It is Jojo’s 13th birthday, and his grandfather, Pop, has asked him to help him kill a goat. As Jojo’s narrative begins, his sister Kayla is still asleep, as is Jojo’s grandmother, Mam, who is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. Jojo and Pop go outside to the shed and Pop unties the “unlucky” goat. Jojo tells the reader that his other grandfather, Big Joseph, is white. Jojo lives with Pop and has only met Big Joseph twice. Big Joseph is the father of Jojo’s father, Michael, who is in prison. Back in the narrative, Pop tackles the goat and slits its throat and stomach; he tells Jojo to pull its insides out. Jojo dumps the goat’s skin into a bucket. When Pop cuts the goat’s stomach open it emits a terrible smell, and Jojo runs out of the shed to vomit.
The opening of the novel, which is told from Jojo’s perspective, introduces the characters and setting in a somewhat scattered way, and presents some of the racial dynamics of the family. It also immediately introduces the motif of vomiting. Jojo is accustomed to being around animals, as he lives in a rural area, but he is still disgusted by the visceral experience of the goat’s slaughtered body. Note the similarity between the two bodily processes described here: Jojo pulls the insides of the goat out, which causes him to vomit––another way in which the inside of the body becomes external.
After Jojo vomits, Pop tells him that he heard Kayla crying, so Jojo goes back inside, but he finds that Kayla is still asleep. Jojo then recalls happier times in his childhood, when he still called Leonie “Mama” and Michael “Pop,” before Leonie started using drugs. Jojo explains that Michael was imprisoned three years ago, before Kayla was born. He returns to the shed, where he and Pop witness two goats mating. Jojo thinks about his parents’ relationship, which is passionate and tumultuous.
Pop’s protection of Jojo is not always visible to Jojo himself, in part because he is only 13. Although we can’t be sure, it seems obvious that Pop didn’t actually hear Kayla crying, but sent Jojo back inside because it was clear he couldn’t handle this stage of slaughtering the goat. However, Pop pretends otherwise so as not to embarrass Jojo. Note that the mating goats make Jojo think of Leonie and Michael, in an early example of the complex relationship between animals/nature and humanity in the novel.
Jojo remembers a time after Mam was first diagnosed with cancer, when Pop left him alone with Leonie, who then drove away herself. Jojo heard Pop’s brother, Stag, walking past and singing. According to Mam, Stag is “sick in the head”. Frightened, Jojo went outside with the animals, where he stepped on a jagged can lid and screamed. When Pop came back he pulled the lid out and shouted at Leonie for leaving Jojo alone. That was when Jojo first called Leonie by her first name.
In this recollection, the emotional “wound” created by Leonie’s neglect of Jojo is symbolized by the physical wound Jojo receives when he steps on the can lid. Throughout the novel, physical ailments often represent the characters’ internal emotional trauma. The fact that Jojo now calls Leonie by her first name shows how distant they are emotionally, and how Jojo has been forced at a young age to like an adult and peer to his mother, rather than a child.
Back in the present, Jojo asks Pop to tell him about Parchman. Pop explains that he and Stag had the same father, who died young. When they were kids, Stag was fun-loving and rebellious; Pop thinks this is because Stag felt “dead inside.” One day when Pop was 15, Stag got into a fight with some white men at a bar. The white men beat Stag, then followed him home, tied up Stag and Pop, and drove them to Parchman. Pop recalls that the youngest person at Parchman then was Richie. At this point Kayla wakes up. Jojo gives her some juice and she asks him to sing to her. After Jojo is done singing, he takes out a playset for Kayla and asks Pop to keep telling the story.
Like many grandfathers and grandsons, Pop and Jojo bond over Pop’s stories of his past. However, the story Pop tells is notably dark, indicating that the world they live in is harsh and violent. Jojo may only be 13, but when Pop was just two years older he was sent to prison for no reason other than racism. Even given Jojo’s own experience of racism, family problems, and drug abuse, he has a sheltered life compared to Pop.
Pop explains that Richie was 12 years old, and had been sent to Parchman for stealing food, as had many of the other inmates. Parchman didn’t seem like a prison at first, because it was structured as a camp with open fields. In reality, Parchman was controlled by inmate guards called “trusty shooters” and a sergeant who was descended from a “long line of overseers.” Stag was convicted of assault, and Pop of harboring a fugitive. The brothers were put into separate camps and forced to work the cotton field from sunrise to sunset in sweltering heat. When Richie arrived, he was crying silently. He later explained that he had nine younger siblings and stole food to feed them.
Parchman represents the profound racial injustice that continues to shape life in the South, highlighting how this injustice is a close continuation of slavery. At only 12 years old, Richie is imprisoned simply because his family is too poor to afford food. Meanwhile, the labor that inmates are forced to do at Parchman is almost indistinguishable from slavery.
Jojo confesses that he does not understand his mother, and notes that Leonie hates the fact that the rest of the family call Kayla “Kayla,” rather than Michaela, because she named her after Michael. Leonie arrives at the house—she has bought a cake for Jojo’s birthday. She explains that the store didn’t have any birthday cakes, and Jojo realizes she’s bought a baby shower cake. The family sings “Happy Birthday,” but it is really only Leonie singing; Kayla doesn’t know the song, Mam is too sick to sing, and Pop only mouths the words. The phone rings, and Leonie answers it. Jojo realizes it is Michael, telling her that he is coming home from prison.
Leonie’s failure to buy the correct cake is a small instance revealing the larger issue of her deficiencies as a mother. The fact that she buys a baby shower cake specifically is also significant. During a baby shower, everyone congratulates and celebrates the mother-to-be, and there is a sense of hope for the arrival of the new child. In buying the cake, it is as if Leonie (perhaps unconsciously) wishes to return to this moment—before she had children at all.