Sing, Unburied, Sing Characters
by Jesmyn Ward

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Sing, Unburied, Sing Characters

Joseph (“Jojo”)

Jojo is the primary protagonist of the novel. He is Leonie and Michael’s son and Kayla’s older brother. He has no respect for either of his parents, resenting their abandonment of him and Kayla. Conversely, he idolizes dignified, capable Pop and kind, nurturing Mam. Jojo is deeply attached to Kayla, having assumed a paternal role in his parents’ absence. Whenever she cries or is upset, she turns to Jojo for comfort, and he is protective of her during the roadtrip to Parchman and back. His role as Kayla’s caretaker and the harsh realities of being a biracial child in the South have forced Jojo to mature quickly. However, Richie remarks that Jojo still has a sense of “innocence” that Richie lacked at his age, which quality can be attributed to the loving presences of Pop and Mam in his life.

Jojo is able to communicate with animals and the spirits of the dead. This ability disturbs him, since his uncle Stag, who is commonly regarded as being mentally unwell, also talks to animals. It is through these abilities that Jojo is able to connect with his heritage and help Richie discover the circumstances surrounding his death. In Richie, Jojo sees the life he may have led if it weren’t for the love of his grandparents: Leonie and Michael’s selfishness would have left Jojo and Kayla hungry, and Jojo may have had to start stealing food, as Richie did. Instead, Jojo is well-fed and safe, with the strength to withstand the challenges of life and avoid the tragic ends that befell Richie and the other ghosts.

Leonie

Leonie is Jojo and Kayla’s mother and one of the novel’s narrators. From Jojo’s perspective, she is an irresponsible and neglectful parent who is overly focused on her boyfriend, Michael. Her drug habit and inconsistent presence have instilled a deep sense of mistrust in her children, who find her behavior incomprehensible. Jojo describes Leonie as someone who “kills things” because she is too caught up in her own concerns to care for others. The exception to her self-absorption is Michael, her longtime boyfriend and the father of her children. Leonie fixates on Michael to the exclusion of all else, and her drug usage is largely the result of his influence. His release from Parchman triggers a sentimental desire in Leonie to see her family reunited, and she embarks on the road trip under the delusion that she, Michael, and the kids can be a happy family together.

Leonie’s hopes of a loving family reunion are quickly dashed, and her resentment toward her children grows as Jojo’s lack of respect for her becomes apparent. His disdain for her attempts at parenting reinforce her feelings of inadequacy, which are further punctuated by Jojo’s refusal to call her “Mama.” At the heart of Leonie’s character is insecurity: she envies Misty and Michael, whose whiteness allows them to move through the world with ease; she feels like a disappointment to Mam and Pop, especially in comparison to Given, who had so much promise; and she feels as though Given, whose spirit appears to her when she is high, is judging her for her choices. Leonie is ultimately broken by the losses of her mother—who dies of cancer—and her children—who reject her as their mother. Unable to bear the grief, she abandons her roles as daughter and mother and runs away with Michael to get high.

Richie

Richie is a ghost and one of the novel’s narrators. He was born into a family of nine siblings and was sent to Parchman prison at age twelve after being caught stealing food. When Pop—whom Richie knows as River—was at Parchman, he took Richie under his protection, and the two formed a strong bond. One day, Richie witnessed an inmate named Blue assaulting a woman, and Blue and Richie escaped Parchman together. While on the run, Blue tried to assault a young white girl, but Richie stopped him. However, a lynch mob came after the two, and Blue was tortured and killed. River, who was responsible for looking after the...

(The entire section is 2,016 words.)