Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, begins with a simple imperative—“sing.” Written in the ninth century BC, his poetic songs aimed to honor the memory of soldiers strewn upon the battlefields of Troy as their souls hurried along to Hades. And the world has been singing them ever since. Homer’s words unearthed the dead, enabling their melodic tombstones to travel around the world. With Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward accomplishes something similar for black southerners and their legacy in the South.
Set in rural Mississippi, the novel follows a thirteen-year-old boy named Jojo. He lives with his grandparents because his mother Leonie is an inconsistent presence, often medicated on drugs and alcohol. His father Michael is also absent as he waits out the remainder of his prison sentence at Parchman Farm. Early on, it’s clear this family carries wounds that transcend generations. Pop, Jojo’s grandfather, also spent time at Parchman, though his stint occurred during a far more violent period of the institution’s history.
Over the years, Jojo has heard fragments of his story, revolving around a boy named Richie who was also there with Pop. But every time he presses his grandfather for more, the man closes up. On Jojo’s thirteenth birthday, news arrives that Michael is about to be released. So Leonie picks him up along with his baby sister Kayla and they set off for Parchman with her friend Misty in the hopes of reuniting their family. On the way, the dead begin to sing.
By the time they arrive at the prison, Ward introduces two ghosts to her narrative—Given, Leonie’s murdered brother, and Richie, the boy imprisoned at Parchman alongside Pop. With each passing mile to and from the prison, their stories begin to intersect. Ward transitions between Jojo, Leonie, and Richie to piece together the past and explain the present.
On its surface, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a lyrical survey of the black experience in the South. Not only is Jojo black, but he’s also the son of a mixed-race couple, his father being white. And Michael’s family wants nothing to do with their grandchild or his mother, which contributes further to their troubles. While this contemporary form of racism may appear muted compared to previous times, it nonetheless remains.
But the novel is about more than simply race. It’s about legacy, specifically that of the South, and how the past shapes the present as well as the future. When we meet Jojo, the Mississippi prison system has stolen two generations of men from his family, a legacy that haunts them quite literally. Statistically speaking, one would expect Jojo to follow suit. Left to an aging grandfather on one side and a racist one on the other, he must learn how to become a man, and the future looks bleak.
We hear the hum of this melody today. Established in 1901, Parchman was one of two Mississippi facilities designated solely for black men. Historical accounts describe it as an extension of slavery. It was run brutally, like that of an antebellum plantation utilizing black labor to clear uncultivated lands in the Mississippi delta and performing on-site executions while enjoying lucrative profits. It has many songs to sing.
For Ward, Richie is her muse. Unable to pass peacefully into death, he is trying to return to Pop so he can understand how he died, the final portion of the story Jojo has so longed to hear. Even in death, a victim of horrific injustice, Richie cries out for his song to be heard. And through him, Jojo begins to understand that he must embrace the death and injustice of the past to face today anew. He learns both to see and to hear what it means to be a man.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a visceral and harrowing read. Crowned with the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction, Ward’s novel continues to cement her place among today’s literary elite. And rightfully so. These songs deserve to be heard and we would do well to listen and learn. Our past tells a story and one day we will leave behind a legacy that will shape the future. Our songs will be sung, but will they be worth hearing?
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Building Your Bookshelf
The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman
In the wake of their friend’s suicide, “The Gunners,” a group of childhood companions, gather together to pay their respects to one of their former members. Sally was one of them, until she strangely abandoned the group for unclear reasons. Centered on Mikey Callahan, now a thirty-year-old fighting a losing battle with macular degeneration, the novel explores the secrets threading their relationships through a bittersweet reunion. Nostalgic, gracious, and tenderhearted, The Gunners is a welcome addition to the growing arena of books celebrating the beauty of friendship.
The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve
Set in coastal Maine during the 1940s, the Hollands are a hardworking American family. Grace and her husband Gene have two small children and one on the way when fires begin to rage along the coast, threatening their livelihood. Running out of options, Gene sets out to join the volunteer firefighters, leaving Grace to care for their children. Before long, the fires reach their neighborhood forcing her to flee into the ocean with her neighbors as she and her children watch their house burn. Gene is nowhere to be found. Faced with having to rebuild their lives, Grace begins to find new strength on her own until her past comes home and she is forced to decide the course of her family’s future.
The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce
For five minutes, Jim Byrd was clinically dead, having suffered cardiac arrest. During that time, he saw nothing. No bright lights. No long-dead relatives. Nothing. When he wakes up, he has a device encasing his heart to keep it beating and a lot of questions about what happens when we die. Soon after, he encounters a ghost at a local restaurant that sets into motion a series of events tying his future to a close-to-home past. With well-crafted characters and an alluring plot, The Afterlives takes readers on a thoughtful, heartfelt journey questioning what it means to live with death in mind.
Cover image by Nathaniel Tetteh.
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