Sing, Unburied, Sing

by Jesmyn Ward

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Bois Sauvage, Parchman Prison, and Racism in the American South

Bois Sauvage is a fictional town in Mississippi that is closely modeled after Ward’s hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi. It has served as the setting for several of Ward’s novels, including Sing, Unburied, Sing and Salvage the Bones. As a mixed race child living in the South, Jojo must contend with the legacies of racism that still plague Bois Sauvage, which is stratified along racial and economic lines. White people, like Maggie and Big Joseph, live in the wealthier part of town, aptly named “the Kill,” while their poorer black neighbors cluster in their own neighborhoods. Though the novel is set well after segregation was declared illegal, Big Joseph’s hostility toward Leonie is indicative of the racial intolerance that keeps the Black and White communities of Bois Sauvage separate. Even Given, who viewed his white classmates as friends, is murdered in the Kill due to Michael’s cousin’s racially motivated envy. The experiences Ward depicts suggest that even though slavery and segregation are illegal, the trauma they inflicted on black communities and the prejudice they instilled in white people continue on in new forms.

Ward conducted extensive research while writing Sing, Unburied, Sing, specifically drawing inspiration from David Oshinsky’s book Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. Though the characters in Sing, Unburied, Sing are fictional, Parchman Farm—more formally known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary—is a real prison that is still in operation. Ward based the experiences of characters such as Richie and Pop on events from Parchman’s history, including its over-incarceration of black people and its reliance on inmate labor. In Ward’s novel, Parchman looms as a symbol of oppression and the systemic racism that disproportionately punishes black people. Stories like Richie’s and Pop’s emphasize the cruelty and injustice of the American legal system and the ways in which slavery has effectively continued under a new name: prison labor.

Narrative Style and the Importance of Perspective

Sing, Unburied, Sing is narrated from the perspective of three different characters: Jojo, Leonie, and Richie. Each character offers a unique outlook on the events that transpire and on each other. From Jojo’s perspective, Leonie is an irresponsible and hateful mother who neglects her children. Leonie’s point of view complicates this depiction, however: Rather than being a naturally cold and unloving mother, she is instead a woman constantly struggling with the realities of being a black woman in the South and the pain of having lost her brother. As a result, she self-medicates with the two things that help numb her pain and grief—Michael and meth. The novel does not pardon or redeem Leonie, but neither does it condemn her. Instead, Leonie is allowed to narrate her own truth, and Jojo’s perspective in turn represents the ways in which trauma can be inherited. Since Leonie’s childhood was cut short by Given’s murder, Leonie is not emotionally mature enough to be a good mother, leaving Jojo and Kayla to deal with the consequences of her neglect.

Richie’s perspective offers a historical representation of how race and class can shape people’s circumstances. Though tragic, the circumstances of his death are not unique, and at the end of the novel, Jojo sees the spirits of many others who also suffered violent deaths. The trauma is passed not only from parent to child, but also from generation to generation. Jojo learns this firsthand when the police officer cuffs him and points a gun at his back. Though Jojo survives the encounter, he feels as though the “cuffs cut all the way down to the bone,” and Richie intones that even though “the outside [of society] look different… the inside always the same.” In a symbolic sense, Richie—and the violence and racism that contributed to his death—are a part of Jojo’s cultural inheritance. He learned about love, dignity, and kindness from Pop and Mam, and now he must use those lessons to protect himself and Kayla from the darker realities of the world.

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