CW: racist violence.
This review contains spoilers.
Jesmyn Ward’s third novel Sing, Unburied, Sing illustrates the ways in which centuries of oppression continue to reverberate through Black American families today. When Black woman Leonie and her children, 13-year-old Jojo and three-year-old Kayla, embark on a road trip to collect Leonie’s white boyfriend Michael from Parchman Prison, the cracks in their relationship, occasioned mainly by Leonie’s twin addictions to meth and the love and attention she gets from Michael, become apparent.
What’s remarkable about the novel is the way that it humanises Leonie. In any other novel Leonie would appear as an utterly irredeemable villain: self-centred and blinded by the security she feels from Michael’s love, she’s incapable of making good choices for her children and jealous of the bond between them that’s grown up because of her neglect. But in Ward’s hands she becomes sympathetic. Alongside Jojo and a ghostly figure named Richie, she’s one of the novel’s first-person narrators. As such, we see first-hand that her addictions stem from trauma, specifically racialised trauma. In particular, her meth habit allows her to see her dead brother Given, who was killed when they were both in high school by Michael’s racist cousin. This is one of the ways Ward shows us such trauma being passed down to the next generation: Leonie’s neglect of her children forces Jojo to act as a surrogate parent to Kayla, robbing him of both a decent relationship with his mother and of a carefree childhood.
Another way in which the spectre of historical racism haunts Ward’s characters – literally – is through the figure of Richie. Richie, we learn, was a young Black man who was once held in Parchman Prison alongside Leonie’s father, Pop; late in the story Pop reveals that he was forced to kill Richie after a failed escape attempt in order to prevent him being tortured by a lynch mob. In the present-day of the novel, Richie’s anguished ghost haunts Jojo (and only Jojo), seeking answers and a way to move on; but Pop’s revelation fails to give Richie closure, only a terrible sense of betrayal. Here, again, we see how the trauma of racism afflicts itself on future generations.
There are other spectres haunting the narrative, both real and metaphorical: Leonie’s loss/rejection of her cultural heritage, symbolised by the voodoo practices her mother attempts to teach her; the operation of Michael’s white privilege, which saves the family when they’re pulled over by the police on their way back from Parchman, but which also allowed Michael’s cousin to kill Given with impunity; the ongoing exploitation of Black people in places like Parchman. The novel ends with the image of hundreds of ghosts, unbanishable but calmed, momentarily, by Kayla’s song; a bare glimmer of hope for the future.
What will that future look like? There is grace in this novel, relationships not marked by trauma: most notably the relationship between Jojo and Pop. There are moments, too, when characters manage to overcome or transcend their trauma to support family members or friends: as when Leonie manages to summon the death loa Maman Brigitte to save her mother’s spirit from a vengeful Richie; or when Pop protects Richie from harm in Parchman. These are moments that suggest the possibility of familial relationships untainted by trauma, of parental bonds that are productive rather than destructive. Ultimately, Sing, Unburied, Sing is an accounting of the damage that racism and white privilege have dealt, and a gesture towards possible healing.