The songs in Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing” are a litany of moans. The moans of a 12-year-old black boy killed after being wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. The moans of an 18-year-old black man shot by a racist because of the color of his skin.
They haunt their loved ones who can’t get over the deaths of their son, brother, uncle, friend and in turn, their ancestors inherit their songs.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing” isn’t a happy book. Ward fills it with a chorus of pain, sung through the alternating first-person viewpoints of three generations of black narrators: JoJo, a 13-year-old practically raising his three-year-old sister Michaela; Leonie, JoJo’s largely absent mother; and Richie, a ghost who knew JoJo’s grandfather and Leonie’s father Riv when he was still a slave.
These characters moan too, crying about neglectful mothers or ungrateful children or abandoning friends. JoJo learns that Leonie unintentionally kills things (like their beta fish that died from starvation). Leonie learns that her children prefer to comfort each other (her three-year-old prefers her son’s parenting over hers).
All are restless.
Even more so when JoJo and Michaela’s father, Michael, a white man who was imprisoned for drug charges, was released from prison and Leonie takes her children on an uncomfortable car ride to pick Michael up.
Through Ward’s words, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” shows us what it’s like to be black in America — to almost get shot by a police officer because they think you have a gun in your pocket, to be thought of as rude or lazy or less than by strangers who don’t even know you and don’t want to know you, and to be haunted by slavery, still.
The ghosts of racism and slavery don’t go away. They moan and sing and shout.