The novel opens with a 13 year old Jojo claiming his understanding of death as he stands watching his loving Pop (grandfather) butcher a wild hog. It’s his birthday and he is eager to show himself a man. His throwing up after he helps his Pop clean up shows he’s not quite there yet.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is set in Bois Sauvage, a fictional Mississippi town, where Jojo lives with his maternal grandparents, Pop and Mam. His mother, Leonie is a drug-addled, negligent black woman, one who just doesn’t have the ‘maternal instinct’. Jojo’s white father, Michael is serving out a three-year sentence in the infamous Parchman Farm. The father’s absence and the mother’s indifference has left Jojo in charge of his 3-year old sister, Kayla, who in turn, also clings to her brother more than her mother.
This is a family saga, a ghost story and a history lesson, all uniquely packaged into a road trip narrative. The rigorous road trip stands central to the plot – one that moves in parallel with the family’s history. When Michael is due for release, Leonie packs up her kids and sets off north towards Parchman Farm where he is incarcerated. The same Parchman Farm once stood as one of the most infamous Southern jails that practiced a ‘legal’ system of slavery, one that enchained Pop in its shackles not too long ago in the past. Insofar, this becomes a journey that leads them into a dark, dreadful pit of past injustice and inhumanity.
Jojo and Leonie share a strenuous relationship and being locked up in the car for hours makes the tension all the more palpable. Leonie has eyes only for her husband; she mostly hates her children and sometimes, even relishes in the chance to thrash them black and blue. Jojo, for his part, mostly keeps out of the way of his mother. The only thing the two of them share is a supernatural space – Leonie, when high, sees the ghost of her dead brother, Given, and Jojo is haunted by the spirit of Richie, a little boy who served with his Pop at Parchman and was wrongfully killed. The irony lies in their ignorance of each other’s afflictions; they live in their own realities, Leonie enwrapped in her grief over her brother’s wrongful, race-related death and Jojo hardened by his mother’s neglect.
This is a story told in turn by Jojo, Leonie and Richie with a narrative where personal baggages entwine with the family history. Moving between the past and the present, author Jesmyn Ward uses dying-of-cancer Mam to render the message of her novel, that ‘everything happens at once’, the past, present and the future are all connected; that there’s no moving on without looking back. Wrestling with history, she seems to suggest, is an endless process, at least, for those who come from a long lineage of violence.
Ward addresses, with help of the living and the dead, the haunting history of American slavery, one that runs deep with understanding what being tied to a collective black experience really means. With a prose dripping with poetry, she weaves a world of pain and injustice, one from which even the dead aren’t defended.
The title’s ‘unburied singers’ are ghosts of an vexed, unresolved past, the ones that were lynched, mobbed, starved or hanged. They still roam the earth in search of justice and in search of answers with the only purpose of holding the present to witness.
As it turns out, it’s not the journey to Parchman that pivots the story, rather the journey back home where they find, at least to some extent, “something like relief, something like remembrance, something like ease.”