Research Paper on Theme of Trauma in Sing, Unburied, Sing

Published: 2023-05-14
Research Paper on Theme of Trauma in Sing, Unburied, Sing
Type of paper:  Critical thinking
Categories:  American literature Symbolism
Pages: 8
Wordcount: 2016 words
17 min read


Jesmyn Ward's novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, is the most recent for the award-winning author. From her first line of the novel, the author immediately makes it clear that the book is about death. The stories that are told about death also talk about life and its intersections. The novel focuses on Jojo, who is 13 years old and of mixed race. Jojo lives with his grandfather and grandmother, who are blacks. Other characters in the family of Jojo include his mother, Leonie, who is drug addicted and inconsistent, Kayla - his toddler sister, and Mam (Reynolds 42).

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The story, as unveiled by the author, follows Jojo while he travels with his mother, Misty - his mother's friend, and Kayla, to meet his white father Michael and pick him up from prison. They go to Parchman, a Mississippi state prison from where the father was released recently. Another character, Pop, was also once imprisoned in this plantation-style prison along with Richie, a young boy. The two also have their own life stories.


To many readers, the novel may seem like an archetypical story about a road trip. It, however, discusses many important topics that bring out the aspects of Black trauma, spirituality, and racism.

General Views on Trauma From the Novel

In the novel, Ward offers the reader insights into the effects of slavery and racism in America. The results of trauma caused by slavery are depicted in the ways they are seen to affect the current life. The article, therefore, shows how the effects of trauma remain perpetuated in society.

The novel represents the intergenerational transmission of trauma in American society. It is set in a fictional urban are called Bous Sauvage, situated near the Mississippi River delta. The town is filled with mud, heat, death, and bayous. "It stinks like possums or armadillos smashed half flat on the road, rotting in asphalt and heat. [...] It's the smell of death" (Ward, 6). Jojo and his little sister Kayla live with their grandparents on the maternal side. Mam, their grandmother, is dying from cancer. As the novel starts, the scene shows that she is not able to leave her bed.

The grandfather, Pop, on the other hand, is haunted by the memories of his past life. At the age of 15, he got arrested on false charges and was imprisoned in Parchman. The prison operated as a slave plantation at this time. Pop was jailed along with another young boy called Richie. As the novel begins, the father of Jojo is serving a jail sentence at the same prison where Pop was. He was serving three years in the evolved prison and would soon be released.

The mother to Jojo and Kayla, Leonie, hardly stays at home. She keeps disappearing from home for days, and she is struggling with the problem of drug addiction (Steele-Nicholson 33). As Michael, Jojo's father is to be released from prison, Leonie takes her children on a road trip to go and meet him. She uses this as an opportunity to trade drugs with her friend Misty, who comes along with them. In intergenerational trauma, the symptoms of the unresolved grief can be passed down from one generation to the next and include the aspect of drug abuse, among other issues (Steele-Nicholson 34). The problem of drug addiction affecting Leonie can be seen as a representation of the transgenerational grief or trauma that she is suffering.

Leonie's problem of drug addiction can also be seen as her attempts to suppress the trauma she experienced at a young age. Her brother Given was killed by a cousin of Michael while they were drinking in the woods in a hunting game. Given had won a bet they had placed to who would be the first to shoot a buck. Delivered was a black man while his friends were whites. He, however, regarded them as brothers. Despite the relationship they shared, they were jealous of him having won the bet, and as a result, Michel's cousin shot and killed him. Michael's family covered up the story claiming that it was a hunting accident, and the police bought it (Steele-Nicholson 34).

Magical realism is also used by the author to express the traumatic haunting experiences faced by Leonie, Jojo, and Kayla. For instance, when Leonie gets high, a ghost of his brother appears. As she says, "And that's when Given came back. He smiled at me..., this Given that's been dead fifteen years now, this Given that came to me every time I snorted a line, every time I popped a pill" (Ward 34).

From the quote of her speech, she indicates that every time she used drugs, she was able to see the ghost of Given who has been dead for more than 15 years. The drug-induced hallucinations present the experiences of being confronted by the perpetuated effects of the death of Given. The background is a nightmare to her. The long-term effects of trauma can, therefore, cause one to fall into drugs to deal with overwhelming experiences of life, such as losing a loved one in the case of Leonie.

Leonie shows the urge to desperately ignore the trauma caused by the appearance of the ghost of Given. When trauma is ignored, it turns into an unfinished business. It then comes back later to continue haunting its subjects. People tend to bury, or instead do away with the parts of their history that are shameful and implicates violence. This is all done in the attempts to a new path and move on.

However, it becomes difficult to do so because sealing off from oneself, and the past experiences do not make them not to count as part of our lives. The lessons will always exist, and people may be forced to seek means to seal them further. These means are usually destructive, like in the case of Leone, she turns to drugs that ruin her life and makes parenting a challenge (Steele-Nicholson 34).

The aftermath of slavery is also a contributing factor to the trauma that Lennie is facing. The South, where the novel is set, struggled to deal with the collective trauma caused by slavery. There existed injustices as the Jim Crow laws still characterized the justice system even after their abolition. The inequalities that existed in society during the slavery period are again echoed today. The inhabitants of the country continue to suffer the effects of this trauma as the nation has not healed completely, i.e., the trauma and grief are still unresolved (Steele-Nicholson 34).

Leonie shows the lack of the ability to handle what happened to her in the past. As a result, her abuse of drugs and the addiction ends up affecting her children. Jojo and Kayla can feel the absence of their mother whenever she is not at home. This is seen throughout the novel. During the road trip to Parchman, they continually expressed this concern about her.

For instance, Jojo acknowledges her grandparents as better parents than their mother is. "She ain't Mam. She ain't Pop. She ain't never healed anything or grown nothing in her life, and she doesn't know" (Ward, 107). From this excerpt, Jojo expresses the disdain she has for her mother. Leonie also recognizes the honesty of Jojo and says, "It feels good to be mean, to speak past the baby I can't hit and let that anger touch another. The one I'm never good enough for. Never Mama for. Just Leonie" (Ward, 147).

Throughout the novel, it becomes evident that Leonie is struggling with her own past experiences and is trying her best to express to the family members that she knows what is happening in her life (Steele-Nicholson 35). She describes her struggles, as indicated in the excerpt below.

We are all sinking, and manta rays are gliding beneath us, and sharks jostling us. I am trying to keep everyone above water, even as I struggle to stay afloat. I sink below the waves and push Jojo upward so he can stay above the waves and breathe, but then Michaela sinks and I push her up, and Michael sinks so I shove him to the air as I sink and struggle, but they won't stay up: they want to sink like stones. I thrust them up toward the surface, to the fractured sky so they can live, but they keep slipping from my hands. It is so real that I can feel their sodden clothes against my palms. I am failing them. We are all drowning (Ward 195).

Summary and Conclusion

Trauma Resulting From Violence Against the Blacks

From the above, it is clear that all the characters have faced different forms of trauma. For instance, the character Pop endured and witnessed violence years back. In his current life, he is still haunted by these experiences. The effects of this trauma can be seen when he tries to tell Jojo about the young boy Richie but avoids telling him because the story is too painful. The story about Richie becomes revealed but leaves suspense and great fear or concerns about its end.

Additionally, Given, Jojo's late uncle was killed by the white men that he regarded as his brothers. They then tried to make it look like it was a hunting accident, but in reality, they murdered him because they were jealous of the position he was given at the trivial game of hunting. This makes one of the events that will never leave the memory of Jojo for his entire life. It continues the transgenerational trauma of the treatment of blacks in the American white-dominant society (Augustine n.d.).

The Theme of Intergenerational Trauma

The experiences that Pop went through in Parchman affect Jojo and Leonie too. The latter turns to drugs to cope up with the murder of Given. She longs to see her departed brother. Every time she gets high, she can see the ghost of Given. This trauma continues to affect her life and those of her children, Jojo, and Kayla. She does not seem to be consistent with the way she handles them. She, therefore, passes down the trauma from Given's murder to them. Leonie's neglect of her children is infuriating and painful to witness. However, the author narrates details concerning the agony she has to face. She is a sympathetic character that deserves compassion because of her drug-addiction nature with conflicting thoughts, actions, and desires (Augustine n.d.).

Trauma as a Result of Spirituality and the Supernatural

When Leonie experiences her first period, she is informed by Mam that she has a psychic intuition gift that runs in their family. The gist begins to manifest once a girl starts to menstruate. For instance, the character Mam used her gift to help other women in giving birth, healing the sick by use of herbs, and create gerregery (gris-gris) bags for protection purposes (Augustine n.d.).

As mentioned earlier, Leonie can see the ghost of Given, her murdered brother. In later chapters of the novel, both Kayla and Jojo can also see the ghosts. Mam, who can be said to belong to the first generation, views her role in society as a blessing. However, Leonie and Jojo experience the supernatural family gift as a constant reminder of their haunting experiences. They are reminded that they can never escape death and their past experiences. They are therefore torn between trying to resist and accept this gift (Augustine n.d.).

In summary, the haunting prose used by Ward shows how the dynamics of families are affected. The author also touches on the rural life led by the characters in the Gulf Coast of the post-Katrina Mississippi. The well-developed plot by the author expresses all the experiences of the characters, showing their feelings of compassion, protection, and grief. Trauma is a central theme that affects almost all the appearances except those who have come to accept the realities of life, like Mam (Augustine n.d.).

Works Cited

Augustine, Jenn. "Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing". Rewritelondon.Com, n.d.

Ibrahim, Nur et al. "Literature'S Inherited Trauma: On Jesmyn Ward's 'Sing, Unburied, Sing' - The Millions". The Millions, 2017

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Research Paper on Theme of Trauma in Sing, Unburied, Sing. (2023, May 14). Retrieved from

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