How do you narrativize silence? Prose writers often neglect their silences, inserting them as off-beats during dialogue or as cast-off descriptors. But penning lines like “the room was silent” or “silence spread between us” hardly captures silence as a feeling, a fully loaded emotional state that communicates something indelible about a character’s internal or ideological makeup. More consequentially, silence can further signify a radical act of refusal. One novel that politicizes silence as potently as any in the English language is Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, a book that positions language as an apparatus of control and power, a weapon used to continue cycles of oppression. Corregidora, published in 1975, contends that silence—both literal and metaphorical—can create a future untainted by the past.
After reading Jones’s manuscript, Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random House, said that “no novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this.” Upon publication, Corregidora was lauded by the likes of James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and John Updike, and it’s easy to see why. The novel is a narrative lightning strike, a sparse but undeniable modernist masterwork. It tells the story of Ursa, an Afro-Brazilian blues singer who suffers a miscarriage and hysterectomy after her husband, Mutt Thomas, assaults her. Ursa’s resulting inability to “make generations”—a dictum her foremothers demanded of her since childhood—prompts a difficult reckoning. How can Ursa honor her family’s enslaved heritage while also unburdening herself of their traumas? How can she cement her individuality when the past plagues every iota of her life?
In Ursa’s family, storytelling and procreation protect against history’s erasure. Even as a child, Ursa’s great grandmother and grandmother expose her to the horrors of their enslavement, sparing no graphic detail. Old Man Corregidora, the “slave breeder and whoremonger” who raped, assaulted, and abused Great Gram and Gram, figures prominently in their rememberings. Despite their immense suffering, however, the Corregidora women do not fully lament their traumas; Ursa even senses a twisted nostalgia in her grandmothers’ stories. They repeat them ad infinitum, “as if the words repeated again and again cold be a substitute for memory, were somehow more than the memory.” When a young Ursa questions the validity of one of Great Gram’s stories, she is slapped and scolded. Our story is your story, Great Gram urges, our identity is your identity. This is why the Corregidora matriarchs insist that “you got to make generations”—to ensure that history doesn’t “burn . . . like it didn’t happen.” (These fears were warranted: after abolition in 1888, the Brazilian government destroyed the records of enslaved peoples and the unthinkable terrors they endured.)
But Ursa is neither narratively nor biologically able to bear her ancestors’ traumas. This truth is made apparent when Mutt assaults her early in the novel. After ordering her to stop singing at a local bar where men ogle and objectify her, Ursa explains to Mutt that she sings the blues “because it was something I had to do.” It’s a declaration of agency that runs counter to Mutt’s conception of marital ownership: “I’m your husband. You listen to me, not to them.” The fight escalates and Mutt pushes Ursa down a flight of stairs, leading to her hysterectomy. In the aftermath of this abuse, the novel’s literal and metaphorical silences gain a conjunctive clarity. Ursa is forced into silence after defending her independence and, consequently, suffers a genealogical silence. Her infertility not only silences her ability to reproduce but also silences the history of her foremothers. Ursa feels “as if something more than the womb had been taken out . . . Something I needed, but couldn’t give back. There’d be plenty I couldn’t give back now.”
Ensuing depictions of sex further function as a form of narrative silence. For Ursa, sexual pleasure and a woman’s autonomy cannot coexist. Sex is instead depicted as an often violent and painful tool designed solely for “making generations.” When Ursa moves in with her new lover, Tadpole, she thinks, “It wasn’t so much how much fucking I was going to do now . . . but the consequences of that fucking.” Without the possibility of having children, sex becomes an isolated performance separate from ancestral propagation. But because Great Gram and Gram’s sexual traumas remain inseparable from Ursa’s immediate experience, sex can never be purely erotic. Intercourse with Tadpole is thus rendered as a pleasureless blank space: “He was inside and I felt nothing. I wanted to feel, but I couldn’t.” What makes this observation so devastating is Ursa’s wanting; during sex she tries “to feel what I wasn’t feeling” and say “what he wanted me to say” but she cannot differentiate between her own sensations and the haunting presence of her grandmothers’.
No longer able to make generations, Ursa verbally silences herself to prevent the past from becoming present. Beyond the bedroom, her refusal infects all facets of her life. During a conversation with Cat, a close friend, Ursa abandons language and muzzles her internal monologue:
There was silence. She sat looking at me. I’d stopped looking at her again. I could feel her flutter as if she wanted to say something, but she didn’t. I wouldn’t make it easy. I waited.
Then she said finally, ‘You don’t know what it’s like to feel foolish all day in a white woman’s kitchen and then have to come home and feel foolish in the bed at night with your man . . . You don’t know what that means, do you?’
I said nothing . . . She was looking at me, expecting something. She wanted me to tell her that I knew what it was like, but I wouldn’t tell her.
Although Cat confuses Ursa’s silence with ignorance, her refusal here actually denotes an impressive ideological fortitude. She could, of course, express solidarity with Cat, but reenacting her or her grandmothers’ trauma would only further entrench the present with the past. And since losing her procreative ability can be considered a forced silence—just as history has attempted to force silence upon Ursa’s Blackness, femininity, and sexuality—she chooses narrative silence in a profound effort to reclaim and define the parameters of her own agency. By silencing the “past in my blood,” Ursa works to restore the autonomous, present-tense self that she’s long neglected.
Ursa’s silence can also be interpreted as a rejection of white victimization. As scholar Jennifer Cognard-Black writes, “The language of white record controls what is and what is not history, what is told and what is censored.” Interestingly, Corregidora offers few scenes or reflections that dramatize or even challenge whiteness. Critiques of racism and systemic othering creep into the novel in subtle and unsuspecting ways, usually finding form in the book’s Black men, Mutt and Tadpole.
Sharing his family history with Ursa, Tadpole reveals that his grandmother was a white orphan forced to marry her stepfather. Upon reflection, he argues that “there ain’t nothing you can do” to memorialize traumatic legacy. But by distancing himself from his ancestors’ transgressions, the novel suggests that Tadpole is destined to repeat the same mistakes as those before him. And so when Ursa walks in on him raping an underage girl, she chastises him for continuing the legacy of perverse patriarchal norms: “How do you know you a real man? . . . If you had to leave me for someone that ain’t even a real woman yet.” As such, Tadpole’s version of silence has a vastly different outcome than Ursa’s—disavowing (or silencing) his family history causes him to reproduce slavery’s ethos of sexual ownership.
Mutt also replicates the rhetoric of slave owners in his attempt to possess Ursa’s body. When Ursa expresses any semblance of independence, Mutt claims that she exclusively belongs to him: “When I screwed you last night and asked you whose ass it was, you said it was mine.” Yet, similar to Tadpole, Mutt represses his enslaved heritage, electing to pretend that his identity is somehow separate from his ancestors. In a rare disclosure of personal history, Mutt tells Ursa that his grandfather’s wife was, after abolition, exchanged for property. It’s ironic then that Mutt conflates marriage with proprietorship, a contract he believes necessitates violence and control. Clearly, Tadpole and Mutt’s silences exist in opposition to Ursa’s nonverbal refusal. Whereas the men deny their family history, Ursa’s silence neither denies nor confirms the atrocities of the past. She allows the ghosts of her foremothers to exist within her without letting them speak or act for her.
Of course, Ursa’s characterization is more complex than her silence initially indicates. She’s a blues singer, after all, someone who makes a living through auditory performance. W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote, in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, that blues music embeds within it “the voices of the past,” preserving generational history through oral tradition: “They that walked in darkness sang songs in the olden days—sorrow songs—for they were weary at heart.” Scholar Ruth A. Banes, however, differentiates between Ursa’s conception of blues music and the “sorrow songs” Du Bois speaks of: “Unlike the sorrow songs, which portray the shared oppression of the slave community, the blues portray idiosyncratic and specific experiences in the lives of individuals . . . love, infidelity, sex, and passion, as they occur in everyday situations and as they are altered by death, liquor, superstition, migration, natural disasters, and loneliness.” Therefore, Ursa’s blues singing can be understood as a way to both process her inherited trauma and to forge a new identity unburdened by this trauma.
Corregidora, however, does not position Ursa’s singing as a wholly redemptive act. Although she aches to sing songs that reflect her own individuality, she’s unable to create a song that isn’t also about her family history. While visiting her mother, Ursa sings a song she thinks is just about her before realizing that her music simultaneously speaks to something deep inside her mother: “[Ursa’s mother] listened, but it was the quiet kind of listening one has when they already know, or maybe just when it’s a song they’ve song themselves, but with different lyrics.” The novel repeatedly blurs the lines between past and present, showing how the words one utters—in song or in speech—are almost always linked to the past. Even in scenes where Ursa’s singing transports her into an ethereal, thoughtless realm, she inevitably submarines back into her grandmothers’ traumatic past. For example, when Cat houses Ursa after she’s released from the hospital, she asks Ursa to sing her a song. Cat then observes that Ursa’s “voice sounds a little strained, that’s all. But if I hadn’t heard you before . . . I’d still be moved. Maybe even more moved, because it sounds like you been through something.” Although Ursa refuses to use conventional language to convey the past, her singing gives shape to her scars.
Some scholars have interpreted Ursa’s singing as a valorization of voice, an empowering act that not only champions her personal agency but also represents the plight of her relatives who lived through slavery. This logic holds until one considers the crushing historical silence of Ursa’s artistry. While immensely talented, her career is spent performing to drunken and impoverished men in Kentucky dive bars. She does not record her music, nor does it appear that her career will ever branch out beyond Kentucky. And because she cannot make generations, Ursa’s voice will be lost to history.
Corregidora does end with a glimmer of hope, though. In the novel’s final pages, Ursa forgives Mutt and finds herself violently desiring him. “I could kill you,” she warns during sex. Pinning him to the bed, she experiences a dizzying disillusion of past and present: “I didn’t know how much was me and Mutt and how much was Great Gram and Corregidora.” One could reasonably interpret this scene as an unhealthy subversion of domestic violence, or as a toxic reenactment of traumatic legacy. Yet I can’t help but feel a freedom in Ursa’s actions. By embracing a rhetoric of silence, she has regained a sense of agency that allows her to both honor and compartmentalize the past. Trauma may be inescapable, but Ursa has temporarily transcended its dominance over her present. “I don’t want a kind of man that’ll hurt me,” she tells Mutt. And his response is beautiful, really, his actions saying more than words ever could: “He held me tight.”