Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
As I absorbed the final words and closed Sing, Unburied, Sing, I read a review on the book’s back: “a novel as blazingly hymn-like as the title suggests.” I flipped the book over to see the face of Jojo and the title, Sing, Unburied, Sing. I must have misplaced the title in my mind, because in that moment it came rushing back to me. In the characters Jojo, Kayla, and Pop. In Richie. In the music of the pages and the sorrow weaved into this story. In the unburied.
I will say nothing else specific about the final pages and how they make the title sing and weep. But I will tell you that you must read Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, winner of the National Book Award, shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and one of the NYT’s 10 Best Books of 2017.
Jojo & Leonie
Sing, Unburied, Sing is set in Mississippi and told through the eyes of Jojo and Leonie. Jojo is a thirteen-year-old boy, neglected by his parents, loved ferociously by his Mam and Pop, and who serves as his little sister’s greatest protector.
Leonie is Jojo’s mother, a young black woman in Mississippi who became pregnant as a teen, lost a brother to a violent act of a white man driven by anger, and who uses substances to escape the pain of failing her parents and children.
Leonie has two children with a white man Michael, who’s parents will not acknowledge their own grandchildren: Jojo and Kayla. Both Jojo and Leonie speak from vastly different worlds yet trapped together as mother and son.
Back when I was younger, back when I stilled called Leonie Mama... That was when there was more good than bad, when she’d push me on the swing Pop hung from one of the pecan trees in the front yard, or when she’d sit next to me on the sofa and watch TV with me, rubbing my head. Before she was more gone than here. Before she started snorting crushed pills. Before all the little mean things she told me gathered and gathered and lodged like grit in a skinned knee. Back then I still called Michael Pop. That was when he still lived with us before he moved back in with Big Joseph. Before the police took him away three years ago, before Kayla was born.Jojo, Sing, Unburied, Sing, pg. 7
The novel begins from Jojo’s perspective, but once the reader is able to see from Leonie’s eyes, it is much more difficult to blame Leonie for neglecting her children. Although Leonie makes choices that harm them, she has been neglected by society, had her children as a teenager, and lives in rural Mississippi where the trees still whisper with the songs of ghosts whose spirts were unable to pass after the cruelty of lynchings, burnings, and shootings.
I bent to the table. Sniffed. A clean burning shot through my bones, and then I forgot. The shoes I didn’t buy, the melted cake, the phone call. The toddler sleeping in my bed at home while my son slept on the floor, just in case I’d come home and make him get on the floor when I stumbled in. Fuck it.Leonie, Sing, Unburied, Sing, pg. 33
Jojo strives to protect his little sister Kayla from their mother Leonie. He believes that she hates him and does not trust her with any care taking of Kayla.
I don’t want Leonie giving her that. I know that’s what she think she need to do, but she ain’t Mam. She ain’t Pop. She ain’t never healed nothing or grown nothing in her life, and she don’t know… Leonie kill things.Jojo, Sing, Unburied, Sing, pg. 107-108
Leonie resents Jojo for judging her, and he uses her words against him to wound him in all the ways she has been wounded.
Jojo flinches like I’ve hit him… It feels good to be mean, to speak past the baby I can’t hit and let that anger touch another. The one I’m never good enough for. Never Mama for. Just Leonie, a name wrapped around the same disappointed syllables I’ve heard from Mama, from Pop, even from Given, my whole fucking life.Leonie, Sing Unburied, Sing, pg. 147
For all the judgement that can be passed about Leonie and her choices as a mother, she is struggling to stay afloat. She receives help only from her Pop, and has no resources to support her children. She is drowning.
I am trying to keep everyone above water, even as I struggle to stay afloat. I sink below the waves and push Jojo upward so he can stay above the waves and breathe, but then Michaela sinks and I push her up, and Michael sinks so I shove him to the air as I sink and struggle, but they won’t stay up: they want to sink like stones… We are all drowning.Leonie, Sing, Unburied, Sing, pg. 195
A third narrator joins the Jojo and Leonie at Parchman prison when Michael, Jojo’s father and Leonie’s boyfriend, is released. The third narrator weaves together a dark history of racism in Mississippi, a history that Pop witnessed first hand. This narrator’s name is Richie.
I can get out of here [Parchman prison] if I set my mind to it. I can follow the right stars south all the way on home. But the reason you think that is because you don’t see the trusty shooters. You don’t know the sergeant. You don’t know the sergeant come from a long line of men bred to treat you like a plowing horse, like a hunting dog–and bred to think he can make you like it. That the sergeant come from a long line of overseers.Pop, Sing, Unburied, Sing, pg. 22
Parchman is an important aspect of Sing, Unburied, Sing because Pop spent time as a young man working in the fields here as a prisoner around mostly black men, as white male prisoners served as overseers. Here Pop would watch young black boys be whipped until the skin on their backs was split 20 times, living little but blood and muscle. Here Pop would meet Richie, and Richie would meet Jojo.
I will leave the rest of the story for you to uncover. You will meet the unburied through Jojo, and you will hear them sing. There is a heavy history of racism and extreme acts of violence committed again black people in rural Mississippi, and this history will wind itself around every aspect of this story.
I cannot recommend Sing, Unburied, Sing enough. This beautiful narrative delivers a complex and layered story with fantastical elements that show true sorrow in a family. Even when the story ends, you will wonder what is next for Jojo, Kayla, Pop, and Leonie.