the violent loss of her fertility. Her great-grandmother and grandmother both were enslaved by Corregidora – a Portuguese enslaver in Brazil. He raped both of them, meaning he was the father to all the Corregidora women until Ursa herself. Her female ancestors constantly told her the importance of keeping the truth of their suffering alive through telling the story down through the family. So what will happen to the story now that Ursa, an only child, can no longer have children of her own?

Review:
This made it to my to be read pile before the current surge in interest in the history of the blues, partially coming from the newly released movie The US vs. Billie Holiday. This book demonstrates how clearly the blues and the trauma inflicted on Black folks in the US are intertwined, with the blues granting an outlet for speaking on at least some of the suffering but also a source of Black joy.

I have seen some reviews talk about how this book is about Ursa’s anger. I strongly disagree. This book is about Ursa’s intergenerational and current trauma, but she is absolutely not, as the GoodReads summary states, “consumed by her hatred of the nineteenth-century slavemaster [Corregidora].” Ursa suffers from trauma and struggles to deal with this trauma, but she is not consumed by hatred. I dislike how this summary seems to place the blame for her suffering upon Ursa. Ursa is doing the best she can with a whole pile of trauma. She’s not perfect, but, in my opinion, this isn’t some cautionary tale about being consumed by hatred. It’s an eloquent depiction of the intergenerational trauma of slavery and racism.

It is so immediately understandable why Ursa’s whole world is rocked when she loses her fertility due to abuse at the hands of her husband. (This happens very early in the book and is not a spoiler). Not only does she have a drive to have children that many women have, but she also has the lifelong expectation that she will fight injustice and white supremacy by passing the true story of what happened to the women in her family down along to the next generation. How can she manage her life when it becomes impossible for her to fulfill that expectation?

This book is not just about fertility/infertility and intergenerational trauma but also about the blues. Why Ursa is so drawn to the blues and what she is willing to give up and fight for in order to continue to sing them. The balance of moving among these themes is handled very well.

There are also some difficult moments where we see that Ursa is homophobic. She has a female friend who engages in relationships with other women and Ursa is, at the very least, uncomfortable with this. However, I do not think the book is necessarily in agreement with Ursa. Time is spent discussing why two Black women might be empowered by loving each other. However, time is also dedicated to discussing how white women have also raped enslaved (and servant) Black women, and that memory is part of what makes Ursa so uncomfortable. It is not an easy topic, and there is also the additional layer that Ursa finds this out right after she’s lost her fertility and others are questioning whether she counts as a woman anymore due to this. I think this section is handled honestly but readers who are more sensitive to negative reactions to queerness should be aware of its presence in this book.

This book is an engaging, powerful, and in many ways, unexpected, read. While I think everyone could get something out of this, I specifically want to mention that if you’ve read the white women’s feminist classics of the 1960s and 1970s, you definitely need to pick this one up and diversify your perspective.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 192 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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