Sing, Unburied, Sing
By Jesmyn Ward
National Book Award for Fiction and recent MacArthur Genius Award winner Jesmyn Ward explores family bonds and racial prejudice and oppression in Sing, Unburied, Sing. Racism permeates the patch traversed by Jojo and his sister Kayla, his grandfather Pop and dying mother Mam, and his self-absorbed mother Leonie and his white father Michael, the pair not much older than children, and brings forth his murdered uncle Given, and another thirteen-year-old boy Richie, killed on the prison farm of Parchman (Mississippi State Penitentiary). Both Given and Richie, visible to Jojo, seek but can never find the release of justice, both stark and brutal reminders that post-racial America exists merely as a rhetorical phrase fronting a myth. As grim as this sounds, and as shocking as the family’s odyssey proves, Ward does find hope in the familial bonds of Jojo, Kayla, and Pop.
The story is about two journeys, one in real time and the other through recent history. Leonie solicits her white friend Misty, who has an imprisoned black boyfriend, to retrieve Michael from Parchman with her, where he has finished his term for cooking and selling meth. She thinks it’s a good idea to bring along her children, Kayla, a toddler, and Jojo, thirteen. As readers learn, she isn’t much of a mother, so bad and absent that her children can’t call her mom. She works but her passions are Michael, longing for Michael, and getting high. The burden of caring for the children fall to Pop and Mam, who now lies in bed, wracked by pain as she dies of cancer. Fortunately for Kayla and Jojo, Pop knows how to care for his family. As Jojo and Kayla share a special bond, so do Jojo and Pop. Pop teaches him how to live on the farm, the secrets of the woods and the animals, and of survival. He’s a man who has seen and experienced much pain in his life, including having served a term as a teen in Parchman. Slowly, over time, he tells Jojo the story of Richie, which is the tale of black oppression summed up in the short, brutal life of a thirteen-year-old boy. It’s a story Pop can barely finish, because, as readers will eventually learn, the ending is so horrifying.
Needless to say, the auto trip proves excruciating for the four, partly because Kayla becomes sick during it and nobody but Jojo seems to care or know how to comfort and help the child. When they eventually pick up Michael, the return trip devolves into something even more harrowing. Before getting Micheal, Leonie and Misty stop over at their lawyer’s house, Al. When you are dirt poor, as these people are, you get the Als of the world, representation by a drug addled wasted white man. He sends them off with crystal meth, and wouldn’t you know it, only hours out of prison, a cop pulls them over. Leonie, out love perhaps, desperation for certain, swallows the meth and what results nearly costs the travelers their freedom, and Jojo his life. It’s a scene straight out of a worst nightmare.
As if this wasn’t enough, Leonie possesses the ability envied by her mother, of seeing the dead. Perhaps this is supernatural, but it’s more likely the pain of losing her brother Given to murder. Suffice to say here that against all good advice, star athlete Given thought his white teammates regarded him as he regarded him, as brothers. In the end, his trust and misreading of race killed him as surely as the bullet. Let’s leave it for readers to discover the circumstances on their own. Leonie believes she sees him, voiceless, observing all her bad deeds. Jojo possesses this ability as well. It manifests when they pick up Michael from Parchman and Richie hitches a ride to find his old benefactor, Pop, whom he knows as River. What is little, perpetually a child Ritchie seeking? He’s wants the one person he felt ever acknowledged and cared about him. There’s much sadness here, but none sadder than Ritchie and what he represents.
While many will think, no, this isn’t a book for me, it, in fact, probably is a book for you, and especially for people who will never know about it. Because it is a story that needs telling and feeling on a visceral level, with the right among of openness to receive and acknowledge it. Strongly recommended. w/c