Feminist Review

, Volume 120, Issue 1, pp 70–84 | Cite as

still, nothing: Mammy and black asexual possibility

  • Ianna Hawkins Owen


Although many iterations of the mammy in the last two centuries have received analytical attention, the construction of this figure as asexual or undesiring and undesirable remains to be interrogated. This essay attends to this under-theorised dimension of her image. Resisting a reading of the mammy as fixed in silence, I assert that she might instead ‘say nothing’, and bring into focus a black asexual agency that I call a declarative silence. This strategy of ‘saying nothing’ is then explored in a reading of the withholdings of the character of Mama in Gayl Jones’s neo-slave narrative, Corregidora (1975).


asexuality Mammy silence Corregidora black feminism 

Pursuing an understanding of queerness as an absence of or an aversion to sex might include figures deemed unnatural for their lack of a natural desire—a host of saints, dandies, frigid women, isolated children, and awkward teens. Although the absence of sex is certainly an important aspect of queer historical experience, it has not received much critical attention, perhaps for the somewhat banal reason that it is not very sexy. (Love, 2007, p. 175)

To Heather Love’s list of figures queered by their lack of desire, I would add: Mammy.1 But what is generated by a figure in whom asexuality and blackness meet? Certainly, Mammy is a political and ideological device, a fiction, an attachment, a fantasy and a composite. As a result, Mammy is projected onto countless misrecognised black women across time in the American imaginary. In truth, to use Love’s wording, there was and is something ‘very sexy’, tempting and tasty about Mammy since she has not disappeared but persists, feeding the erotic nostalgia for domination and continuing to haunt the margins of asexual identification.2 Mammy is engineered of that which informs Hortense Spillers’ (2013 [1987], p. 203) sobering observation, ‘My country needs me, and if I were not here, I would have to be invented’. Building on critiques of Mammy as an ideological projection onto the bodies of black women (White, 1990 [1985]; Collins, 2000 [1990]), I dig into the under-explored dimension of her so-called asexuality. I draw critical attention to the limiting usage of the descriptor ‘asexual’ in black studies as it has been applied to the mammy; rather than fixing, I want the term to move. At the same time, I am interested in what happens to asexuality studies and asexual orientations when overlapping or colliding with blackness; beyond the defensive framing of new sexual minority status, I want the encounter to permit lingering. I consider the growing interest in asexuality not only as an orientation but also as an analytic, and look at the abutment of asexuality against the discursive boundaries of sexuality before turning to the figure of the mammy and the inlaid constraints of her design—namely, her silence. I conclude by considering the infamous silence of the women in Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1986 [1975]) as a concrete instance of declarative silence although, carefully, not as an example of the mammy nor the asexual. Rather, a critical reading practice attentive to and informed by black asexual possibility brings the strategy of declarative silence into view.


Although asexuality both as an orientation and a descriptive category predates the advocacy and community-building of the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) at (for example, see Johnson, 1977; Storms, 1979; Rothblum and Brehony, 1993), the establishment of AVEN in 2001 and its consciousness-raising work have been pivotal in centralising resources and community conversations for and about people who do not ‘experience sexual attraction’ and their researchers.3 Among the group’s long-standing goals are increasing visibility and joining the continuum of recognised sexualities that might be most succinctly summed up in the refrain of being ‘just like everyone else’.4 Much of the increased attention to asexuality, both academic and popular, is owed to the concerted efforts of AVEN, but the question of who defines asexuality remains excitingly unresolved.

Asexuality research has accelerated in the wake of the 2004 publication of Anthony Bogaert’s (2004) study of British asexuality. Several scholars have intervened in what we have already come to think of as the limits of asexual identification (for example, see: Gressgård, 2013; Kim, 2014; Przybylo and Cooper, 2014; Grossman, 2014; Labuski, 2014; Cerankowski, 2016). The field of asexual possibility for queer subjects who do not take desire for granted seems open for all kinds of exploration and application. Yet, if we name the implication that this is a kind of ‘human’ possibility, we begin to see the fissures in ‘asexuality’ as an agentive category of self-identification for bodies whose humanity is not a given. If asexuality is a theory of relationality, it must contend with issues of abjection and dominance in order to broach asexual intersections with blackness. Despite long-held Western beliefs about popular representation that an unmarked racial category is inclusive, in practice the unmarked category is limited to unmarked bodies or bodies that are not racialised, which is to say ‘white’ (Dyer, 1997). Therefore, the human possibility of asexuality, unmarked as such, becomes unstable when affiliated with black and other racialised bodies. By eschewing racial designation, visibility and consciousness-raising efforts result in an idealised asexual agent imagined to have broad appeal such that white asexuals may assert, ‘I exist!’, while black asexuals might wonder, ‘for whom do I exist?’. Building on Randi Gressgård’s (quoted in Bishop, 2013, p. 199) observation that ‘a main challenge is to disentangle sexual from notions of human’, I assert the necessity of disentangling the human as fundamental to notions of asexuality. The historical construction of some figures as not fully human (recall the Three-Fifths Compromise) and as asexual offers additional trouble to the stability not just of sexuality as a human given but also of human as asexuality’s emergent given. To wrestle with this, we must think more broadly about the ways that our desires, bodies, pleasures and relationships are framed by our interactions with the hegemonic power of race, which attaches life chances and death destinies, accords value, and dismisses claims of value differentially along the shifting lines of race.

If the asexual is one who does not ‘experience sexual attraction’, what is this ‘sexuality’ that asexuality defines itself against or in the absence of? If sexuality is a site of power in the eyes of the asexual—claiming visibility, social acceptance and normalised dominance—let us think about how asexuality relates to the power that coheres around the legibility of sexuality. Michel Foucault (1990 [1976]) asserts that sexuality is a regulatory regime through which the state incites us to speak about ourselves to become legible subjects to disciplinary power. It might seem that asexuality offers a way out of sex discourse since, reductively, there is nothing to confess. However, Foucault (ibid., p. 27) cautions, ‘There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses’. Instead, does asexuality produce exclusions of racial subjects who are subjected to sexualisation? Or, by insisting on its own exclusion, does it produce inclusions? Since definitions of asexuality often centre sexual intercourse and sexuality through opposition or disavowal, asexuality cannot be ‘a relation of external opposition to power’, so I must ask how it operates inside of power (Butler, 1993, p. 15). Furthermore, asexuality as it has been deployed does not challenge but rather cooperates and even colludes with the racial and sexual hegemonies instrumental in producing the normative body that responds or desires to respond to the disciplinary and fixing hail.

Abdul JanMohamed’s (1992) work exposes the limits of Foucault’s confessional sexuality. In ‘Sexuality on/of the racial border’, he criticises the contradictions between Foucault’s incitement to speak, the legal silence of the slave who is unable to testify, and the ‘open secret’ of white masters’ sexual desire for and rape of black slaves (ibid.). Opposite the ‘will to knowledge’, JanMohamed (ibid.) argues, is the ‘will to conceal’. To apply Foucault’s confessional technology to racialised sexuality would be to admit the humanity of the slave since the master’s desire ‘admits’ humanness. Instead, the sexual violation is silenced and so too is the slave.

Mainstream asexuality seems committed to speech, even if, to paraphrase one talk show host, there might be nothing to confess.5 In order to instantiate asexuality as neither pathological nor a failure, AVEN has asserted through some of its past confessions that its adherents are normal (see Footnote 4). The implication is an investment not only in the dominance of particular sexualities and particular bodies demarcated as healthy, as Eunjung Kim (2010; 2014) notes, but also an investment in constructing asexuality upon a white racial rubric (who else can claim access to being just like everyone else?). We might say asexual discourse acts as both confession and concealment. What is concealed in this paradigm is not the trespass of a racial border but the fact of asexuality being a raced category desiring racial borders. Threads with titles such as ‘Asexual and black’ and ‘Are there any black asexuals on this site?’, which appeared nearly annually on the AVEN message board from 2004 to 2011, attest to such absenting. Moreover, the replies that threads like these garner minimise ace-of-colour experiences; insisting on the asexual as a racially neutral identity, they suggest that minoritarian sexual status and racial status are undifferentiated terrain and that members manifest no racial ideologies.6 This difference inside of asexuality (blackness) is subordinated to the difference outside of asexuality (sexuality). Exposure of the asexual absence of desire seems contingent upon the absenting of the racial. But this is not the black asexual figure’s first subjection to silence. Recalling Mammy, let us take a step back and ask: who is this slave?


Michele Wallace (1994, p. 264) writes, ‘There is no question that textual representations of black women, particularly of “Mammy,” could benefit from deconstruction and analysis’. More than twenty years later this need persists, particularly concerning her asexuality. Patricia Hill Collins’s (2000 [1990], p. 92) study of controlling images described the mammy as ‘obese, dark, and with characteristically African features … an unsuitable partner for White men. She is asexual and therefore is free to become a surrogate mother’.7 Deborah Gray White (1990 [1985]) contextualised the asexual construction of Mammy, finding her citation offered as evidence of the domesticating potential of Southern slavery to counter Northern accusations regarding the contaminating proximity of slaves to whites. As such, Mammy is less threatening than Jezebel, the archetype figure of black female hypersexuality, although both are subjects of ungendering. Mammy as a device of concealment yields strategic ethical rationales, sexual gratification and economic accrual. The perpetuation of the mammy myth lends cover for rape on the ‘racial border’ of the one-drop rule and, combined with the condition of the mother, ‘provides a means of denying miscegenation and augmenting the supply of slave labor’ in a world where Mammy must raise another generation lighter than the last (JanMohamed, 1992, p. 104). This confirms that not only is there no sexuality outside of power, there is also no asexuality outside of power. Through Mammy’s example, we can see that asexuality as a descriptive concept is recruited to mask her value to the maintenance of racial hierarchy. Constructing her as non-desiring and undesirable diverts attention away from the supply that expands the master’s purse. In this instance, asexuality, it would seem, is a product of the ‘generative constraint on sexuality’ (Butler, 1993, p. 95). These constraints are the parameters of reiteration.

Collins (2000 [1990]) and White (1990 [1985]) levied asexuality as a name for the complex illusion that permits the intimate invasion of the black female body and her availability to all forms of insinuation. The most profitable black female body was one that could be trained to labour without loving, to yield without yearning, to submit without ceasing. The resulting figure is Mammy, whose hyperproductivity can be harnessed to produce property and masters, while slavery is said to work for her by relieving her of autochthonous (and therefore always already perverse and excessive) desires. Mammy’s asexuality manifests on the plantation and in subsequent citations as social—meaning she is undesiring and undesirable—and not biological—meaning fission—although she also seems capable of this. Mammy appears alone, one-of-a-kind while omnipresent; each plantation is imagined to have one mammy serving several generations, performing every domestic job. She is by invention unthreatening, solitary, self-sufficient and endlessly available. She is motherless and fatherless by virtue of being or having been a slave. Characterised as forever old, she is not born. Her asexuality is not just that she is undesirable to white men, but that she is mother to herself, seemingly self-generated in an unbroken chain of service. She is summoned for obedience, relied upon for her silence as a form of consent and contentment with social (can we call it that?) relations. She is an effective device for the racial project of white supremacy in that she is engineered to strike the black child, nurse her white charge, and mask her own violation.

Kimberly Wallace-Sanders (2009, pp. 4, 7, 13–31) observes that while in 1820 the term ‘mammy’ was associated only with the black female, since then behaviour has become the most salient trait in (re)producing the mammy. Indeed, over time, Mammy has been mobilised in overlapping ways. Concurrent with the establishment of Jim Crow, Mammy was refashioned as ‘Aunt Jemima’ who aided in redeeming the South and mystifying the subjugation of black folk through the promotion of sentimental feeling by sharing her secret recipes but not her rapes (ibid., pp. 62, 135; Manring, 1998). Mammy also reappears as a nurturer moulded by the pens and tongues of Southern white women in ‘local colour’ memoirs of the 1910s and 1920s and in parlour performances to reconstitute regional identity and establish class status (McElya, 2007, pp. 39–41). Micki McElya (ibid., p. 41) summarises the ‘major themes’ of these cultural productions to include not only nostalgia but also ‘claims of intimate and satisfying bodily contact between black women and whites in the private sphere of the white home; and […] white southerners’ allegedly indescribable or “unspeakable” longing for the black mammy’. Between 1904 and 1923, the United Daughters of the Confederacy campaigned for a national monument to the mammy (ibid., pp. 120–124). Importantly, Angelo Rich Robinson (2011, pp. 52–53) points out that slave narratives offered counter-narratives to the propaganda of Mammy as endeared to white families, noting that elder black female slaves who would have fit the bill were in fact treated like any other slave.

In the 1960s, black male visual artists (re)appropriated Mammy to communicate revolution. Michael Harris (2003, p. 114) writes, ‘Her resistance [in these images] tended to take on aggressive, masculine form, with weapons and physical confrontations in several instances’. Joe Overstreet’s New Jemima (1964) depicts her still wearing the handkerchief, lips parted and eyes smiling while her muscular arms and fingers grip an AK-47. In the top right of Overstreet’s acrylic painting, a syrup bottle rhymes with the colours and barrel pattern of her gun, her effigy weaponised. In contrast, Harris (2003, p. 118) suggests that works by black women artists like Betye Saar and Frieda High have taken a different approach to Mammy, ‘recontextualizing’ her to reveal emotional and psychic rather than physical transformations. The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972) by Saar presents an arrangement of syrup labels, racial memorabilia and black power imagery. Yet, the mirrors that make up the interior walls of the box are most suggestive of ‘recontextualisation’—replicating the juxtapositions of the figure backward and forward in time, reaching towards us no matter how far into the future we become. So, how might we ‘claim the monstrosity’, as Spillers (2013, [1987], p. 229) puts it?

black a/sexuality

What kind of trouble does blackness introduce to asexuality? Drawing from Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1967 [1952]), we understand blackness as the result of a process of epidermalisation: ‘to have been blackened’ as Darieck Scott (2010, p. 40, emphasis removed) puts it. The body recites a script ‘overdetermined from without’ (Fanon, 1967 [1952], p. 116). The skin is always perceived to be speaking and louder than the bearer of the flesh. This is worth mentioning because, while asexual conversations online are predominantly textual rather than visual spaces of elaboration, users are ‘haunted by a galaxy of erosive stereotypes’ (ibid., p. 129) that make processes of identification into séances—into zones of contact for the body, the race and the ancestors (ibid., p. 112).

Spillers (2013 [1987], p. 206) observes that the black female subject, through the process of unmaking in the Middle Passage, ‘is reduced to a thing’. Consent does not apply to her or she is constructed as always consenting to insinuation (Hartman, 1997). Sexual coherence is ‘thrown into crisis’ (Spillers, 2013 [1987], p. 221). The unthinkability of the mammy’s desire and desirability is one result of the construction of blackness as outside the limits of the human. Although ontological blackness signifies the absence or foreclosure of subjecthood, corporeal blackness simultaneously signifies unrestrained and aggressive sexual desire. Therefore, we come to know blackness as the cyclical signification of negation and excess.

If the blackened figure is simultaneously a signifier of sexual excess and also the negation of sexuality as an intersubjective relation, is black simultaneously sexual and asexual in its earliest iterations? Or, if asexuality is hailed as a failure of the normative mode reproductivity and if blackness is more apt to be hailed as excessively reproductive, Mammy’s body acts as a site where blackness and asexuality touch.8 ‘Hyper-’ and ‘hypo-’ meet in one body, trained as an idealised collision of the presence of excessive availability and the impossibility of self-determined pleasure. The black female asexual is an ensemble of exclusions (from history, citizenship, gender, consent, desire) but, most explicitly, from everyone else. The black asexual comes up against the visibility mission to vocalise absence while insisting on the movement of asexuality into a group called ‘everyone’, requiring the absenting of the other Other: blackness. This might explain the range of silencing practices directed against outliers; black asexuals have at times been, in both friendly and hostile manners, urged to yield the desire for multidimensional senses of belonging in the name of neutral space (a familiar tactic used in other identity-based movements). I suggest that the simultaneity of black and asexual disturbs one another’s stability. Since her ‘mark of difference’, as Stuart Hall (1996 [1992], p. 474) defines blackness, speaks unceasingly, it cannot be concealed; the black female asexual will never be ‘just like everyone else’.

If the confession of black sexuality is overdetermined and the concealment of black sexuality is constituted by brutality, what is the relationship of black asexuality to confession and concealment? It is worth looking to Mammy to resolve this question; however, to do this, the concept of political asexuality must be stretched to accommodate not just those who opt into asexuality but also those who are hailed in and misrecognised as asexual by dominant agreement. The question of politically motivated asexuality has revealed interesting departures from earlier convictions in asexual theory that foreclosed ‘choice’. Responding to innate arguments, Milks and Cerankowski (2010, p. 659) assert that we ‘might consider as asexual someone who is not intrinsically/biologically asexual (i.e. lacking a sex drive) but who is sexually inactive […] through a feminist agency’. Breanne Fahs (2010) and Ela Przybylo and Danielle Cooper (2014) build out this line of thinking in their analyses of anarcha-feminist and radical feminist celibacies of the 1960s and 1970s, with Fahs (2010) specifically examining the negative liberties of choosing asexuality and ‘freedom from’ sex as a political gesture. Yet, I suggest that political asexuality must be broadened in scope beyond celibacy to account for the politics of constructing others (black women and Asian men, for example) as asexual in the service of national social orders.9 In other words, asexuality is capable of divergent forms of politicisation10 and strategic construction that both help and hinder the cause of consensual relations and self-determined forms of nonsexual desire. In addition to expanding beyond ‘born this way’, asexuality studies must hold critical space for those who are ‘constructed this way’.

In the struggle to recognise our fictive elder within this new space, we must ask whether Mammy is ‘silent’ or is she ‘saying nothing’? I assert that a notion of declarative silence disturbs the goals of constructing the mammy as an asexual figure; her design as silent is meant to strip her of agency, yet we observe that even in conditions of unfreedom, defeat and resistance can coexist in the same gesture: silent or saying nothing? Declarative silence also unsettles the foreclosure of asexuality to black women. While asexuality has been constructed as racially unmarked and disavowing of difference, the black asexual body intervenes in the confession of sameness without saying anything, exposes the anxieties and investments in universal conceptions of the unmarked ‘human’, and demonstrates through Mammy that ‘human’ is not a constitutive given for all asexuals (whether self-determined or constructed). The range of black desire, as observed here, includes not just projected asexuality but also asexuality that emerges from other sources, both within and without the subject. This means that black studies must contend with asexual possibility rather than with imposition only. Critique of the hegemonic racial and sexual norms dictating the perception of hypersexuality and undesirability must make space for black women to each wonder about her own life, to desire in unimaginable ways, and to freely give zero fucks, literally.

Although we understand that Mammy has undergone change over time, she also represents the static optimism of white supremacy that black women can and should be domesticated. As in Saar’s (1972) mirrors, some of this potential is encased in nostalgia and shuttled forward in time, representing the possibility of remaining ‘still nothing’ in the encroaching future. But what if the stillness of Mammy is available to be recast as not fixing but meditative? Is her testimony beyond recognition or is she unbothered, suggesting the stillness of ‘bodies and pleasures’ and not the fixity of her social function? Perhaps Mammy’s silence can be mined as a sort of refusal. Furthermore, perhaps a black asexual’s refusal to confess might be read as the repetition of Mammy’s silence, with a difference. Mammy is called upon for her utility to conceal; we do not hear her speak or know her desires because she is designed as already known. She does not have to speak. Since speaking renders one under the regulatory regime of sexual discourse, what if the mammy can do this not-responding with or through (her mark of) difference? While her body is always speaking in concert with a conscious silence, Mammy offers us a model of not confessing and, by doing so, the option of refusing to respond to the hail of the regime of sexuality—perhaps she is never directly asked. Rather than ventriloquising or searching for a lost response, how do we instead make sense of Mammy’s absent response? If not-responding here suggests a departure from her engineered and presupposed silence while maintaining an optical and aural sameness, what is made possible here when we hold space for the very modalities that have fixed us to, in another turn, approximate freedom? In Mammy’s silence, resistance and defeat come so close together that we can no longer tell them apart. Perhaps the black asexual repeats Mammy’s silence, though we may not be able to ‘tell’ the difference.

saying nothing

The difference of declarative silence comes into focus with the refrain ‘I said nothing’ recorded in Corregidora (1986 [1975]) by Gayl Jones, which weaves together the testimonies of four generations of women, the youngest of whom is the narrator, Ursa Corregidora. The family wrestles with remembering the traumatic experiences of Ursa’s Great Gram and Gram in Brazil under a Portuguese slave master named Corregidora. From an early age, Ursa is instructed that she must ‘make generations’ in order to preserve in flesh evidence of racial, sexual and gendered violence that was intentionally destroyed in the formal archive. The instrumentalisation of each woman’s reproductive capacity in order to preserve experiences of enslavement, rape and incest against erasure is part of a practice of ‘remak[ing] submission into a liberatory act’, an embodied strategy running parallel to Mammy’s overlapping defeat and resistance manifest through the imposition/election of silence (Sharpe, 2010, p. 44). Ursa undergoes a hysterectomy resulting from intimate partner violence, which ends her ability to assume the conservator’s role in its traditional form. Instead, we encounter these memories rendered on stage and page.

Scholarship on Corregidora tends to focus on Ursa coming to voice through blues performance in the wake of her losses (for example, see Tate, 1979; Gottfried, 1994; Rushdy, 2000; Willingham, 2001). In contrast, Jennifer Cognard-Black (2001) and Joanne Lipson Freed (2011) query the role of silence in the work. Moreover, in doing so, neither Cognard-Black nor Freed subordinates silence to more mainstream feminist discursive expectations, which do not trouble assumed links between silence and oppression. Freed (ibid.) notes that the singular motive of recovering women’s voices rather than careful attention to the broader operation of silence results in the obviation of male narrative silence which, she argues, is necessary to understanding the totalising racial and sexual trauma of slavery’s afterlife. In fact, black women preserve and voice what has been absented from black male narratives. Cognard-Black (2001, p. 46), on the other hand, holds space for an agential black female silence in Corregidora, asserting that Ursa ‘choose[s] silence instead of having silence forced upon her’. Contrary to the matrilineal commandment to produce and preserve, Ursa’s first-person narrative is held together by the internal refrain ‘I said nothing’, uttered in a variety of moments where she refuses, withholds and avoids.

Corregidora is not a story with an asexual plot or character per se. Rather, the text allows for asexual readings through what Przybylo and Cooper (2014, p. 305) call ‘resonance attunement’. They offer a critique of ‘archivable’ asexuality revealed only by self-identification or by strict adherence to immutable characteristics (ibid., p. 302). They advocate instead for a ‘shift from identity locating to resonance attunement … emphasizing the ephemeral traces of asexuality as opposed to cataloguing “true” asexuals’ (ibid., p. 305). If every sexual moment has an accompanying asexual shadow that we might miss if our methods only account for fixed and explicit identification, then Corregidora—with its central interest in legacies of sexual abuse, trauma, desire and healing—must also contain asexual gestures and possibilities that interact at many levels of the text and gift to us narrative asexual strategies between the lines. Relatedly, Christina Sharpe (2010, p. 65) writes, ‘With each rhythmic elaboration of the breaks between and before actions (or lines) Jones attends to the contingency of power, pleasure, and desire’. The word ‘contingency’ suggests to me that the text holds both power and its absence, pleasure and its absence, and—most pertinent to this discussion—desire and its absence.

Rather than attend to the novel's foundational silence (Great Gram's omitted impetus for fleeing Corregidora) and its climatic revelation by Ursa, I must instead call attention to another great silence in the text—one that has received far less engagement, perhaps again for the ‘somewhat banal reason that it is not very sexy’. Mama’s silence is both resolved and irresolvable by the novel’s end. A critical asexual reading practice—one that is open to traumatic affiliations—helps to make space for, if not sense of, a woman who is both ‘not a virgin’ and ‘heavy with virginity’ (Jones, 1986 [1975], p. 101); whose shape, according to the narrator, resembles that of a childbearing woman and, while empty inside, ‘carrie[s] more than their memories’ (ibid., pp. 101, 103); who is ‘closed like a fist’ (ibid., p. 101) when it comes to her own thoughts and also an uncensored, verbatim recitation of her foremothers’ history. Mama’s silence is one that is remarked upon by Ursa multiple times; a silence that Ursa makes a pilgrimage to uncover; and a silence that persists despite the trip and the corrections to rumour and omission provided by Mama. At the end of Ursa’s visit, the two exchange withholdings: ‘“Do you know me any better now?” [Mama] asked. I only smiled at her. She stayed standing there until the bus pulled off. She didn’t let me see her walk back to the house’ (ibid., p. 132). Just as Mama removes her hands from plain sight once she begins to tell Ursa her story (ibid., p. 110), there are some things Mama opts to keep hidden from view even in the midst of revelation.

Mama does not provide a definitive record of her own past. Instead, what becomes apparent through Mama’s narration is the agency of her silence within the constraints of her traumatic sexuality, which we cannot argue is heterosexual or asexual, etc. but rather is beyond our and Ursa’s reach. We observe with Ursa’s help that Mama has ‘[s]omething she kept not to be given’ (ibid., p. 102): something before transmission and still something after it. Ursa notes, ‘There was things left, yes. It wasn’t the kind of giving where there’s nothing left. It’s where what’s left is something you keep with you, something you don’t give. I mean, the first giving made what’s left. Created it’ (ibid.). This sort of withheld giving (at times conflicted or coerced) happens thrice in Mama’s story: first, after Mama’s unexpected sexual encounter with Martin, she does not give herself ‘time to feel’ and does not share the commandment to make generations (ibid., p. 117); second, after Mama’s elders discover that she is pregnant, she does not reveal the full backstory of meeting Martin; and third, in Mama’s recitation to her daughter, she divulges neither her desires nor her furies. Mama models how to say nothing throughout Ursa’s childhood as well as her adulthood. Here, in her piecemeal recitation of her relationship with Martin, Mama narrates several instances when she ‘said nothing’ to him (ibid., pp. 113, 114, 115, 116, 118, 120). ‘Saying nothing’ surfaces as an intergenerational strategy that is modeled but not spoken—an omission thrown into relief against the superliminal commandment to bear evidence to and as generations. It is a strategy Ursa employs throughout the novel and one that as narrator she observes in others.

Speculating on the absence not just of her father but of other men from her mother’s life, Ursa says, ‘it was almost as if […] she wanted only the memory to keep for her own but not his fussy body, not the man himself’ (ibid., p. 101)—the fuss being its needs, its hungers to be sated, its erections to be relieved, and its cravings for reciprocal feeling. During the brief period when Martin lived with Mama, at her mother and grandmother’s house, she refused to have sex with him: ‘I kept telling him it was because they were in there that I wouldn’t. But … even if they hadn’t been’ (ibid., p. 130), leaving the reader to wonder about Mama’s desires and/or marvel at her strategic choice of housing.

Sharpe (2010, p. 40) argues that hysterical trauma is at ‘the center of constructions of the modern subject’ and, therefore, despite claims of recent emergence, asexual subjectivities are also impacted by this context, even if well-meaning trends in asexuality studies aim to de-pathologise the identity. As such, researchers and activists cannot say that all asexual people are not traumatised, but neither can we say that trauma is never part of the formation of some asexualities. It is clear that trauma can arise from the experience of being asexual in a predominantly sexual world (for example, see research on unwanted sex and corrective rape of asexual women by Chasin, 2014). I suggest that the reverse may also be true at times, even if it does not fit neatly into narratives of normative asexuality that are understandably concerned with rebuffing scepticism from media and medical establishments. This claim neither delegitimises all of asexuality nor even those asexualities that exist with, or may even come into being because of, chronic pain (Labuski, 2014), childhood trauma (Cerankowski, 2016) or abuse, for example, but rather makes space for broader and more complex identifications without disavowing others. Mama explains, somewhat veiled, ‘Corregidora is responsible for that part of my life. If Corregidora hadn’t happened that part of my life never would have happened’ (Jones, 1986 [1975], p. 111), suggesting that the enduring effects of racial and sexual trauma give shape to present-tense im/possibilities for relational expression including Ursa’s birth. Tutored from an early age in the violations of her foremothers and their expectation that she reproduce to bear them witness, Mama explains the conception of Ursa as though ‘my body or something knew what it wanted even if I didn’t want no man. Cause I knew I wasn’t lookin for no man’ (ibid., p. 114). Later she hesitates to say whether there is any overlap between what the body wanted and what she wanted, leaving the reader both wondering and refraining from drawing their own conclusion (ibid., p. 116).

After Ursa sings for her friend, Cat, following her hysterectomy, we hear for the first of many times that experience itself is carried in the voice, less in its content than in its timbre (ibid., pp. 44–45)—that there is a kind of evidence found in historical and fictional black women’s voices, and not only Ursa’s but also Ma Rainey’s (ibid., p. 44) and Billie Holiday’s (ibid., p. 170). The strategy of saying nothing keeps those effects, those changes, those traumas and those memories private. Mama does not forsake the voice entirely; she tells her own mother’s and grandmother’s stories, perhaps because the aurality of her secrets can be hidden in their content. The sweat in her voice, mistaken for theirs. Mama wants to know where Ursa got her blues songs from and she replies, ‘I got them from you’, to which Mama says, ‘I didn’t hear the words’ (ibid., p. 54) suggesting that she is responding to what the sound, not the content, communicates. Later in a dream sequence, Ursa attempts to resolve this confusion: ‘I was trying to explain it, in blues without words, the explanation somewhere behind the words’ (ibid., p. 66). Sometime after her visit but not detailed in the novel, Ursa shares her private memories with Mama who she says ‘listened, but it was the quiet kind of listening one has when they already know, or maybe just when it’s a song they’ve sung themselves, but with different lyrics’ (ibid., p. 182), again bearing out the importance of aural quality over content.

When we find Ursa at the close of the novel, she breaks from her mother’s apparent celibacy (ibid., p. 121) and her own 22-year separation by fellating Mutt. Although many readings emphasise the triumph of Ursa’s sexual reconciliation not just with her first husband but also with the afterlife of slavery, I want to suggest that Mama is not the pitiful foil to Ursa’s agential reunion and revelation. Mama shares that her neighbour Mr. Floyd has made overtures to her which she has declined, suspecting that he might be more interested in her house than in her (ibid., p. 131). A later letter implies nothing has changed (ibid., p. 182). Most of Ursa’s remarks about her mother throughout the novel include an observation that she has remained single and also curiously celibate. Ursa is not sure what to make of Mama’s behaviour and even suspects that she might be making ‘excuses’ (ibid., p. 132) or still mourning Martin (ibid., p. 182). Contrary to readings of a unidirectional trajectory from oppression to liberation from Great Gram to Ursa, I suggest that Mama’s actions—not just Ursa’s—constitute an agential and present-tense act of a/sexual liberation along a different vector than the one we are trained to expect and even desire: Mama engages in the freedom from.11 Great Gram and Gram were neither allowed to choose their sexual partners nor able to recognise the mixture of hate and love that informed their desires; in these areas, Ursa succeeds them. Great Gram and Gram were also unable to opt out of sexual relations or admit an absence of desire, and it is along this other vector of freedom that Mama also succeeds her elders.


When Ursa infamously ‘says nothing’, she enacts a strategic tradition. The repetition allows us to see Mammy’s ongoing silence not just as a consequence of the imposition of concealment, but as something more. Mammy’s, Mama’s and Ursa’s declaration of ‘I said nothing’ means that the speaker was aware of being hailed and made a decision rather than allow the silence of design (Mammy invented as unable to testify) to go unacknowledged. With these models in mind, black asexual silence becomes declarative, but not confessional. She marks this silence in her observations and in her recitations with the remark, ‘I said nothing’. The figure of the mammy has historically been imagined as unable to testify, cowing to the commandment to conceal her repeated rapes, thus ensuring her stability in the social order. Yet, fissures in the construction of an idealised, silenced slave can be found in, among other examples, the fear of slave-owning families in times of unrest that their faithful mammies as cooks might poison their food. Here too Mammy’s capacity to testify is revealed as not wholly foreclosed; we must hold space for the possibility that Mammy recognises her capacity to testify (her first agentive act) and withholds it (her second agentive act). Rather than obedient, perhaps her silence is disinterested. Recontextualised, Mammy’s silence is not static but dynamic: a silence that impresses with its intended presence.

Remembering once again that Mammy is an ideological device and a fictional comfort, how can we say definitively that she has any capacity for agentive actions or withholdings? Ursa and Mama, other fictions, must ‘say’ nothing: they must use the modality that each refuses in order to register her refusal. Ursa’s speculation on Mama’s silence, ‘Something she kept not to be given’ and ‘the first giving made what’s left’ (ibid., p. 102) is echoed by poet Elizabeth Alexander (2009), when she puts this withheld giving another way. Imagining the internal narrative of the historical figure Saartjie Baartman, by some accounts the original hypersexualised and undesirable black female body, Alexander (ibid., p. 728) writes, ‘Since my own genitals are public/I have made other parts private’. She meditates on the absence of the first-person narrative in the archive and postulates that the silence of Baartman cannot merely be read as an imposition but must also be read as a decision to keep something for herself, offstage, and beyond the poem. Without access to her internal dialogue, hidden for centuries, we cannot help but ask Mammy: what is that private part? And we must reconcile ourselves with not knowing.

Institutional black studies has the distinction of adopting the language of asexuality early on; however, without adequate reconsideration and revision, the static imposition of the attribute contributes to the foreclosure of agential identifications with black asexuality. Although the growing field of asexuality studies has clarified an agential category of being that lacks sexual desire, it continues to not recognise earlier iterations of asexuality, persistent misrecognitions of the orientation, and the racialisation of its contemporary availability. Clarifying some of the relevant boundaries of these fields is only one of Mammy’s interventions as a figure who bridges them. Declarative silence comes into view as a black feminist strategy only when we allow for both the possibility of Mammy’s autonomy and the recognition of asexuality’s inextricable relationship with race. The figure of Mama in Gayl Jones’s Corregidora is neither Mammy nor definitively asexual, but the theorisation of her declarative silence only becomes possible when we make space for and assign value to their nexus.


  1. 1.

    I use this term in two different ways throughout the essay. When in the lower case, ‘mammy’ refers to a noun, a constructed category whose ideological force and function must be analysed. When capitalised, ‘Mammy’ refers to an imaginary proper noun spoken to directly or directly about; she is an imagined woman bearing the projections of the nation alongside the double consciousness of her own desires and motivations, known to her and obscured from us.

  2. 2.

    For example, see mentions of the mammy hemming in black asexual identification in blog posts by Trudy (2013) and Fiish (2013).

  3. 3.

    The Asexual Visibility Education Network, [last accessed 29 September 2016].

  4. 4.

    This was a recurring method used by AVEN founder David Jay in the early years of visibility work to discuss asexuality with a variety of audiences who were not asexual. Typically, the phrase ‘like everyone else’ referred to ‘emotional needs’ but, for a broader example, David Jay summarised the aim of the documentary (A)sexual (2011) from what he identified as Director Angela Tucker’s perspective: ‘asexual people aren’t that different from anyone else; a lot of what we’re going through is the same as what everybody else is going through, just, without sexuality’ (HotPiecesofAce, ‘Week 38: DJ on the unassailable asexual’,, [last accessed 30 September 2016]). However, the sense of being ‘just like everyone else’ was also accomplished during this period through non-verbal work and adherence to a visual grammar of normativity. Conversations about the representations and foreclosures of asexual identity on social-media platforms highlighted this. The ‘gold star’ or ‘unassailable’ asexual debates were generative community conversations that addressed the tendency to put forward and circulate ‘unassailable’ representatives or asexuals beyond the reach of critiques commonly intended to debunk asexual claims. More recently, AVEN has become self-critical of using imagery of hetero-romantic couples, conventionally attractive individuals, gender-conforming individuals and people without disabilities or histories of sexual abuse. In 2011, David Jay shared a decision to step back from publicity work to make space for others to represent the many faces of AVEN to the broader public and to produce a multitude of images of what an ‘empowered asexual person’ looks like for asexual community consumption (ibid.). I am grateful to David Jay for bringing this community discussion to my attention. Although I am considering some of the limits of these early rhetorical strategies, I recognise that such work has made space for my own reflections.

  5. 5.

    ‘Asexuality on The View, 15 Jan 2006’, video,, [last accessed 1 May 2017].

  6. 6.

    For example, see the thread running from October to November 2011, Asexual Visibility and Education Network, ‘Asexual and Black’, [last accessed 30 September 2016], and the thread running from July 2006 to January 2007, Asexual Visibility and Education Network, ‘Any “minorities” here? Plus, creative people?’, [last accessed 30 September 2016]. Conversations about race and AVEN led to the creation of an ‘Asexual People of Color’ pinned thread on the front page of the forums in 2012. This has since been moved from the front page and into a recent ‘Intersectionality’ pinned thread.

  7. 7.

    Collins’s (2000 [1990]) use of the language ‘African features’ and ‘obese’ is not an endorsement of the generalisations, body negativity and racial science suggested by these terms; rather, it is a summary of the mammy as she lives in the American imagination. It is also worth noting here that Collins uses the term ‘desexualized’ interchangeably with ‘asexual’ for the assigned condition of the mammy. For more discussion of the history of ‘desexualisation’, see Kim (2014).

  8. 8.

    Locating asexuality in failure is not condemnatory; I think about failure as generative and, following Love (2007), I do not suggest we need to redeem it.

  9. 9.

    For reflections on South Asian identifications with asexuality, see Vaid-Menon (2014).

  10. 10.

    I am grateful to Bed Prasad Giri's essay ‘Diasporic postcolonialism and its antinomies’ (2005) for helping me to first see these possibilities in diaspora theory.

  11. 11.

    Rather than adhering to a notion of ‘freedom from’ as a political choice distanced from pathology, I instead centre pathology and subjection with this formulation.



Thank you to Darieck Scott, Juana María Rodríguez, Leigh Raiford, Michael Cohen and Nadia Ellis. Thank you also to Mel Chen and the students of GWS 220. Finally, thank you to Zachary Manditch-Prottas, Eunjung Kim, KJ Cerankowski, Jason Ditzian, David Jay, Cynthia Hawkins, John Owen and Patience Tema Baron.


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Copyright information

© The Feminist Review Collective 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Williams CollegeWilliamstownUSA

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