Jesmyn Ward’s third novel grapples with the long shadow cast by slavery in the American Southby Josie Mitchell / January 26, 2018 / Leave a comment
Toni Morrison was asked in a recent interview why skin colour still makes or breaks people in America. “We got started that way,” she responded. Jesmyn Ward’s third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the long shadow cast by slavery in the American South—not just the cycles of inherited trauma and alienation, but the mass incarceration of black men today.
This terrible legacy is embodied in the trials of one Gulf Coast family. Thirteen-year-old Jojo lives with his little sister and their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, in the fictional small town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. He sleeps on the floorboards between three-year-old Kayla and the front door, in case their mother storms in drunk or high. When Leonie learns that their father Michael will be released from prison, she drags the children along on a road trip to pick him up. It is the same prison where Jojo’s grandfather Pop was imprisoned in his youth for a petty crime, and where he was forced to work the prison cotton fields for years.
“See the birds?’” Kayla asks her brother Jojo, as they stand there. Jojo can see something, but it’s not birds: “I see men bent at the waist, row after row of them, picking at the ground, looking like a great murder of crows.” Perhaps ironically, this image, inherited from his grandmother, keeps hope alive, connecting Jojo and his family to “the Mothers,” a line of spiritual matriarchs from the Virgin Mary to Mami Wata, a water spirit with links back to West Africa.
Sing, Unburied, Sing recently won Ward a second National Book Award; her first, in 2011, went to Salvage the Bones, in which the same poverty-stricken Mississippi town reckoned with Hurricane Katrina.
In this novel Ward shows again that she can place harsh truths about America’s racial problems within a gorgeous, lyrical tale. One loving family’s damage and alienation is connected to the structures that have oppressed them. As so often in American history, the two are inextricable.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)