Sing, Unburied, Sing


Jesmyn Ward

Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on Sing, Unburied, Sing makes teaching easy.
Themes and Colors
Family, Heritage, and Homecoming Theme Icon
Animals and Nature Theme Icon
Illness, Wounds, and Death Theme Icon
Feeding, Healing, and Care Theme Icon
Racism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Sing, Unburied, Sing, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Racism Theme Icon

Sing, Unburied, Sing takes place in a world haunted by slavery, lynching, and other extreme forms of anti-black violence. Rather than being relegated to the past, these forms of violence have a powerful impact on the present. This sense of continuity is shown through the numerous instances of violence that take place in the novel, including the murder of Given, the lynching of Blue, and the unjust imprisonment of Pop and Richie. Indeed, Parchman is one of the most important symbols of the continuity of anti-black violence in America. When Pop and Richie are sent there, it is a prison farm that bears a striking resemblance to the plantations of the slavery era, and although it has changed by the time Michael is sent there, the fact that it still exists traces the direct connection between slavery and the current state of mass incarceration in the United States, which even to this day is used to systematically exploit the labor of people of color.

Anti-black racism is also shown to exist in more subtle ways that don’t necessarily manifest as direct forms of violence. Big Joseph’s racist cruelty toward Leonie, Jojo, and Kayla may not be physically violent, but it has a devastating impact on the family, driving them apart. Racism is also subtly implicated in the other forms of devastation the family experiences. The issues of poverty, illness, premature death, drug use, police brutality, and criminal injustice cannot be separated from the racism that still governs life in the South at the time the novel is set. Although Jojo is only thirteen, he has a keen awareness of racial prejudice and the threat that white people pose to his safety and wellbeing. This emphasizes the fact that racism is so widespread that even children have no escape from it, and are therefore robbed of a period of innocence and a childlike feeling of safety.

The novel also focuses on the theme of interracial relationships. The passionate love between Michael and Leonie could be interpreted as an optimistic aspect of the novel, and to some extent it is. Michael defies his racist family in choosing to be with Leonie, and clearly loves her in a deep way. However, the novel is also frank about the severe limitations of seeing interracial love as a solution to the problem of racism. As the cruel prejudice of Big Joseph reveals, existing as the biracial descendants of white racists—as is true of Jojo and Kayla—can be painful and disorienting, in addition to fostering feelings of self-hatred. Big Joseph’s treatment of Jojo and Kayla is particularly stark in contrast to the loving, affirming relationship the children have with Pop and Mam. Through his maternal grandparents, Jojo builds a strong relationship to his culture, ancestry, and black identity. Meanwhile, Jojo’s white grandfather will not even let him set foot inside his house.

The fact that Jojo and Kayla are perceived as black (rather than biracial) is a result of the legacy of the “one drop rule.” This rule was a form of racial categorization developed under slavery which stated that having just one black ancestor was all that was needed to be considered black (and thus to be enslaved). Slaveholders developed this rule in order to enslave the descendants of parents of different races. In almost all cases, these acts of interracial reproduction were instances of rape, wherein a white master would rape a black enslaved woman. Once again, this casts interracial love and reproduction in a rather less hopeful light. The tragic reality is that the legacy of interracial sex in the United States is largely a legacy of sexual violence.  

Leonie’s love for Michael is also complicated by her conflicted feelings about whiteness. There is clearly an extent to which Leonie feels jealously resentful of white people, and these feelings are revealed through her relationship with Misty. While it is inaccurate to say that she loves Michael only for his whiteness, it is possible that Leonie’s excessive devotion to Michael has something to do with his race. This idea is reflected by Mam when she rebukes Leonie for her obsessive love for Michael: “It ain’t healthy… All you hear, all you see, is him… You look at him like a little puppy dog.” Mam’s words highlight the fact that Leonie has internalized the idea that she is inferior to Michael. Given the intense racism of the society in which Leonie lives, her feelings of inferiority cannot be disentangled from the issue of race.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

Racism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Racism appears in each chapter of Sing, Unburied, Sing. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
chapter length:
Get the entire Sing, Unburied, Sing LitChart as a printable PDF.
Sing, Unburied, Sing PDF

Racism Quotes in Sing, Unburied, Sing

Below you will find the important quotes in Sing, Unburied, Sing related to the theme of Racism.
Chapter 1: Jojo Quotes

His maman and daddy avoided them census takes, never answered their questions right, changed the number of kids they had, never registered none of their births. Said them people came around, sniffing out that information to control them, to cage them like livestock.

Related Characters: Jojo (speaker), Pop (River)
Page Number: 17-18
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4: Leonie Quotes

How you think I paid for all my trips up to Bishop? From tips? She shook her head and snorted. You better take advantage.
I hear them four words over and over again when we get in the car and I watch Misty put the package in the pocket under the floorboards. You better take advantage. She said them words as though decisions have no consequences, when, of course, it's been easier for her. The way she said it, take advantage, made me want to slap her. Her freckles, her thin pink lips, her blond hair, the stubborn milkiness of her skin; how easy had it been for her, her whole life, to make the world a friend to her?

Related Characters: Leonie (speaker), Misty, Bishop
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6: Richie Quotes

There had always been bad blood between dogs and Black people: they were bred adversaries––slaves running from the slobbering hounds, and then the convict man dodging them.

Related Characters: Richie (speaker)
Page Number: 138
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7: Leonie Quotes

This is a miracle, I think, so I close my eyes and ignore Given-not-Given, who is sitting there with a sad look on his face, mouth in a soft frown, and think of Michael, real Michael, and wonder if we had another baby, if it would look more like him than Michaela. If we had another baby, we could get it right.

Related Characters: Leonie (speaker), Kayla (Michaela), Michael, Given
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

Sometimes I think it done changed. And then I sleep and wake up, and it ain't changed none.

Related Characters: Richie (speaker)
Related Symbols: Parchman
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9: Richie Quotes

I know Jojo is innocent because I can read it in the unmarked swell of him: his smooth face, ripe with baby fat; his round, full stomach; his hands and feet soft as his younger sister's. He looks even younger when he falls asleep. His baby sister has flung herself across him, and both of them slumber like young feral cats: open mouths, splayed arms and legs, exposed throats. When I was thirteen, I knew much more than him. I knew that metal shackles could grow into the skin. I knew that leather could split flesh like butter. I knew that hunger could hurt, could scoop me hollow as a gourd, and that seeing my siblings starving could hollow out a different part of me, too.

Related Characters: Richie (speaker), Jojo , Kayla (Michaela)
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 15: Jojo Quotes

And the branches are full. They are full with ghosts, two or three, all the way up to the top, to the feathered leaves. There are women and men and boys and girls. Some of them near to babies. They crouch, looking at me. Black and brown and the closest near baby, smoke white. None of them reveal their deaths, but I see it in their eyes, their great black eyes. They perch like birds, but look as people. They speak with their eyes: He raped me and suffocated me until I died I put my hands up and he shot me eight times she locked me in the shed and starved me to death while I listened to my babies playing with her in the yard they came in my cell in the middle of the night and they hung me they found I could read and they dragged me out to the barn and gouged my eyes before they beat me

Related Characters: Jojo (speaker)
Page Number: 279
Explanation and Analysis: