Sing, Unburied, Sing

by Jesmyn Ward

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

The Legacy of American Racism

Jojo is a biracial child growing up in the American South, and racism plays a major role in both his life and his family’s history. Pop and Richie’s stories reveal the brutal legacy of lynching and mob justice, by which white people could murder black people with minimal repercussions. Pop remarks that even farm animals receive more humane deaths than Blue’s lynching. In many cases, Black people, especially those considered criminals, are dehumanized. This dehumanization is illustrated by the lynch mob’s inability to discern Blue from Richie, despite the fact that Richie was only twelve. The tendency of white people to discount the innocence of black children is also exemplified in Jojo’s encounter with the cop who cuffs him and points a gun at his head for reaching into his pocket. In the aftermath, Richie laments to a shaken Jojo that, even though things appear to have changed since his death, racism continues to plague society.

Though lynching is less common in modern times, Bois Sauvage remains unofficially segregated along racial lines, and prejudice still pervades its populace. Big Joseph, Michael’s father and the former town sheriff, hurls racial slurs and actively disapproves of his son’s relationship with Leonie because of her race. His hatred runs so deep that he won’t allow his biracial grandchildren into his home. Big Joseph’s beliefs represent the history of anti-miscegenation policies, which pervaded the United States during the antebellum period. Up until 1967, interracial marriages were illegal in many Southern states, including Mississippi. Big Joseph’s accusation that Leonie and her family have “bad blood” evokes the white supremacist ideology of racial integrity, which alleged that having even one black ancestor would pollute a bloodline. His status as a former sheriff suggests that the structures of power, especially within local law enforcement, are aligned against Bois Sauvage’s Black residents. This is further evidenced by Big Joseph’s role in having Given’s murder declared a hunting accident; he seems utterly unconcerned about Given’s death and instead devotes his efforts to minimizing the repercussions for his white nephew.

Food as a Form of Love

Food is a vital component of life, and to prepare or acquire food, especially in the face of adversity, is figured as an act of love throughout the novel. Mam and Pop are both good cooks, and Jojo and Kayla are always well-fed in their home. The goat stew that Pop cooks for Jojo’s birthday is described with pleasant olfactory and gustatory imagery—Jojo notes the rich, beefy smell of the goat as it boils alongside garlic, celery, and onions. He laments that Mam’s cancer has left her unable to bake him her customary red velvet cake. Instead, Leonie buys him a cheap “baby shower cake” and “the cheapest ice cream, the kind with a texture like cold gum.” Michael perverts the act of cooking by cooking meth, a drug that not only increases the emotional distance between him and his children but also leads to his prison sentence and subsequent physical distance.

Michael and Leonie’s ineptitude as parents is further highlighted by Kayla and Jojo’s frequent bouts of hunger during the road trip. When Jojo complains of thirst or Kayla cries for food, Leonie is too absorbed in herself and Michael to feed them. Jojo resorts to stealing from the meth house and shoplifting at gas stations to keep himself and Kayla fed—just as Richie had to steal food in order to feed his nine siblings. Even when Michael makes an effort to be a good father and cooks bacon for the kids, he burns it and renders it...

(This entire section contains 1099 words.)

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barely edible, suggesting that cooking meth has polluted his ability to nourish his children. Mam warns Jojo that “[Leonie] ain’t never going to feed [him]” and expresses the hope that she has fed him enough to carry him through to adulthood. After watching Kayla climb into Jojo’s lap, Mam remarks that he does not have Leonie’s defect: Jojo is already a loving caretaker for Kayla, implying that Mam and Pop have successfully taught him how to feed others.

Identity and Belonging

Each of the narrators is at a different point in life (or afterlife), with Jojo navigating adolescence, Leonie approaching middle age, and Richie searching for answers from beyond the grave. All three narrators are, in a sense, lost. After failing to help slaughter the goat with Pop, Jojo worries that he has not yet “earned” his thirteen years or the right to be considered a man; Leonie became a mother at seventeen, shortly after having her childhood stolen away by her brother’s death, and her stunted maturity has resulted in a life of drug use and neglectful parenting; Richie is stuck between the worlds of the living and the dead, unable to “go home” until he learns how he died.

Jojo, Leonie, and Richie are all searching for a sense of belonging and security that their current lives do not offer. Jojo begins the novel as an insecure child who resents his spiritual intuitions and distances himself from his parents in order to avoid being hurt. Over the course of the road trip, however, he fully comes into his role as Kayla’s protector and caretaker, giving her the parental care that Michael and Leonie cannot offer. He still does not understand Leonie, but he is able to let go of her neglectfulness and abuse. He transitions from being an insecure boy to being a confident and capable young man.

Leonie embarks on the road trip to retrieve Michael in the hopes that reuniting her family will help reestablish the broken bonds of trust between her and her children. However, her hopes are naive, and she is unable to embrace her identity as a mother, instead choosing to run away from her responsibilities. Rather than fighting for her family, she embraces the numbness and false sense of security engendered by meth.

Though Richie does not escape his limbo, Pop’s confession frees him from the bounds of Parchman. He and the rest of the unburied dead congregate in the tree outside of Jojo’s house, a grave testament to the violence suffered by those who came before. Yet they also offer a slim sense of hope; as Kayla sings, the ghosts begin to feel at “home,” implying that perhaps the wounds of the dead can be healed by the efforts of the living, transforming their legacy from one of violence and oppression into one of hope and belonging.