Essay Exploring Themes in Jesmyn Ward's 'Sing, Unburied, Sing': Family, Race, and Death

Paper Type:  Essay
Pages:  5
Wordcount:  1306 Words
Date:  2024-01-25


Jesmyn Ward writes the Sing, Unburied, Sing novel to bring an archetypal road novel regarding rural century America. By drawing on Faulkner and Morrison, the Old Testament, and The Odyssey, Ward portrays an epochal story, a journey via Mississippi present and past that is both an epic tale of struggle and hope alongside an intimate portrait of a family. Ward writes Sing, Unburied, Sing at the optimal aspect, drawing multiple themes to build up the book. The paper focuses on how the themes of family, death, and race are represented and drawn in the book.

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Kayler and his elder brother Jojo stay with their grandparents, Pop and Mam, however Leonie, their drug-addicted mother, occasionally shows on the farm. The latter is located on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Ward portrays the character of Leonie to be simultaneously comforted and tormented by visions of her late brother. The visions appear only when she is drunk, Pop struggles to run the household, Mam is quietly dying of cancer, and Jojo is learning how to be a man. Shortly after release from prison, the white father of Jojo and Kayler draws fear to Leonie. She ends up picking up her friend and her kids into her car and starts a journey across the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a journey that is described as full of promise and danger.

Theme of Family

Ward builds Sing, Unburied, Sing to be a family saga. After the central concept of the plot is defined, Ward jumps back to describe stories regarding Jojo's family's history, and what occurred before he was born. One critical aspect of the novel is how family members, both who are alive and not alive, have a connection with each other. An example is Jojo and his dead uncle. Jojo's family members have a strong relationship with each other. Pop and Mam's connection to Kayla and Jojo is very close; however, the most intense relationship exists between Kayla and Jojo.

Despite his young age, Jojo acts as Kayla's primary caretaker. He explains that "Growing up out here in the country taught me things" (Ward 69). He fulfills the role of a parent to his younger sister. At one instance, Leonie observes their bond as inseparable; in most cases, they sleep folded to each other. Their bond is more significant than the one of a parent and child. Due to this, they possess a psychic connection since each one of them understands the other without the need for explanation. The author describes, "That girl: so lucky. She has all her brothers" (Ward 71).

Even though these familial bonds exist, the family is also influenced by several traumas and difficulties. The latter makes it hard for family connections to exist quickly. Both Pop and Mam took over Kayla and Jojo as their parents after declaring that Leonie had never developed "the mothering instinct" (Ward 91). Leonie's love is distorted by her selfishness, drug addiction, and crazed devotion to Michael. Due to this, Leonie's bond to her children is cold." Before all the little mean things she told me gathered and gathered and lodged like grit in a skinned knee" (Ward 203). Her behavior and feelings towards her children are erratic and sometimes cruel. Mam cries, "I don't know if it's something I did. Or if it's something that's in Leonie" (Ward 159).

Leonie's feelings towards Jojo and Kayla are mostly immature; the type of emotions readers do not associate with parents. Jojo is observed as more mature "…getting grown means learning how to work that current: learning when to hold fast when to drop anchor, when to let it sweep you up" (Ward 188). The theme of family is developed to suggest that the requirements and roles of individuals within families do not necessarily correlate to their current age.

Theme of Race

The setting of the novel occurs in a world dominated by lynching, and slavery, alongside other types of anti-black violence. Ward portrays this theme by describing how the black race is affected by the different forms of violence in the past and the present. "There had always been bad blood between dogs and Black people" (Ward 233). A series of multiple instances of violence that occur in the novel, especially the lynching of Blue, the murder of Given, and the unjust imprisonment of Richie and Pop describes how the black race was unjustly impacted.

Parchman is represented as one of the important symbols of the continuity of violence to anti-blacks in America. When Richie and Popp are sent there, the prison farm takes the resemblance of the plantations used in the slavery era. "they were bred adversaries—slaves running from the slobbering hounds" (Ward 200). Even though the prison farm was altered before Michael was sentenced, it is yet to change; it has traced a direct connection between the current states and slavery of mass incarceration in the US, which exists up to today to exploit the labor of black people. The whites had beautiful things,"…I want to say to Misty, is your pretty courthouse" (Ward 211).

Also, Anti-black racism exists in multiple subtle ways that do not manifest in violent ways. Racist cruelty towards Kayla, Jojo, and Leonie from Big Joseph does not entail physical violence; however, there exists a devastating influence on the family members. The issues of illness, poverty, drug use, premature death, criminal injustice, and police brutality can not be detached from the racism that proceeds in the South.

Ward represents that racial prejudice is dominant such that Jojo, who is only thirteen, understands the threat that white people pose to black people to their well-being and safety. For example, the issue of Pop's storytelling skills brings a problem, "Ur Pop don't know how to tell a story straight" (Ward 133). It emphasizes that racism is rampant such that youngsters do not have an escape plan from it. Thus, the children are robbed of a period of childlike feeling, innocence, and safety.

Theme of Death

Ward builds this theme right from the opening paragraph of the novel. She reveals that the reader is provided with insightful manner knowledge concerning the progress of the book and this theme with the turn of each page. The theme is made prominent by Jojo’s claim about death that the characters do not have the power to escape from it. He describes the smell of death as awful. "It's the smell of death, the rot coming from something just alive, something hot with blood and life" (Ward 299). Death is described as crucial sustenance allowing an individual to face their inner demons that trouble and plague them continuously in the novel.

The theme of death gives a deeper and larger subject matter that revolves around the loss of a loved one and the trauma associated with death. For example, Richie states "Sometimes I think it done changed ... and then I wake up, and it ain't changed " (Ward 201). Based on the first paragraph, Ward gives readers a setup of the novel. At this stage, the main character gives a few words. In the introductory paragraphs, Ward portrays to the reader what is expected or lies ahead following Jojo's statement. The latter starts by saying, "I like to think I know what death is." The statement engages a reader with a particular view of the main character. From the statement, it is clear that even young individuals have a clear understanding of death since it is prominent in the novel


Sing, Unburied, Sing encompasses the diminishing truths at the heart of power and the American story and limitations concerning family bonds. Ward incorporates multiple themes that lead the work to be distinctive. Therefore, the majestic new work has a critical contribution to American literature following the precise creation and integration of themes.

Work Cited

Ward, Jesmyn. Sing, unburied, sing: A novel. Simon and Schuster, 2017.

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Essay Exploring Themes in Jesmyn Ward's 'Sing, Unburied, Sing': Family, Race, and Death. (2024, Jan 25). Retrieved from

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