Sing, Unburied, Sing is the story of a young black family who travels across Mississippi to pick up the father from prison. Along the way, the author weaves the stories of several generations into the narrative as they encounter ghosts — literally — of the past who entwine themselves into unfolding events.
The book, written by Jesmyn Ward, was recommended to me as a Black History Month read, so I found myself reading it alongside the works of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Uzodinma Iweala. Because of that, I assumed Sing, Unburied, Sing would center on similar themes of the black fight for equality and the complexities of being black in the United States. While this book does address our nation’s history of slavery and, to some extent, comment on the racial inequality of our social systems, Jesmyn Ward seems to be much more interested in asking black Americans to rediscover the stories of their ancestors.
The narrative that develops through these pages made me uncomfortable because it blended the lens of a black, Southern world with a culture of Voodoo spirituality that is well-known throughout the Mississippi Valley, and particularly in New Orleans.
I have been unfamiliar with Voodoo religious practices, so it wasn’t until more than halfway through the book that I recognized it as the underpinnings of the story; this realization transformed my discomfort into fascination. Rather than trying to fit the ghosts of the story into my Western, Christian framework, the book gave me space to encounter this unique African-American spirituality on its own terms and discover the beauty of its convictions.
The story told in Sing, Unburied, Sing is not an easy one. It is filled with things I don’t understand, and it makes no apologies for experiences and decisions made out of desperation. Its characters are not heroes; neither are they anti-heroes or villains. They are authentically human, simultaneously bound and set free by their pasts, and it is by listening to the stories of their past that they are able to be in the present.