- Making GenerationsGender, Reproduction, and the Afterlife of Slavery in Gayl Jones’s Corregidora
Everything said in the beginning must be said better than in the beginning.—Gayl Jones, Corregidora
In response to editor Charles H. Rowell’s question about why she incorporates the “Afro-Brazilian slave experience” into her 1975 neo-slave narrative, Corregidora, Gayl Jones declares: “I’d like to be able to deal with the whole American continent in my fiction—the whole Americas—and to write imaginatively of blacks anywhere/everywhere.”1 Although the novel is set in the southern United States from the mid-1940s to the 1960s, nineteenth-century Brazil punctuates the plot at every turn. The narrator, Ursa Corregidora, is a blues singer in Kentucky, where she was born and raised by her foremothers: Mama, Gram, and Great Gram. As Ursa’s recollection of the past reveals, Great Gram had been enslaved in Brazil, where she gave birth to her daughter, Gram. Ursa’s present context is shaped by the history of chattel slavery in both North and South America. The novel deals with a whole American continent mired in a New World order founded on enslaved women’s reproductive lives and labor.
Considering Jones’s hemispheric focus, taking into account nineteenth-century Brazil offers new ways to understand the novel. Ursa’s recollections consist primarily of Great Gram and Gram’s experiences of sexual violence under a Portuguese slave master named Corregidora. Ursa’s foremothers insist on “making generations” of specifically daughters who can carry on the memory of these experiences. The command to make generations thus rests upon reproduction. The law of partus sequitur vetrem, meaning “that which is brought forth follows the womb,” made slavery hereditary in both Brazil [End Page 1] and the US. Historian Jennifer L. Morgan emphasizes, “Women’s lives under slavery in the Americas always included the possibilities of their wombs.”2 In Brazil the law of partus was abolished prior to the abolition of slavery at large, changing the meaning of reproduction in the context of ongoing enslavement.
The characters’ preoccupation with making generations is embedded in the complicated legal system of nineteenth-century Brazil, which covers a period of gradual emancipation from 1871 to 1888. By analyzing this familial refrain in the novel alongside the 1871 Free Womb Law, which abolished partus prior to the abolition of slavery, I suggest that making generations attempts to counteract rather than perpetuate control over reproduction and redress past injury while unsettling assumptions of pastness in the whole Americas.
Importantly, Ursa undergoes a hysterectomy at the outset of the novel after a confrontation with her husband, Mutt Thomas, who disapproves of her singing the blues onstage. From Ursa’s fragmented memories while in recovery, we learn of “Old man Corregidora,” Great Gram’s slave master and both Gram and Mama’s father.3 I begin with an overview of how making generations has been interpreted as an oppressive narrative that tethers Ursa to Great Gram’s traumatic past and, in doing so, subjects her to Corregidora’s mastery despite the fact that she—like Gram and Mama—is not enslaved. According to this interpretation, Ursa’s hysterectomy creates the conditions of possibility for breaking a self-perpetuated cycle of reproductive control and instead taking hold of the blues as a liberatory alternative.
I then situate making generations within the context of gradual emancipation to consider the legal phenomena underlying a narrative that is at once familial and, as Christina Sharpe points out, profoundly historical.4 In Brazil emancipation was enacted through piecemeal reforms from 1871 until 1888, when the Golden Law fully abolished slavery. I explain how the Free Womb Law, the first of several gradual emancipation laws, preserved partus by recognizing the daughters of enslaved women in a strategic employment of gendered language. Even as the law abolished hereditary slavery and allowed enslaved women to claim maternal custody, its “womb-based logic” effectively held freeborn children in bondage by way of their mother’s status.5
My subsequent analysis of the novel reinterprets making generations as a way of counteracting the legal forces that perpetuate Corregidora’s mastery beyond the time of slavery. I...