How would your life change if your brother was violently murdered and those at fault were not punished? How would you cope? These are some of many questions posed in the National Book Award winning book, Sing, Unburied, Sing : A Novel by Jesmyn Ward. Jojo is a 13 year old boy. Michaela is Jojo’s toddler sister. Leone is their mother. Michael is their father and Ma and Pa are Leone’s parents and true caretakers of her children. With exception of Michael, all of this family is Black. Leone, in and out of the children’s lives and spending more time doing various drugs than tending to her kin, decides that Jojo, Michaela and her friend Misty are going on a two day trip to pick up Michael, who is being released from prison. The setting is Mississippi and while the time period is unclear, it is close to the present. While this a story about a family, the real setting, character and problem is the deep rooted violence and racism in this area. Leone is a neglectful mother, never providing food for her children and is spiteful to her son Jojo, even though he is truly the mother/father/caretaker to his toddler sister. Yet, the reader sees that Leone, and Ma and Pa are all emotionally ruined by the murder of Given, Ma and Pa’s son and Leone’s brother. Given’s death is a reflection of the horror of racial violence and lynchings of the past and not too distant past.
(a). I was privileged to not have experienced anything close to what anyone in this book has experienced. No one close to me has been killed. My mother never left me for at days at a time to use drugs. I have never felt unsafe because of the color of my skin. My parents, however, have. Growing up, they were reprimanded for speaking Spanish at school. My father’s hair was once shaved off as a punishment, and slapping of hands was very ordinary. The “community” pool near my mother’s town was only open for “Mexicans” on Monday, because the pool was drained on Tuesday. My father still, to this day, changes his accent when he feels it is necessary to prove his American-ness. The remnants of these Jim Crow experiences from my parents are incomparable to the fear of being lynched or killed with no justice.
Ironically, as I read this book in Texas, my husband and three year old were traveling in the South, doing a Civil Rights themed trip in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. As I read this book, my husband would send me pictures of information from the museums and monuments he visited – stories of the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow laws and lynchings. This combination provided an eerie and sad experience. I knew I was reading fiction, but these stories are not fiction. I know there have been few instances of consequences for high profile murders – Breona Taylor, Trayvon Martin. But what about those that we know nothing about?
(d.) This story is of great importance to me. People of color experience life in the United States differently than their white counterparts. I do not need to go far into history to provide examples of the disparities. In the case of mass incarceration and the “drug war” that began in the 1970s and proliferated in the 1980s and beyond, men of color were and continue to be incarcerated at exponentially higher rates. According to Alexander, “More African American adults are…in prison or jail, on probation or parole- than were enslaved in 1850” (2012, p. 180). This is incredible and ties into at least one aspect of this story. Then there is the fear of what the consequences of a simple traffic stop might be. Recently, our student led diversity committee had our school police officer speak and answer questions at a meeting. He is a Black man and a police officer. At one point, he answered questions about what he teaches his older son about being stopped by a police officer. He tells his son to, “survive the stop.” I will never forget this statement. This short sentences demonstrates the reality for Black men in America. Ward demonstrates such a reality in scene where they have been pulled over by a police officer and Jojo reaches in his pocket to feel for a gift his grandfather left him, to perhaps make him feel safer,
“The man telling me sit, like I’m a dog….I feel Pop’s bag in my shorts, and I reach for it….But then the cop has his gun out, pointing at me. Kicking me. Yelling at me to get down on the grass. Cuffing me. Asking me, “What you got in your pocket, boy?” (Ward, p. 170).”
Unfortunately, it is a real possibility that in this circumstance, Jojo might have had a different outcome. Still, he knows the danger, and this in itself is crushing.
(f). At first, I was not hopeful about the book, but as soon as Leone came into the picture, I was fraught with empathy for her children. How could she neglect them? How could she use, when they need food and care? How could she choose her man over her kids? In some ways, Leone’s character is what really hooked me to this book. In this scene, Michaela, her toddler, has just thrown up and is being taken care of by Jojo in the back seat. Leone:
“I’m tired of this shit,” I say…Maybe because part of me wanted her to leap for me…Maybe because I want her to burrow in to me for succor instead of her brother. Maybe because Jojo doesn’t even look at me, all his attnetion on the body in his arms, the little person he’s trying to soothe, and my attention is everywhere. Even now, my devotion: inconstant” (Ward, p. 98).
What is so captivating is that Leone knows who and what she is. She knows that she is not really the caretaker of her children, but doesn’t know how to stop – whether stop using or stop revolving her entire world around Michael. It is tragic, but one cannot look away. I finished the book quickly, even with the fear of what the scenes would bring and the tragic sadness of the story. Also, I enjoyed the magical realism and the presence of the ghosts of Given and Richie. In some ways, these apparitions were comforting, but not frightening. I have no illusions though, this book is not for everyone. I would recommend it to those who have an interest in realistic fiction and the topics of race and social justice.
Sing, Unburied, Sing takes the reader with a family on a road trip. Yet, this family is haunted. It is haunted not only by visions of Black murdered men seeking some type of closure, but of the living they left behind. Leone, mother to Jojo and Michaela, has never emerged from her brother Given’s death. It takes the reader through the South, in Mississippi, where, in this story, the life of a Black man does not hold the same value as his white counterpart, neither in the eyes of some people nor the law. It shows pure love between a brother and a sister, trying to live and survive with the love they are offered from their grandparents. It shows that the horrors of the past and more recent past still live among us. Due to the adult content and maturity level of this book, I recommend this book for upper level high school students.
Ward, J. (2017). Sing, unburied, sing : A novel. Scribner.
Alexander, M.( 2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. The New Press.