Sing, Unburied, Sing

by Jesmyn Ward

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated November 3, 2023.

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 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 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...

(This entire section contains 2016 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 prison dogs, pursued Richie and, after seeing what the mob did to Blue, decided to give Richie a more merciful death.

As a result of his violent death, Richie’s spirit was trapped at Parchman. He is only able to leave after Jojo, River’s grandson, enters the prison’s grounds. Richie makes contact with Jojo and follows him back to Bois Sauvage in the hopes of learning the circumstances behind his death. After Pop reveals that he killed Richie, Richie is distraught, and his spirit is seemingly still trapped alongside other ghosts who died violently.

Richie’s story embodies the legacy of violence and racism that plagues the Southern United States. His life—and death—illustrate the ways in which the devaluation of Black labor and mass incarceration are used to reinforce the racial status quo. Because black workers in Richie’s day were often relegated to underpaid, unskilled positions, they were forced to steal in order to survive, increasing their chances of being arrested. This allowed prisons to essentially continue the practice of slavery by forcing the primarily black inmates to perform unpaid labor. It also robbed the families of the incarcerated of a source of income, reinforcing the cycle of poverty and imprisonment. Richie and the other ghosts also exemplify the persistence of cultural memory and the idea that, as Mam puts, time is not a “straight line.” It is the responsibility of the living to commemorate the unburied dead, honoring their memories and fighting back against the forces of racism and systemic abuse that claimed their lives.

River (“Pop”)

Pop is Jojo’s loving grandfather. In Leonie’s absence, he and Mam take Jojo and Kayla in and act as parental figures. Jojo idolizes Pop for his dignity, kindness, and strong connection with the natural world. Pop teaches Jojo about life and gives him the skills and guidance he needs to succeed in the world. Pop also tells Jojo stories about his time at Parchman prison, where he was confined on false charges at just fifteen years old. While at Parchman, he met Richie, and the two formed a strong bond. Pop tried to protect Richie from the guards and other inmates. Tragically, he felt compelled to kill Richie to save him from the clutches of a brutal lynch mob.

His decision to offer Richie a more merciful death tests the limits of his compassion. Though he knows that he saved Richie from an even worse fate, he feels guilty throughout his life. His guilt is only amplified after Given’s death. Pop is a protector and nurturer by nature, but in the end, he is powerless against the racism that claims the lives of the young black men he cares for. Jojo is Pop’s final chance at redemption: if he can protect Jojo from the tragic fates of Richie and Given, then he will have atoned for what he views as his previous failures.

Philomene (“Mam”)

Mam is Jojo’s maternal grandmother. Like Jojo, she is deeply intuitive and can perceive and commune with spirits. She uses her knowledge of plants and herbs to help heal and empower the black community of Bois Sauvage. She and Pop look after Jojo and Kayla, as Michael is in prison and Leonie is often absent. Mam has late-stage cancer and is bedridden, a source of grief for Pop, Jojo, and Leonie, who all view her as a pillar of love and strength. At the end of the novel, she tells Leonie that she is ready to die and asks her to summon the death spirit Madam Birgitte to help her pass on. After passing, she follows her son, Given, into the afterlife, where they both presumably find peace. Before dying, Mam tells Jojo that she hopes she has fed him enough over the years, because Leonie will be unable to provide for him once she is gone. This encapsulates Mam’s presence throughout the novel: she feeds and nourishes her family, and, in caring for Jojo, she teaches him how to care for Kayla, breaking the cycles of abuse and abandonment in favor of love and healing.

Michaela (“Kayla”)

Kayla is Jojo’s three-year-old sister. Her given name is Michaela, after her father, Michael, but Leonie and Michael are the only ones who call her by her full name. Since Leonie is absent so often, Kayla has come to view Jojo as a paternal figure, clinging to him whenever she is distressed. After Michael is released from Parchman, Kayla does not recognize him as her father and is upset by his attempts to hold her. She shares Jojo’s gift of being able to see spirits, and, at the end of the novel, sings to the restless ghosts in order to comfort them.


Michael is Kayla and Jojo’s father and Leonie’s longterm boyfriend. He is White and comes from a racist family that looks down on his relationship with Leonie. Michael and Leonie have a turbulent relationship that is both passionately loving and violent. Mam notes that they are so absorbed in each other that they have little attention to give anything else—including their children. At the novel’s start, Michael is finishing a three-year sentence at Parchman prison for cooking meth, a practice that he took up after the oil rig he used to work on exploded, leaving him unemployed. Leonie is thrilled to be reunited with him, and Michael attempts to insert himself back into his children’s lives, but he quickly discovers that Kayla does not recognize him and Jojo no longer considers him a father. Michael quickly grows frustrated with his children. At the end of the novel, he and Leonie leave to get high, effectively giving up as parents.


Misty is Leonie’s coworker and best friend. They bond over their shared drug usage and interracial relationships, but Leonie resents Misty’s privileges as a white woman and the ease with which Misty seems to move through the world. Misty joins the road trip to Parchman because her boyfriend, Bishop, is also an inmate there. She convinces Leonie to transport a package of meth during the trip in order to make some extra money. Misty’s unconcerned attitude toward drug trafficking exemplifies the privilege that Leonie attributes to her. Misty does not have to be as afraid of the repercussions as Leonie does, because law enforcement is less likely to target a white woman.

Maggie and Big Joseph

Maggie and Big Joseph are Michael’s parents. They have had little contact with their grandchildren as a result of their racial prejudices, and Big Joseph adamantly disapproves of Michael and Leonie’s relationship. Though Maggie encourages Big Joseph to be civil, he ends up insulting and degrading Leonie during a visit, leading him and Michael to brawl.


Given is Leonie’s deceased brother. A prodigious football player, Given was popular with both his white and black classmates. However, he was killed in cold blood after he won a hunting competition against a white classmate—who also happened to be Michael’s cousin. His murderer was sentenced to only three years in prison after Big Joseph, the town sheriff, advised him to testify that Given’s death was a “hunting accident.” Given’s death—and his murderer’s lenient sentence—highlight the legacy of racism in the American South. Though Given believed that his race didn’t matter to his white friends, he was killed for upstaging a white boy, and the local law enforcement conspired to protect his killer. His death deeply traumatized Leonie, and she continues to see Given’s spirit when she gets high. He seems saddened by her choices and the way she treats her children, furthering Leonie’s feelings of inadequacy. At the end of the novel, Given comes to lead Mam into the afterlife, and it is implied that both he and Mam are at peace.