In Search of the Blue Lotus: A Feminist Counter-Narrative to the Dominant Hegemonic Discourse

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The structure of Classic Blues consolidates the traditional form of the first nineteenth century Southern blues, which explains why the adjective "Classic" is employed to refer this musical style. Its structure is defined by the use of various stanzas, formed by three lines each; the second line is a repetition of the first, and the third is a conclusion that rhymes with the previous lines.

This model admits variations but the main features are repetition and call and response, established by the pattern AAB and by the interaction between the singer and the audience. In the decade of success of this music genre, singers such as Bessie Smith, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Sippie Wallace, Alberta Hunter, and Ida Cox created a musical repertoire that voiced a proto-feminist and social consciousness, proving that protest could also be oral. These singers became icons for other working -class black women for raising their voices against social injustices, portraying sexual taboos-including homosexuality-and breaking with the limits of social conventions.

In order to avoid scandal and subversion, the recording companies exercised very rigid control over the songs that were recorded. To counteract this censorship, singers usually employed a metaphorical language charged with symbolism. Although the heyday of Classic Blues was relatively brief the decline started with the economic crash , its cultural legacy, as I argue in this essay, has been truly significant. Despite the richness of Classic Blues and its sociocultural relevance, however, music historians-mainly male-have either ignored the contribution of the above-mentioned singers, or have only made cursory references to them.

Barbara Christian acknowledges that "the genuine poetry of the black woman appeared not in literature but in the lyrics of blues singers like Bessie Smith" I explore the suggestive relationship between blues and literature in my analysis of Gayl Jones's literature.

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In her first novel, Gayl Jones depicts a complex representation of slavery through four generations of women: Great Gram, Gram, Mama, and Ursa. The recollected story of the family begins on a Brazilian coffee plantation during the nineteenth century, whose owner, the Portuguese slaveholder Simon Corregidora, systematically raped two generations of women: "Corregidora fathered my grandmamma and my mama too" The legacy of sexual and physical abusive brings about inevitable traumas that Ursa, the youngest of the lineage, will have to confront.

She will also have to find a place in the family's story as well as in her own. Keeping in mind the mission of her female ancestors-to leave evidence of the atrocities perpetrated during slavery-, Ursa is shaped by a deeply fraught and contradictory psychological trajectory: "What my mama always told is Ursa, you got to make generations. Something I've always grown up with" The family's obsession to maintain proof that reveals how they were sexually abused and subjugated, is directly connected to Brazilian slave history. For Simon Corregidora, Great Gram's sex is "a gold piece," whose selling he finds quite profitable In terms of the socially constructed stereotypes associated with black womanhood, it is the dominant white society that over two centuries of slavery produced this cultural imaginary.

On the one hand, there is the image of the black asexual and submissive woman mammy , who took care of the white families' children, and on the other, the myth of the hypersexual woman Jezebel. A fact that is repeated as a refrain throughout Jones's novel is how all the traces that could validate the long era of abusive power inequalities and the dehumanization of African descendants were systematically eliminated after abolition.

This is a direct reference to the burning of all the slave-trade documents that the Brazilian Minister of Finances, Rui Barbosa, ordered in Coser, Bridging the Americas Ursa recalls this historical episode through a conversation she had with Great Gram when she was five years old:. Because they didn't want to leave no evidence of what they done-so it couldn't be held against them. And I'm leaving evidence. And you got to leave evidence too. And your children got to leave evidence. And when it comes time to hold up evidence, we got to have evidence to hold up.

That's why they burned all the papers, so there wouldn't be no evidence to hold up against them. From childhood, Ursa is constantly reminded about the family's mission of engendering testimonies that will be able to retell the atrocities suffered under bondage, in order to counter historical erasure. Later in the novel, her mother will repeat the same refrain: " They burned all the documents, Ursa, but they didn't burn what they put in their minds " 72, emphasis in the original ; "Anyway, they ain't nothing you can do when they tear the pages out of the book and they ain't no record of it.

They probably burn the pages" The novel begins in in Kentucky USA , with a passage that dramatizes how Ursa's husband Mutt, in a fit of jealousy, pushes her down the stairs after she finishes her daily blues show.

Tracing the path of her blue lotus

As a consequence of the fall, she suffers a miscarriage, followed by a hysterectomy that leaves her sterile at the age of twentyfive. From the outset of the novel, the parallelisms and divergences between the roles and the stories of the Corregidora women and Ursa are established. In this respect, the latter's sterility forces her to find a different way to represent and engender testimony, a means of expression in which the blues will play a crucial role.

Ralph Ellison eloquently described the connection between blues music and the act of remembering:. The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.

Shadow and Act The tragic lyricism infused in Ursa's memories, any time she recalls the cruel violence and sadism inflicted on the Corregidora women under slavery, is directly related to Ellison's definition of the blues. This development reflects, in a symbolic manner, the complexity entailed in the construction of one's identity after a history of abuse suffered at the hands of white society, as well as within the black community. In this sense, the literature of the s generation of female writers gives voice to an issue that was very much silenced until then: sexism within the black community.

These authors rebel against the chauvinist attitude of the s Black Arts Movement ideologues, primarily male, "because when they said black, they meant black men" Christian, New Black Feminism Hence, black women writers contested the gendered definition of the word "black" in the nationalistic discourse promoted during the previous decade. Ursa, like her female Corregidora predecessors, endures patriarchal domination in the form of the aggressiveness and jealousy of her first husband Mutt , and of her second partner, Tadpole.

But Jones surpasses victimization, delving into the consequences of bondage in Ursa's present life; the singer's performance of the blues will allow her to forge her own identity and to help her overcome the traumas caused by longterm dysfunctional relationships with men.

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Blues, the cultural creation that immediately follows Abolition, acquires at once symbolic connotations:. The blues gave musical expression to the new social and sexual realities encountered by African Americans as free women and men [ The birth of the blues was aesthetic evidence of the new psychosocial realities within the black population. Davis Jones's text reveals this new psychological reality, described by Davis, in a very complex manner that avoids presenting a monolithic idea of female identity and black culture.

The paradoxical situations depicted and the hostility of Ursa's circumstances could be compared to the harsh lives of Classic Blues singers, whose biographies are essential for an understanding of the social context and their cultural impact.

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From the first paragraph of the novel, the protagonist underlines the vital function that blues plays for her: "I said I didn't just sing to be supported. I said I sang because it was something I had to do, but he never would understand that" 3. The black intellectual Houston A. Baker, Jr.

Being now sterile, Ursa literally conceives blues as a womb that performs the function of engendering history. Until then, the wombs of Corregidora women were like "archives" Coser, Bridging the Americas that rendered the memories of oppression. Ursa's identity as a woman and as a singer is tightly linked together.

In the novel, there are frequent allusions to the process of creating a new voice that conveys her story and her family's. The first appears when she sings to her friend Cat, while she is still recovering from the accident Mutt provoked: "it sounds like you've been through something.

Before it was beautiful too, but you sound like you been through more now" Then, Cat compares Ursa's voice to Ma Rainey's: "Like Ma, for instance, after all the alcohol and men, the strain made it better because you could tell what she'd been through. You could hear what she's been through" After this assertion, Ursa reflects on the meaning of her new voice: "Stained with another's past as well as our own.

Their past in my blood. I'm a blood" From that moment, the singer becomes aware of the connection between her singing and the history of oppression of her ancestors. She realizes that her voice, like her last name, carries a whole family legacy. Afterwards, she finally connects her sterility with the blues and with her new voice, which now sounds more mature: "No seeds.

Is that what snaps away my music, a harp string broken, guitar string, string of my banjo belly. Strain in my voice" Through the use of the word "strain" to refer to her new voice, Ursa is connecting it to Ma Rainey's, whose "strain" made the voice better and more experienced. When she takes up professional singing, Ursa emphasizes the alterations in her voice: "I started singing about trouble in my mind. Still the new voice. The one Cat said you could hear what I'd been through in" As the plot unfolds, the blues soloist will become more aware of her new voice's power, which matures as she does.

Tired of her second partner's possessive attitude, she abandons him and starts singing at a different music club, The Spider, where her voice continues to develop in a notable fashion. The owner of the club admits: "You got a hard kind of voice[ Something powerful about you" The changes that Ursa steadily introduces in her life gradually break with the spiral of oppression, infusing different nuances to the blues she sings.

She succeeds in not only articulating the family epic, but also in creating an alternative to submission.

Ursa ultimately intends to compose a song that expresses all the "suppressed hysteria" that the family carried as a burden from generation to generation:. I wanted a song that would touch me, touch my life and theirs. A Portuguese song, but not a Portuguese song. A song branded with the new world. I thought of the girl who had to sleep with her master and mistress. Her father the master. Her daughter's father. The father of her daughter's daughter. How many generations?

Days that were pages of hysteria. Their survival depended on suppressed hysteria. Composing a song in Portuguese that represents her life and "theirs" is quite suggestive, not only because of the language chosen but also due to the inclusiveness it posits; the use of "theirs" could refer both to the women in her family and to the Brazilian female slaves.

Following this trend, in the s black feminists such as Carole Boyce Davies and Valerie Smith formulated a transnational conception of diaspora, one that focuses on the intersections among race, gender, and class, without geographical limitations. In addition, the above-cited passage lays bare the mixed feelings that Ursa intends to express through the blues by incorporating the cadences of the "New World". These tangled emotions evince rage, frustration, and ambiguity, which are very much present in blues lyrics.

Once she is able to fully appropriate her sexuality, she will be able to free herself and her voice, a task that she seems to fulfill by the end of the novel.