Sing, Unburied, Sing Analysis
by Jesmyn Ward

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Sing, Unburied, Sing Analysis

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...

(The entire section is 689 words.)