Academic journal article MELUS

Witnessing to Heal the Self in Gayl Jones's Corregidora and Phyllis Alesia Perry's Stigmata

Academic journal article MELUS

Witnessing to Heal the Self in Gayl Jones's Corregidora and Phyllis Alesia Perry's Stigmata

Article excerpt

The past.., is a circle. If you walk long enough, you catch up with yourself.

--Phyllis Alesia Perry (117)

The wounded body is sacred in some deep level of its existence; it is a body specialized and formed by experience; in its new way of being present to the world, the wounded body gains something not possessed before.

--Dennis Patrick Slattery (7)

In many literary texts exploring the long-term memory of slavery, textualizing the body allows the pain of slavery to find a voice and a language. Gayl Jones's Corregidora (1975) and Phyllis Alesia Perry's Stigmata (1998) display the traumatic memory of racial slavery as an act remembered and encoded onto black female bodies. Jones's and Perry's particular expressions of physical and psychological pain simultaneously draw attention to the suffering individual who either inherits or directly lives through the trauma of slavery and to the actual experience of such pain. The black female bodies are positioned initially as the suffering center of a familial past rooted in slavery, yet what is more significant is that these narratives explore the ways in which these same bodies become something new. To repair their ruptured minds and bodies, the characters must enter an internal personal struggle that leads to a re-engagement with the external world in light of how their traumas shaped their identities and relationships inside and outside the familial circle. This process then allows these women to transmit their stories to another person, which is essential for integration of the traumatic past with the present self.

The body becomes essential to this integrative process of recuperation and healing from trauma. Therefore, any exploration of the representation and articulation of trauma must include a return to the body as more than the site of pain and fractured identity. Further, the body is not merely an instrument or animated canvas that the mind uses; rather, the body is essential to how the person is made present and expresses herself in the world. However, as Corregidora and Stigmata make evident, violent trauma damages the human being deeply, fracturing and dividing the significant relationship that operates between the body and mind. For healing to begin, there must be a revalorization of the flesh that recognizes and allows for a reunification of the body and mind, expressed through a language of the body. This begins with a recuperation of the direct relationship between the body and mind as it attends to the painful memories bound up in both. This also requires accepting the body in its new form--a form that carries scars in its flesh, just as the mind carries its own scars in the form of memories of violence.

The two female protagonists of Corregidora and Stigmata are the inheritors of a matrilineal legacy of slavery. Their ancestors' suffering from racial slavery radiates into the present for the twentieth-century women at the center of these texts. The familial memories of slavery come through the injured bodies, which consequently access a past that often exceeds language's ability to articulate such experiences of severe violation. Traumatic memories become quite literally encoded on the body, and, consequently, the wounds become the physical indication of a larger story where trauma's physical and psychological effects are felt and viewed on the skin. (1) Corregidora's Ursa Corregidora and Stigmata's Lizzie DuBose live with a familial legacy of violence, yet it is felt in ways that are real and present. The inheritance of trauma's physical, psychological, and historical consequences show how each protagonist's acceptance of her wounded past, evident in the body, functions as a catharsis that is both corporeal and psychological.

In these narratives, the personal and familial remembrances of violent histories collide. Jones and Perry articulate the black female body as a way of remembering and entering into the tragic past that their characters feel in real and tangible ways. …

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