I didn’t understand time either, when I was young. How could I know that after I died, Parchman would pull me from the sky? How could I imagine Parchman would pull me to it and refuse to let go? And how could I conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once.
Parchman Farm, more formally known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary, looms large in Jesmyn Ward’s latest novel Sing, Unburied, Sing. Founded in 1901, Parchman Farm is the oldest prison in the state of Mississippi, and at twenty-eight square miles, it’s also the largest. Notorious for incarcerating the Freedom Riders and well-known for the recordings of Alan Lomax, Parchman is at once a center of oppression for Mississippians and a place of folk-culture. Parchman is still a working farm, with incarcerated men working long hours in the fields.
Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is a ghost story, a road novel, and an illuminating portrait of Parchman Farm. Capturing the Delta in harrowing detail, Ward takes readers on a journey from her own home of the Gulf Coast to the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Leonie, a struggling addict, brings along her son Jojo and baby Michaela, as well as a friend and fellow addict, to pick up Michael, the father of her children, from prison. Leaving at home her dying mother and disapproving father, who has a harrowing history with the prison all his own, she can’t escape her own demons. Along the way the family delivers drugs, gets stopped by the police, and struggles as the baby gets sick on the journey.
In many ways serving as homage to both Toni Morrison’s “haints” and to William Faulkner, Leonie’s trip to pick up Michael is full of ghosts and eccentricities. Jojo is haunted by Richie, a young boy who was incarcerated at Parchman with Jojo’s grandfather. There are many intergenerational family dynamics at play in Ward’s novel: Jojo’s closeness to his grandfather, the man trying to hold his family together while hiding much of his past from his grandson; his grandmother, dying of cancer; his white grandparents, racists who refuse to interact with him; and Kayla, his baby sister, who he serves as caretaker for. And then there are Leonie and Michael. Leonie is haunted by the death of her brother and her weakness as a mother, and Michael is her white boyfriend who was incarcerated for making meth.
Ward’s depiction of the relationship between Jojo and Leonie is in some ways the most heart-wrenching. For Jojo, a trip with his mother means long hours of discomfort, full responsibility over his sister Kayla, and loneliness, as he is separated from his grandfather, his confidant. He is also tasked with facing Richie, a ghost whose experience at Parchman remains a mystery for much of the novel, who is representative of the family history that continues to haunt Jojo. Leonie is intensely jealous of Jojo’s relationship with Kayla and resentful of Jojo’s independence. This jealousy fuels much of the narrative: Leonie’s lack of action when Kayla takes ill, Jojo’s hunger and thirst, and Leonie’s struggle with her addiction.
Following her memoir, Men We Reaped, and the 2015 anthology, The Fire This Time, the political overtones of this novel are hard to miss. A searing indictment of police brutality, incarceration, and the poverty that makes it all possible, Ward’s novel is a classic of southern literature for the 21st century. Sing, Unburied, Sing is at once of the moment, seemingly informed by Ward’s own work and the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as a work of history, exploring the painful and long legacy of incarceration for African-Americans living in the South.
Through flashbacks and Richie’s ghost, the traumatic history of Parchman Farm is directly linked to its modern day incarnation. Though Ward’s novel is a work of fiction, I couldn’t help but compare the truth of her prose to the history presented by David Oshinsky’s Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, a book I’ve read many times over. Oshinky’s history of Parchman is about the early years of the prison, but the story of Richie rings especially true. While the details of Leonie, Michael, Jojo, and their family are Ward’s creation, the history of incarceration and violence, of drug addiction and solitude, are all truth. In this way Ward’s novel blurs the boundary between history and fiction, “fact” and truth. The individuals in Ward’s novel may not exist, but their story is real for many living amongst poverty, drug addiction, racism, and incarceration in Mississippi.
Throughout the novel, it seems that, for Ward, and her character Michael, prison is a kind of death. It’s no coincidence then, that, instead of traveling to bury one’s dead a la Faulkner, they are picking a father up from prison. But the novel ends where it started: back home, among both the ghosts and the living, as the family says goodbye to its matriarch.
In this novel, Ward deftly weaves her own experiences of loss and frustration with the criminal justice system with a story deeply in conversation with other southern writers. This Mississippi, of addiction, police brutality, and ghosts, isn’t Faulkner’s Mississippi. It’s Ward’s. It’s all of ours.