“Home is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you. Whether it pull you so close the space between you and it melt and y’all one and it beats like your heart.” Richie
I finished Sing, Unburied, Sing nearly a month ago and have struggled to read anything else over the last few weeks. The story has haunted me. I’ve needed space and time to process it. Jesmyn Ward’s novel is beautiful, devastating, and unforgettable.
I started reading it before George Floyd’s murder. The parallels between fact and fiction couldn’t be ignored as current events unfolded throughout the month of June. The impact of systemic racism and the legacy of slavery is at the core of this prize winning novel. It’s a brilliant book with many layers. I’d highly recommend reading it.
The story is told through the voices of three characters: Jojo, his mother Leonie, and Richie. I struggled through the graphic first chapter as Jojo performs a rite of passage with his grandfather “Pop” on his thirteenth birthday. Together they slaughter a goat which will be prepared for their celebratory dinner. In the process of killing the animal, Jojo becomes a man. The scene also foreshadows what’s to come.
Jojo is biracial and lives in rural Mississippi with his 3 year old sister, his African-American mother and maternal grandparents. We learn early on that his parents are unreliable, volatile drug addicts. Pop protects the children, works the farm, and cares for his wife who is dying of cancer.
Michael, Jojo’s father, has been in prison for several years. The paternal grandparents care about their wayward son but reject Leonie and her children because they’re white supremacists. There are other sinister family dynamics at play as a result of a murder which occurred when Leonie was still in high school. I’m trying to avoid spoilers so that’s all I’ll say.
I love Ward’s lyrical writing, the way she weaves nature into the narration, as if it’s another character. More than once I was reminded of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Anyone who enjoys magical realism will enjoy this aspect of the book. Ward’s writing style has also been compared to William Faulkner’s.
Ward has a gift for creating the setting. Her depiction of rural poverty in the American south is gritty and raw. Mississippi shapes the characters; they are molded from the red clay, the oppressive heat, the lack of opportunity.
I was interested in Ward’s use of language, particularly the way she referenced water or the lack of it. The prison was called Parchman, Jojo’s thirst on the long, stifling roadtrip to collect his father from jail became unbearable, and there were other examples that begged relief from the harsh, dry environment. It’s no coincidence that River is the name of one of the main characters (otherwise known as Pop). Life sustaining water is the element needed to grow crops, to heal sick bodies, to quench, to cleanse.
Mama carried an orange bracelet always, woven orange yarn with little orange beads on it, and she knotted it and put it in the pocket of her skirt every day, and when me or Given done something stupid, something like Given getting drunk for the first time, and showing up with a sick mouth throwing up all over her herbs on the porch, or like when I pulled up some plant she was growing in the garden, mistaking it for a weed, she’d grab that little piece of orange and start praying: “Saint Teresa,” I’d hear. “Our Lady of Candelaria,” she’d mutter. And then: “Oya.” And I don’t know French, just words here and there, but sometimes she’d say it in English, and I was there often enough to understand: “For Oya of the winds, of lightning, of storms. Overturn our minds. Clean the world with your storms, destroy it and make it new with the winds of your skirts.” And when I asked her what she meant, she said: “Ain’t no good in using anger to lash. You pray for it to blow up a storm that’s going to flush out the truth.”Leonie recalls her mother’s words, page 145
What is the truth?
Jojo has a lot of questions about Pop’s past, but his grandfather is reluctant to answer them. River tells stories to his grandson about the time he spent at Parchman as a teenager, although some details are just too painful to recount. Mostly he talks about Richie, a fellow inmate who was a boy of only 12 years, serving his sentence alongside grown men. The images of them working the fields, with gunmen overlooking, reminded me of every film I’ve ever seen of slaves picking cotton under the watchful eyes of overseers. One system of oppression had simply replaced another.
As the story flipped between River’s imprisonment in the 1940’s and the present, I was struck by how much circumstances had not changed in the south. Injustice prevailed. Black men continued to be murdered without consequence. Although it’s a contemporary story set in the 2000’s, Mississippi’s historic, deep seated racism is just as prevalent as in the past.
One day, me and him was sitting on my mama and daddy front porch and we heard Stag a ways off, coming up the road, singing, and River said: “There’s things that move a man. Like currents of water inside. Things he can’t help. Older I got, the more I found it true. What’s in Stag is like water so black and deep you can’t see the bottom.” Stag was laughing now. But then Pop said: “Parchman taught me the same in me, Philomène.” Some days later, I understood what he was trying to say, that getting grown means learning how to work the current: learning when to hold fast, when to drop the anchor when to let it sweep you up. And it could be something simple as sex, or it could be something as complicated as falling in love, or it could be like going to jail with your brother, thinking you going to protect him. You understand what I’m telling you, Jojo?Philomène (Jojo’s grandmother), page 68
This book broke my heart over and over, partly because it’s so realistic. It’s a coming of age tale unlike any I’ve ever read. I loved Jojo’s character and wanted him to exist in a world where police brutality and systemic racism didn’t exist, where people were punished for crimes and not the color of their skin. I wanted equality- for his standard of living to be the same as his white peers. I wanted Jojo’s life to matter… for all of the black characters’ lives to matter. Of course this is true on and off of the page.
Today is the 4th of July, a national holiday where I grew up. Like most Americans I used to celebrate with family and friends at barbecues, parades, and neighborhood fireworks. These days many people of color are thinking more seriously about what Independence Day really means. The Black Lives Matter protests continue, making it the largest movement in the nation’s history. Some activists are refusing to participate in celebrations today and will march instead.
Independence for people of color has not been part of our livelihood. We’re constantly murdered, harassed because of police brutality all over the country. The concept of freedom does not seem to come to our doorstep, even though we’ve been here 400 years. We look it as an abomination to recognize anything that comes with the Fourth of July.Rabbi Michael Ben Yosef, quoted from We Refuse to Celebrate, USA Today, July 4, 2020
Until all people in America share the same freedoms, we cannot really celebrate Independence Day. Reading novels such as Sing, Unburied, Sing can help foster understanding, especially for people who fail to see how the past still impacts the present. To conclude, here are a few words from Frederick Douglass:
“Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
I am hopeful that what we are witnessing now is what Philomène described as the storm that’s going to flush out the truth. Collective anger has mobilised people to demand change in America (and Britain). Although black people have pushed back for years, it’s only now that some people are opening their eyes and beginning to listen. I look forward to a day when there is unity, when we can truly celebrate liberty for all.