“Sing, Unburied, Sing,” a novel by Jesmyn Ward, is a tale of family, suffering, and the ghosts of the past.
The narrative is split between two central characters, Jojo and his mother Leonie, offering a deep exploration of their complex family dynamics and the haunting presence of history.
Jojo’s perspective opens the story on his thirteenth birthday, painting a vivid picture of life in a family marked by absence and struggle. Jojo, who lives with his grandparents, is closely bonded with his grandfather, Pop.
This bond is deepened by Pop’s stories of his youth, particularly his harrowing experiences at Parchman, a notorious work camp. Jojo’s family is further complicated by his distant relationship with his white grandfather, Big Joseph, and his father Michael’s imprisonment.
The familial landscape is dominated by Mam, Jojo’s grandmother, whose declining health due to cancer casts a shadow over the household.
Leonie’s chapters reveal her troubled life. Struggling with drug addiction, she is haunted by visions of her deceased brother, Given, a constant reminder of her own unfulfilled potential and the racial tensions that have shaped her life.
Her relationship with Jojo is strained, highlighting her inability to provide the maternal care her children desperately need.
The story takes a turn when Michael is released from prison, prompting a road trip that brings the family’s underlying tensions to the surface.
Along the way, they encounter various individuals, each adding complexity to the narrative. Jojo discovers a gris-gris bag from Pop, symbolizing protection and connection to his heritage.
Simultaneously, Leonie’s recklessness and drug use escalate, further alienating her from her children.
The journey culminates in a dramatic encounter with the police, exposing the family to danger and bringing Leonie’s failings into sharp focus. It’s a turning point for Jojo, who begins to see the harsh realities of their existence more clearly.
Richie’s ghost, a young boy who died tragically at Parchman, bridges the past and present. He attaches himself to Jojo, hoping to find peace. His story is a powerful reminder of the enduring legacy of racial violence and injustice in America.
The novel’s climax is Mam’s death, a poignant moment that brings the family’s grief and loss to the forefront. It’s a catalyst for Leonie and Michael, who spiral further into addiction, leaving Jojo to take on the parental role for his younger sister, Kayla.
In its final pages, the story presents a haunting yet hopeful picture.
Jojo and Kayla, surrounded by the ghosts of those who’ve suffered before them, find a sense of purpose and understanding. It’s a testament to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity and the power of familial bonds to transcend the pain of the past.
The protagonist, Jojo is on the cusp of adolescence, marking his journey as a coming-of-age tale. He shows remarkable maturity for his age, largely due to his role in caring for his younger sister, Kayla.
Jojo’s character is defined by his empathy, a trait possibly enhanced by his psychic abilities, allowing him to hear voices of the voiceless, including animals and the dead.
Jojo’s mother, Leonie, is a figure marred by her own struggles. Growing up in rural Mississippi and dealing with the trauma of her brother Given’s racially motivated murder, she falls into a spiral of drug addiction and neglectful parenting.
Her love affair with Michael, a white man, adds layers to her complex character, hinting at internal conflicts and unresolved trauma.
The three-year-old daughter of Leonie and Michael, Kayla is a typical toddler, whose behaviors often highlight Leonie’s parental shortcomings. She shares a deep, nurturing bond with her brother Jojo, and like him, possesses the ability to see the dead.
A ghost and one of the narrators, Richie’s tragic past at Parchman ties deeply with Pop’s history. He clings to Jojo, seeking connection and understanding, his story reflecting the novel’s themes of racial violence and the search for belonging.
Leonie’s partner and father to Jojo and Kayla, Michael’s relationship with Leonie is intense and all-consuming. His character arc involves dealing with trauma from his past, including his time working on an oil rig and his eventual imprisonment.
Leonie’s father and Jojo’s grandfather, Pop is a figure of strength and compassion. His past experiences, particularly at Parchman, heavily influence his perspective and actions, particularly in his relationship with Jojo and his recounting of Richie’s story.
Philomène (Mam, Mama)
Leonie’s mother and a nurturing figure to her grandchildren, Mam’s psychic abilities and extensive knowledge of herbal medicine are central to her character. Her illness and death are pivotal in the novel, highlighting familial bonds and spiritual beliefs.
Leonie’s deceased brother, Given, appears as a spirit in Leonie’s visions, symbolizing unresolved grief and racial trauma. His presence influences Leonie’s actions and reflects the lasting impact of racial violence.
Leonie’s friend and colleague, Misty shares Leonie’s drug habit and complicated interpersonal relationships. Their friendship is complex, underscored by jealousy and shared struggles.
Big Joseph and Maggie
Michael’s parents, particularly his father Big Joseph, represent the entrenched racism and familial conflict in the story. Their attitudes and actions reveal the deep-rooted racial tensions affecting the characters’ lives.
Pop’s brother, Stag’s troubled past and eventual mental decline contribute to the novel’s exploration of family history and its impact on the present.
A lawyer representing Michael and Bishop, Al’s character intertwines with the main cast through legal connections and shared substance abuse.
Hogjaw, Blue, Kinnie Wagner, Sunshine Woman
These characters, encountered during Pop and Richie’s time at Parchman, each add depth to the narrative, revealing various facets of life in the prison and the broader themes of racial injustice and survival.
The Police Officer, Carlotta, and Fred
These characters, though more peripheral, contribute to the novel’s exploration of societal issues, including law enforcement biases and the drug trade’s impact on family dynamics.
1. Racial Injustice and Intergenerational Trauma
A central theme in the novel is the enduring impact of racial injustice in America.
The story of Pop’s youth, specifically his time at the Parchman work camp, is a stark reminder of the brutal history of racism and exploitation that African Americans have faced. This historical backdrop is not just a distant memory; it actively shapes the lives of the characters.
Jojo’s experiences, alongside the ghost of Richie, a boy who died at Parchman, symbolize how the traumas of the past continue to haunt present generations.
This theme is further exemplified in the tense relationship between the black and white sides of Jojo’s family, particularly in his interactions with his white grandfather, Big Joseph.
The novel skillfully portrays how the legacy of racial trauma is passed down, impacting identity, relationships, and life choices.
2. The Struggles of Parenthood and Family Dynamics
Ward explores the complexities of parenthood, particularly through Leonie’s character. Her struggle with drug addiction and her inability to adequately care for her children highlight the challenges some parents face in fulfilling their roles.
This theme contrasts sharply with the nurturing presence of Jojo’s grandparents, Mam and Pop, who provide the stability and love that Leonie cannot. The novel also delves into the nuances of family dynamics, showcasing how each member influences and is influenced by the others.
The multigenerational aspect of the family allows the novel to explore how parenting styles and family relationships evolve over time, influenced by both personal and societal factors.
3. The Search for Identity and Belonging
Through Jojo’s journey, the novel explores the theme of identity formation in the face of adversity.
As a young black boy growing up in the rural South, Jojo’s quest for self-discovery is entangled with the complexities of his family’s past and the societal constraints of race and class.
His interactions with the various family members, particularly the stories he hears from Pop and the spiritual connection he feels with Richie, help him navigate his own path.
For Leonie, her visions of her deceased brother Given represent her struggle with her own identity and her place within her family and society.
The novel portrays the search for belonging as a multifaceted journey, often complicated by external circumstances and internal conflicts.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing” is a deeply moving and beautifully written novel that delves into the complexities of family, history, and race.
Jesmyn Ward’s storytelling is both powerful and poetic, bringing to life characters that are richly drawn and deeply human. The novel’s exploration of the ghosts of the past, both literal and metaphorical, offers a profound commentary on the enduring impact of historical injustices and the struggle for identity and belonging in the face of such trauma.