Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.
Brief Biography of Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward was born in DeLisle, a rural community in the gulf of Mississippi. A first generation college student, she studied English at Stanford University, graduating in 1999. She also gained an MA in Media Studies from Stanford. In 2000, Ward’s younger brother was killed by a drunk driver. In her 2013 memoir Men We Reaped, Ward reflects on the lives of her younger brother and four other black men from her hometown who died young. In 2005 Ward graduated from the University of Michigan with an MFA in Creative Writing. Shortly after, Ward’s family home in DeLisle flooded as a result of Hurricane Katrina, an event that had a profound impact on her writing. Ward has worked at the University of New Orleans, the University of South Alabama, Stanford, and the University of Mississippi, and is currently an associate professor of English at Tulane. She has published five books, including a collection she edited called The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, which was published in 2016. Ward is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and has won the National Book Award for Fiction twice: first for Salvage the Bones in 2011, and again for Sing, Unburied, Sing in 2017.
Historical Context of Sing, Unburied, Sing
Although Hurricane Katrina is not mentioned in the novel explicitly, like the book’s ghosts it has a haunting effect on the story. The narrative is filled with details of intense, violent, and changeable weather, which has a strong impact on the rural community in which Jojo’s family lives. More broadly, the novel is set in the context of the unfolding drug epidemic in the 20th and 21st century United States, as well as the corresponding “War on Drugs” and era of mass incarceration. Like many poor people in the South, Michael and Leonie––as well as several other characters in the novel––use drugs as a way of coping with the poverty, racism, violence, and trauma that surrounds them. Michael is locked up in Parchman, seemingly on charges of possessing and distributing crystal meth. The fact that Pop and Richie were in Parchman also highlights the connection between drug use, poverty, racism, and incarceration. Even before the War on Drugs, black people were imprisoned en masse ever since the time of slavery. The long history of racist incarceration in America is thus one of the most important contextual elements of the novel.
Other Books Related to Sing, Unburied, Sing
Many African-American novels feature ghosts; the most famous example of which is Toni Morrison’s Beloved
. Ghosts are also a particularly important feature of Southern Gothic; in this genre, ghosts often become a manifestation of the way that the present is haunted by racial violence and slavery. Octavia Butler’s Kindred
, which — like Beloved
— is a neo-slave narrative, does not feature ghosts but does involve an exploration of people’s connection to their ancestors, as well as an indication of how slavery and racist violence haunt the present. Similarly, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing
mediates on the connection between ancestors and their descendants, particularly in the context of the transatlantic slave trade and its legacy. Brit Bennett’s The Mothers
, set in a black community in California, tells the story of a young woman who, like Leonie, must navigate motherhood in the face of unbearable grief.
Key Facts about Sing, Unburied, Sing
Full Title: Sing, Unburied, Sing
Where Written: DeLisle, Mississippi
When Published: 2017
Literary Period: Contemporary Literature, 21st century African-American Fiction
Genre: Southern Gothic, Magical Realism
Setting: Gulf Coast, Mississippi
Climax: The end of the novel, when Kayla sees the large group of ghosts and sings to them, telling them to go home.
Antagonist: Big Joseph
Point of View: The story switches between three first-person narrators: Jojo, Leonie, and Richie
Extra Credit for Sing, Unburied, Sing