3 / “The Important Thing Is Making Generations”: Reproduction and Blues Performance as Forms of Civil Rights Leadership in Gayl Jones’s Corregidora
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3 / “The Important Thing Is Making Generations”: Reproduction and Blues Performance as Forms of Civil Rights Leadership in Gayl Jones’s Corregidora People pay for what they do, and, still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply: by the lives they lead. —james baldwin, no name in the street Gayl Jones’s first novel Corregidora (1975), like Gaines’s Miss Pittman and Walker’s Meridian, provides a fruitful discursive space to call into question the tendency of exodus politics to idealize black male formal leadership and conceptualize civil rights as separate from black women’s gender and sexual rights. Whereas Miss Pittman and Meridian complicate how the politics of gender and sexuality masculinize civil rights leadership, Corregidora emphasizes how they reproduce discourses that privilege the enfranchisement of normative black subjects, and shows that the suppression of black women’s sexuality and the violation and exploitation of their bodies are civil rights issues that, when not conceptualized as such, undermine the civil rights and Black Power movements’ goals of empowering all black people. While Miss Pittman and Meridian foreground racial struggles that typically are thought of as “civil rights,” this historical referent is primarily implicit in Corregidora. Yet the long civil rights movement remains integral to Jones’s examination of black people’s enfranchisement in relation to black women’s gender and sexual rights. Corregidora, like many works that black women writers produced during the early 1970s, elucidates the paradoxical nature of civil rights and black power struggles that, while purporting to liberate all black people, do not champion the empowerment of black women and black gays and lesbians and ignore the cross-cutting political issues of black communities .1 As the civil rights historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has suggested in her examination of black women’s prominent roles in the 1963 March “the important thing is making generations”  /  91 on Washington for “jobs and freedom,” black women’s participation not only asserted their equality to men but, by also “helping to link race, class, gender, thus foreshadow[ed] both black feminism and the expansive movements that civil rights struggles set in motion.”2 Although Hall rightfully points out that the civil rights movement energized other freedom movements, the civil rights struggle itself foregrounded gender and sexuality alongside race. It did so, however, to restore the black heterosexual middle-class man, the normative black subject, to his putatively rightful position in the body politic and the black family. Corregidora, according to Toni Morrison, who at that time was the book’s editor at Random House, “changed the terms, the definitions of the whole enterprise ” by weaving together women’s rights, civil rights, and Black Power discourses in unprecedented ways.3 While Miss Pittman and Meridian elucidate how women and men might work as bridge leaders to empower black communities, Corregidora takes a decidedly different approach, emphasizing the need for black women themselves to collaborate as bridge leaders to resist patriarchal oppression. Jones’s historical framing, extending from the late 1800s under Brazilian slavery to the late 1960s in civil rights / Black Power Kentucky, situates Corregidora’s discussion of civil rights within a long civil rights history. Jones thereby interrogates not only what Calvin Hernton refers to as the “sexualization of racism,” which began under slavery, but also the “racialization of sexism” that subtends the contemporary moment.4 Analogizing the white slave owner and breeder, Old Man Corregidora, to the contemporary black men in the text, Jones characterizes patriarchy as a persistent threat to women, debunking any notion that black men’s political agendas necessarily benefit or consider the interests of black women. As Corregidora’s plot develops against the backdrop of the long civil rights and Black Power movements, it invokes ideologies central to each movement to call into question the masculinist and heteronormative logics that exodus politics perpetuates by excluding or otherwise disconnecting feminist concerns, problems, and issues from black people’s struggles for civil rights. It simultaneously troubles the related tendency to foreground patriarchal formal leadership as necessary for civil rights attainment. Corregidora further engages the politics of race, gender, and sexuality by examining the implications of black women’s exclusion from the women’s rights movement that is also expanding under second-wave feminism. Black women’s omission from much of second-wave feminist theory led black women to articulate how their intersecting experiences 92 / exodus politics of race, gender, class, and sexuality complicated the monolithic category of “woman...


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