"Leaving Evidence": The Empowering and Oppressive Act of Remembering in Gayl Jones' Corregidora

This is one of those books that some would call "hard to read". But often, we forget that if it's hard to read, it's probably harder to live. For readers like myself who have the privilege of not having to live it, the difficulty and discomfort of entering into this story is no excuse not to.

I first read Corregidora in an African American Studies course during my freshman spring at Harvard, entitled 19th Century Female Slave Narratives and the 21st Century #MeToo Movement. I could go on forever about this book and its incredibly rich, complex portraits of human suffering and human resilience. But in this post, I'll discuss some ideas from Jones' novel that have stuck with me to this day, and how it makes me see the present in a new light.

The book closely follows Ursa Corregidora, a blues singer in late-1940s Kentucky, who navigates her own abusive relationships while carrying around a deep legacy of trauma and abuse. Her great grandmother was enslaved by a Portugese man with the last name Corregidora. We learn that Corregidora sexually abused and assaulted his slaves and that he fathered both Ursa's grandmother and her mother. This history is made inescapably salient in Ursa's life from a very young age, as the women in her family have taken upon themselves an imperative to use reproduction as a restorative vehicle for remembrance.

When Ursa is only five years old, her Great Gram reveals to her that after the abolition of slavery in Portugal, Corregidora burned all evidence of his owning, assaulting, and prostituting of the black women he enslaved. Great Gram explains, “They didn’t want to leave no evidence of what they done—so it couldn’t be held against them. And I’m leaving evidence. And you got to leave evidence too. And your children got to leave evidence. And when it come time to hold up the evidence, we got to have evidence to hold up. That’s why they burned all the papers, so there wouldn’t be no evidence to hold up against them” (11). The Corregidora women's effort to "leave evidence" through childbearing is a staunch attempt to resist erasure. And they reclaim their own bodies to do it—the very bodies which were previously used against them to perpetuate their own oppression (slaveowners literally profited from sexual assault and women's reproductive abilities).

The women even keep Corregidora's name, ensuring that his evils will not be forgotten but also, perhaps inadvertently, ensuring that his presence cannot be escaped. He lives on in and through these women, in both productive and destructive ways. The title of Jones' novel is ambiguous; it could be referring to the man, Corregidora, himself, or to the Corregidora women. Or, it could be referring to both at the same time, because to some extent, he has become inextricably part of these women. He still demands space in their bodies, identities, and everyday lives.

Thus, while Jones demonstrates importance of memory for Ursa's female ancestors, she also shows us the toll it takes on them. Through preserving the evidence of injustice, they also preserve the trauma of it. But in Corregidora, trauma doesn't just exist in memory; it is also born over and over again in the very act of remembering. Remembering can be an axe to old wounds but it can also hack at you all over again, creating fresh ones. Trauma both replicates and multiplies itself through the remembering, re-telling, and re-living of the past. It's strange how healing from injury can sometimes involve re-injury; though remembering for the Corregidora women is a powerful pathway to healing, it also does them considerable damage, emotionally, psychologically, and even physically.

The body can be both a consequence and a site of trauma—both evidence of past injuries and a playground for present ones.

Ursa struggles throughout the novel with an immense pressure to bear children. She is so influenced by the imperative by which her mother and grandmother have raised her to live that she sees Corregidora in almost all men. This is perhaps one of the things that keeps her—and the other Corregidora women—from finding romantic love.

Sometimes remembering is intentional. Sometimes it's unavoidable. Children, for instance, can be living reminders ("evidence") of sexual assault; some mothers may struggle to love a child that never ceases to remind them of what was taken from them. And for such children, themselves, trauma is inscribed in their bodies and lives in their blood (i.e. a New York Times article, Caroline Randall Williams asserts that she has "rape-colored skin"—that her own body is a confederate monument).

Thus, this idea of "evidence" often carries with it both the power of resistance and the harm of remembering. It's not a question of either or; it's a matter of both and (this was a phrase my professor from that African American studies class always used and that I now use to this day; I embrace it because it embraces contradiction and complexity, refusing to subscribe to binary understandings of the world).

But let's talk about this idea of "evidence" in a different context, not in 1940s Kentucky but in the 21st century.

I was listening to an episode of The Colour Code, a podcast about race in Canada, and the topic of discussion was microagressions. The hosts asked their guests—all women of colour—to give examples of microagressions they had personally experienced. One of the guests, a black Canadian woman, said that being asked to give an example of a microagression is, itself, an example of a microagression. She said there's often an implicit assumption that people of colour—Black women, in particular—will always be willing to share their personal trauma in public in order to enlighten the rest of us. There’s often little respect for their privacy or the potential trauma that the demand for evidence—the demand to remember—might induce. She aptly pointed out that we rarely see white people being asked to give examples of their privilege. Or of racism, for that matter.

This demand for evidence from people of color, particularly in historically white spaces, is not uncommon. A few years ago, at my high school (an old, New England prep school), there was this big, scandalous—or so it seemed, at the time—Facebook post in which a recent alumna had called out the school for its institutionalized racism and sexism. And somehow, this turned into a debate. About whether institutionalized racism and sexism existed at our school. People got into heated arguments and the conversations all seemed to keep coming back to that one, excruciating question:"where is the evidence?"

And of course, the burden fell upon students that might be the targets of said racism and/or sexism to prove that their own experiences were real. Many unbelieving students demanded visible evidence for a problem that is virtually invisible because it is so normalized and ingrained in culture. While preserving and presenting evidence can be empowering in many contexts, being asked to provide evidence of your own lived experience can be exhausting at best and traumatizing at worst.

I think there's a difference between declaring evidence when it is stolen from you and providing it when it is demanded from you. But often, both scenarios are at play at the same time. Because the same people who maintain and/or benefit from the systems which seek to deny your existence and erase the "evidence" of your oppression are often the same people who later come around asking you to prove something.

But back to Corregidora, what I return to at the end of the day is not a judgement of any one character's form of resistance. I don't try to discern whether these women were doing it "right" or not—whether the will to remember at all costs was net-beneficial or net-harmful. And even today, it's not a question about whether people of a certain group should leave/provide evidence or not. Some people will and some wont. Some will want to and some wont. People resist in different ways. For Ursa, it's singing that gets her through. The blues is her main avenue of resistance and of healing. Bearing children is her Great Gram's. What ultimately matters is not whether anyone chose the right kind of resistance, but that they chose resistance. Corregidora acknowledges that what we may traditionally think of as "resistance" isn't always dependent on physicality (i.e. literally fighting back) or scale (i.e. a massive revolution). Resistance can be creative. It can be individual. It comes down to a personal choice. It's crucial to remember that people made and continue to make that choice in all sorts of ways, especially those who we sometimes assume had and/or have little to no agency. And realizing this doesn't "restore" their humanity. It goes to show that their humanity was never gone to begin with.

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