Sing, Unburied, Sing

by Jesmyn Ward

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

I like to think I know what death is.

The opening line of the novel underscores the narrative’s focus on death and, more specifically, the dead. Jojo is keenly aware of death as a concept, but he has yet to grasp death’s impact on his family. It is only through hearing the ending of Richie’s story from Pop and meeting the ghosts of those who died violently that Jojo begins to understand that the past and the present are irrevocably connected. Moreover, he learns that it is the responsibility of the living to remember and honor the dead.

Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.

Though Mam has tried to teach Leonie about herbal remedies and the healing power of nature, Leonie feels bitter and disillusioned in seeing Mam die of cancer. Leonie cannot seem to escape her sorrow and anger with the world, and it becomes clear that drugs are her way of self-medicating. Though Given’s spirit’s disapproval agitates her, Leonie finds drug-induced numbness better than the weight of responsibility and the pain of unresolved grief.

“I’m going home.”

The concepts of home and homegoing are central to Richie, both in life and death. Though prison is hard on all of the inmates, Pop notes that Richie’s youth and underdeveloped body made it even harder on him. After his whipping, Richie becomes fixated on the idea of going home. Thus it is all the more tragic that his spirit is trapped at Parchman for so many years. In death, the concept of home becomes a spiritual destination rather than a physical one. The song that Richie hears feels like home, but he cannot sing it right until he finds the answers that he needs about his death.

“No, she love you. She don’t know how to show it. And her love for herself and her love for Michael—well, it gets in the way. It confuse her.”

Leonie and Michael have always had a tempestuous relationship, and Jojo comments that after some of their fights, they both end up with bruises. Leonie expresses resentment toward the children in that they prevent her and Michael from being alone together, highlighting her immaturity. In the aftermath of Given’s death, Leonie latched onto Michael as a balm to her wounds, and the trauma of her brother’s death has never allowed her to move on and see outside of herself. Jojo and Kayla remind her too much of herself and Given, and the responsibility they represent is something she is still too immature to deal with. Though she and Michael both care for their children, they are ultimately too selfish to truly show it.

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