Last Updated 09 Nov 2022

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward

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Ghosts have never been proven to exist regardless of the many witnesses that have claimed to see them. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, several of the main characters struggle with seeing the ghosts of friends and family that have passed away. Their communication with the undead leads to many of the themes. It also tells more about Jesmyn Ward and her beliefs about ghosts. Jesmyn Ward’s life experiences affected the themes, symbols, and characters she used in Sing, Unburied, Sing. Jesmyn Ward grew up in southern Mississippi. From the beginning, her life filled with difficulties. She was born prematurely and had to fight to continue her life that had just begun. Shortly after, as a small child, her father’s pit bull viciously attacked her. After overcoming the long road of recovery, she became a happy, healthy child once again. The struggle continued in the 1980s when Ward’s family lost their money (Allardice). Ward’s family of four moved in with her grandmother and lived with a total of thirteen family members.

Although the crowded house caused some discomfort, Jesmyn recalled those years as some of the happiest years of her life (Allardice). During the stay at her grandmother’s Ward attended a private school funded by her mother’s employer. No other African American girls attended her school until her senior year. Attending the school as the only African American there caused a lot of bullying to take place throughout her school years. Although it was difficult for her to handle the discrimination, Ward stated in an interview, “All I thought about was to escape: ‘I want to get out. I want to go away to university’” (Allardice). Ward’s harsh childhood environment caused her to work harder towards her education. Ward dreamed of going away to college and receiving a formal education. Her determination allowed her to achieve great success at the University of Michigan. She studied fine arts while there and received a Master of Fine Arts. She used her degree to write her award-winning novels Where the Line Bleeds, Salvage the Bones, and Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Her novels allowed her to achieve greater success, and it showed when she received the Strauss Living Award in 2016 (Jesmyn Ward). Another example of when her hard work became noticed includes when she became the first woman to win two National Book Awards in Fiction (“Jesmyn Ward’s ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’...). The national attention Ward received brought attention to the dangers of growing up in the South as an African American. After surviving her dangerous childhood, her younger brother did not end up with the same luck. At the young age of nineteen, he was “killed in a hit and run by a white drunk driver” (Allardice). While the police never proved it, the hit and run could be considered a hate crime or discriminatory. She included her brother’s death in the memoir she wrote in 2013 about five young men who had died in her community. She has stated, “Grief never goes away. You never stop waiting for that person to walk through the door, but you learn to live with it” (Allardice). The grief of her loss greatly impacted Ward’s writing. Through her experience with her brother’s death, Ward is better able to write about the grief that a person feels at the loss of a sibling.

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In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward describes how Leonie losing her brother causes her struggle with drugs and addiction. Leonie started using drugs shortly after her brother’s death, but while high, she began to see his ghost. In the novel, Leonie’s star high school athlete brother was murdered by his white teammate (Crowe 43). Ward may have experienced similar grief to what she explains Leonie’s as. By using this experience with her characters, it causes the reader to wonder if Ward had a similar experience. Sing, Unburied, Sing has received much criticism and praise. Most critics believe it reveals an accurate representation of the lives of African Americans in the south. An African American woman and her two mixed-race children must drive north to pick their white father up from prison. In one review of the book, it is stated, “As soon as they leave the relative safety of their backwoods farm, the snares and temptations of the outside world crowd in, threatening to derail their trip or cast them into some fresh ordeal” (Charles). The group faces difficulties around every corner while on their trip. The teenage son, JoJo, knows the mother has little capability of caring for him and his younger sister. He tries to keep his sister quiet and calm so that his mother does not get angry. He can feel his mother’s hate towards them, and he knows that she enjoys abusing them and hitting them (Charles).

The trip caused several issues that relate to today’s life such as death, family, and racism. The novel revolves around everything that occurs to the family, making family a major theme. Not only does it tell of the current events of the family, but it also flashes back to when Leonie, the mother, and her brother were children. Sing, Unburied, Sing contains the detrimental death of Given. The death of her brother caused Leonie to fall into the trap of drugs and addiction. Leonie began seeing the ghost of Given after she became high. Although he would never talk, she knew the appearance of him had a meaning. By becoming reliant upon drugs, Leonie failed as a mother to her son and daughter, JoJo and Michaela. She neglects them by forgetting she needs to provide food and drinks for them. While under the influence, Leonie forgets about all of her family and her role as a mother and a daughter. Although Leonie struggles to maintain a healthy relationship with her family, the rest of the family grows closer as a result.

Pop and Mam replace Leonie and her boyfriend Michael as JoJo’s parents. This causes even more resentment from Leonie because they can successfully care for young children while she cannot. JoJo and Michaela have the closest relationship within the family. Not only are they brother and sister, but JoJo also cares for Kayla as a parent should. He knows how to make her stop crying, feeds her, sings to her, and watches over her all of the time. Kayla sees JoJo as more of a father figure than her actual father, Michael. Michael does not have much of a relationship with anyone in the family besides Leonie. He abuses the children as much as Leonie, and JoJo avoids him because of it. When he tries to care for the children, his attempts deem unsuccessful (Ward).

All types of relationships possible within a nuclear family are demonstrated within the novel While the novel mainly revolves around the theme family, it also contains death and illness as a theme. Ward mentions from the beginning how Mam suffers from cancer. The cancer eventually leads to her death despite her attempts to prolong her life. She tries herbs and mixtures of plants to cure the cancer, but none of them work. The loss of Mam brings memories of the death of Given several years prior. Mam’s death caused much sorrow, but Given’s death caused more than just grief. Given’s death brought Leonie’s downhill spiral. She abused drugs such as heroin and meth to try to forget the pain. The pain only increased when the ghost of Given began appearing to her. She knew she could not mention the appearances to any other people because they would think of it as a reaction to the drugs. In the time of Pop’s youth, he attended a work camp where he met a teenager named Richie. He felt a need to protect and care for Richie because a scrawny fifteen-year-old boy would most likely die shortly after arriving.

Pop knew Richie needed to survive the trials of the prison, so he took him under his wing. Towards the time of Pop’s release, Richie tried to escape. A search party including Pop went to find him and eventually separated. Pop found Richie lying on the ground and made a split-second decision as he heard others approaching. Pop knew killing Richie himself would be more merciful than whatever the prison guards would do to him. Pop did not tell anybody at home of what occurred during his stay at the work camp. Death surrounds the family (Ward). Although it causes so much grief, life includes death. Everything that lives must also die. Sing, Unburied, Sing brings death into perspective because no matter how hard one fights against it, eventually death will win. Everyone has their own method of avoiding death or attempting to prolong life. Many cultures have their own unique ways of warding off death.

African cultures have voodoo talismans that should bring luck. Pop believes a gris-gris bag will help ward off death for JoJo. The bag he gives JoJo contains a rock, an animal tooth, and a feather. Pop believes each item carries a spirit with it that can combine with other items and spirits to create a spiritual balance. The spirit should protect whoever carries the bag with them. The gris-gris bag symbolizes Mam and Pop’s love for JoJo and want to protect him. They want to keep him safe while they cannot watch over him because they know he will need it. They realize Leonie may not care for the children like she should, so they want to help in any way they can without having a presence there (Ward). While spiritual talismans are meant to protect, sometimes the person has to bring their safety into their own hands.

Occasionally, children must mature sooner than they should. JoJo, a boy celebrating his thirteenth birthday, had to care for his baby sister in the absence of his mother. He cared for Michaela more than her biological parents, and he knows her habits better than they did. He acts serious and mature, but he also has some similarities to the typical teenage boy. During the trip, he focuses on how beautiful Misty appears. JoJo does not understand his feelings, he only knows Misty looks attractive enough for him to notice. JoJo has intelligence to compare to any other child his age. Although he is so smart, he cannot understand why Leonie acts the way she does, and this causes misunderstandings in their relationship. JoJo knows how to care for Michaela and wants to do it himself, but Leonie wants to act like a mother for her.

Although JoJo has difficulties with his mother, his relationship with his grandparents, Mam and Pop, includes adoration and pure love. When Mam dies toward the end of the novel, JoJo feels that her unfair death should have taken place years into the future. JoJo faces a complicated situation on the way home from picking his father up from prison. Not only did they retrieve his father, but they also gained a ghost passenger named Richie. Because Richie appeared as a ghost, only JoJo and Kayla could see him. JoJo possesses a power that allows him to see ghosts. While his mother can see Given, JoJo sees Richie and can speak to him. JoJo knows he cannot tell Pop, but he believes Mam might understand since she spoke of similar abilities previously. JoJo struggles with his ability because he does not understand how to make it stop.

Richie’s ghost torments him the entire trip home, until Pop tells the story of how he killed Richie (Ward). JoJo matures even more after hearing the story. He understands the luck he has had. He knows he could not have saved a friend if it meant killing them. JoJo cares too much about those he loves to harm them in any way. Whenever he gets the chance, he takes Leonie and Michael’s hits that are meant for Kayla. He takes the physical harm himself instead of putting her through it. JoJo has more responsibilities than a boy his age should have to handle. His childhood made him into the near adult he has become. Many of Sing, Unburied, Sing’s themes, symbols, and characters were created through Jesmyn Ward’s life experiences. The loss of her brother greatly affected the subjects she writes about in her novels. The bullying she faced as a child gave her the motivation she needed to become an award-winning artist. Several reviews have been written to praise Ward’s writing in this novel. Ward’s story brings ghosts to life and allows the reader to believe in the paranormal.

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