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  • Gendered Narratives of Trauma and Revision in Gayl Jones’s Corregidora
  • Joanne Lipson Freed (bio)

In Gayl Jones’s novel Corregidora, the legacy of slavery’s sexual commodification and victimization is reproduced in the relationships between black men and women in the middle of the twentieth century. For the characters in Jones’s text, the past of slavery remains alive in the present in many ways, and the recurrence of this past exemplifies the process of traumatic repetition. Corregidora foregrounds the traumatic inheritance of women, but the ambiguous and less visible trauma of the novel’s men is also essential to understanding the visions of both past and future that the novel provides. Although the language of trauma illuminates the way that characters in the novel experience the past, its implicit gendering marginalizes men’s sexual victimization during slavery and the trauma that results from it. This component of men’s traumatic inheritance is essential to the model of revision and recovery that the novel ultimately offers. Indeed, although Corregidora demonstrates that the intrusive past of trauma can have devastating effects on individual lives, it also suggests that by blurring the lines between history and the present, trauma allows histories of oppression and victimization to be rewritten. Ursa and her husband Mutt are not doomed to repeat the past, but the future they create for themselves reflects, rather than transcends, the legacy of slavery’s gendered violence. Moreover, although Jones’s novel suggests that narration has the power to revise the past, it also makes clear the risks inherent in it: Those who witness traumatic narratives in Corregidora are often interpellated by them as either the victims of the perpetrators of violence and violation. By accounting for the gendered legacies that Jones’s characters inherit, readers can begin to understand what is at stake in their own act of witnessing.

In psychological terms, trauma is an acute and intensely painful experience, as well as the mental and emotional after-effects of that experience, which can completely refigure the trauma sufferer’s relationship with the surrounding world. One defining characteristic of trauma is the uncontrollable recurrence of events too horrible either to be fully experienced by the survivor at the time those events occur, or to be incorporated into his or her memory of the past. As Cathy Caruth explains, “the [traumatic] event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it” (Introduction 4; original emphasis). This uncontrollable resurgence of past pain is overcome only when the trauma sufferer is able to integrate the traumatic event into a narrative that he or she can control. Thus, as Bessel van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart describe, the ability to narrate the traumatic past as past becomes the hallmark of recovery: “[T]he story can be told, the person can look back at what happened; he has given it a place in his history, his autobiography, and thereby in the whole of his personality” (176). To the extent that traumatic recurrence defines the survivor’s experience of the present, however, the healing that ends the past’s intrusions can also be experienced as a failure to commemorate adequately the traumatizing event or a betrayal of the memory of other survivors and victims (Caruth, Preface vii). [End Page 409]

Extending this conception of individual trauma, we can understand suffering or violence inflicted on an entire community as giving rise to a collective trauma. As Kai Erikson suggests, collective or communal trauma entails not merely a community composed of individual trauma sufferers, but a community whose very nature is transformed as a consequence of the traumatic event. In such instances, “traumatic experiences work their way so thoroughly into the grain of the affected community that they come to supply its prevailing mood and temper, dominate its imagery and its sense of self, [and] govern the way its members relate to one another” (Erikson 190). Focusing in particular on the ways that slavery continues to structure the experiences of African Americans, Ron Eyerman extends the definition of collective trauma further by suggesting that it can be passed down from generation to...


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pp. 409-420
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