Sing, Unburied, Sing and The Color Purple: the Reality of African Americans

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Both Walker and Ward present protagonists who seek hope and escapism to transcend their hopeless surroundings, concerning Black America. In The Color Purple, Walker creates a protagonist, Celie, living in 1930s rural Georgia; a young black woman living in an extremely racist and sexist society while undergoing personal traumas such as emotional and sexual abuse. Similarly, in Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward presents an American black family, one which is extremely fragmented, with a focus on their relationships and how the characters deal with personal and intergenerational traumas while also experiencing the ‘slow apocalypse’ of black America in modern day Mississippi. Additionally, I agree that Walker is reflecting upon Black American history as it commences in the 1930s and documents Celie’s life for 30/40 years, thus drawing hope from the struggle and progression of her journey. Where as Ward is emphasizing that although progress has been made, the racist and oppressive societal attitudes towards Black Americans are still extremely prevalent, thus focusing on a modern day black American family. 

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Walker presents the history and experiences of Black America though alternating first-person narrators Celie and Nettie, ones who address each other through a series of letters. Likewise, Ward has alternating narrators between Jojo, Leonie and the ghost of Richie. Arguably, both writers use alternating narrators to personalise the pain and suffering of Black Americans; whether 20th or 21st century, as it is shows the experiences from different psychological perspectives. Additionally, I believe that within both novels characters seek hope in the hopelessness of Black America, however in different ways. In The Color Purple, the black characters are treated with extensive physical abuse as well as psychological, and thus look for the hope of physical liberation and change in society as a whole in terms of legality. Where as in Sing, Unburied, Sing, although they might be physically free, they are still enslaved socially and psychologically, and thus hope for their minds to be liberated.

Within The Color Purple, Walker emphasises how hopeless the world of a Black American can be through the protagonist Celie, who suffers extensive sexual, physical and psychological abuse from the age of ‘fourteen’. This is evident in Celie's first letter addressed to God where her own ‘Pa’ rapes her; ‘he grab hold my titties’ and ‘push his thing inside my pussy’. Arguably, Walker’s use of language and graphic imagery is done to make the reader feel uncomfortable and in a sense disturbed, thus emphasising how scarring and extreme the sexual abuse Celie has suffered. Celie’s suffering is silenced by her own ‘Pa’ as he insists ‘You better shut up and git use to it’, meaning in a world where she is already isolated by society, she is now emotionally isolated by not being able to tell anyone. Also, the fact Celie is only ‘fourteen’ makes the situation even more melancholic as it is symbolises her loss of innocence, which kickstarts her constant suffering and pain yet to come. Additionally, the trauma of abuse does not escape Celie once she leaves her Pa as she is married off to ‘Mr.___’, who is arguably even more abusive. The horror of Celie’s circumstances for the majority the novel is continuous, from the neverending abuse of the men in her life, to having her children taken away from her, and then being separated from the only person that gave her hope; her sister Nettie. The fact Celie’s suffering is neverending for a part of the novel shows that the pain of Black Americans, particularly Black Women, in the history of America has at times been completely inescapable. Additionally, where as Walker is reflecting on how hopeless the world was for people who suffered the history of Black America, within Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward is emphasising how hopeless Black America still is in modern day.

Additionally, in order to show how hopeless the characters are from experiencing the ‘slow apocalypse’ of modern day Black America, Ward draws on the pain of Black American history through a focus of the intergenerational trauma in their family as it shows the lack of progression. This is supported by the critical view from The Guardian; the novel is ‘most effective as a poetic critique of US history’ Additionally, the Intergenerational trauma is personified by Ward in the form of literal ghosts , first shown through the character of Given when Leonie says “Three years ago, I did a line and saw Given for the first time”. Ward uses Given’s murder to epitomise the racial injustice that is still existent in present day Black America, shown through the extremely racist language used by the uncle; “he shot the nigger”. Furthermore, Ward is pointing out the irony and corruption within the American justice system due to the fact the uncle says to his son who shot Given “you fucking idiot, this aint the old days” but in fact little has changed since the ‘old days’ in the sense of systematic racism; he only got sentenced to ‘three years in Parchman and two years probation’. Furthermore, Ward also uses this to show that white attitudes haven't changed since the ‘old days’; although there has been abolishment of physical slavery and there is less likelihood of someone being treated the way Sofia is within The Color Purple, the law does not automatically change societal attitudes, thus the characters within Sing, Unburied, Sing represent the psychological enslavement of Black Americans.

The second ghost, one of the novels narrators, is Richie, who personifies Pop’s intergenerational trauma. In the first part of the novel, the relationship between Richie and Pop in the flashbacks to Parchman is what gave them hope in such a hopeless world; Pop almost took him in as a younger brother. However, due to the extremely terrible situation of being in Parchman, Pop had to kill Richie, which left him with immense guilt; “I washed my hands every day, Jojo. But that damn blood ain't never come out”. One could argue that Ward is emphasising the extreme institutional racism in America, which lead to corrupt prisons such as Parchman Farm, otherwise known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which result in the psychological trauma of Black Americans such as Pop and deaths such as Richie’s. This is supported by the critic of R.L. Nave, who described the novel as a representation of ‘America’s long obsession with mass incarceration on black and poor families, generation after generation’. Another example of this within the novel is in Chapter 8 where the police pull them over, and the ghost of Richie tells Jojo “they going to chain you”, the fact Richie uses ‘chain’ to describe the police handcuffs in modern day connote the systematic racism and ‘mass incarceration’ which is parallel to slavery in many ways. 

Also, one interpretation could argue that the fact the conditions of the prison resulted in Pop feeling as if he had to kill Richie because there was no other choice, represent the ways in which blacks have been conditioned to commit such horrific acts for their own survival because of the threat from whites, thus arguably Ward could be using the incident between Pop and Richie to mirror the high rates of black-on-black crime in America. This idea could be supported by the article by Colin Faherty titled ‘Black Violence in Schools: White people to blame’ which stated ‘The black people committing the violence? Innocent victims of circumstance’ (American Thinker). *FOOTNOTE* Furthermore, Ward also highlights the injustice of black American history which adds to the hopelessness of these characters, evident in the story told by Richie of the ‘sunshine woman’ where a black man didn’t step off the sidewalk when a white woman walked past so she went home to her husband and said that ‘the black man molested her and his woman disrespected her’, which esulted in a mob which “ beat them so bad they eyes disappeared in they swollen heads” and then they were “hanged” and “set afire”. Ward is emphasizing the white supremacy that has been prominent in the history of the American society, resulting in the mass suffering of black people, which although less extreme, is still evident in present day America.

Additionally, both writers present characters who escape the pain of Black America through the comfort of relationships and family. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward creates a family whose, often dysfunctional, relationships with one another is all they have in such a hopeless world. This is evident in the introduction to the novel where Jojo is assisting Pop in killing a goat and seeks his approval as he is a figure of strength in his life; he yearns for Pop to know “he can get bloody” and “earned these thirteen years”. Similarly, Walker presents the character of Harpo who desperately seeks Mr __’s approval, who initially is a character who offers hope to the reader in terms of breaking the cycle oppression that is put upon women by men such as Mr__ as he treats Sofia with respect, to the point where Sofia is the dominant figure in the relationship. However, Harpo is eventually corrupted by the expectations of toxic masculinity, which are enforced by his father when he insists “Wives is like children. You have to let ‘em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating”; Harpo begins to domestically abuse Sofia, which contributes to the tragedy of what happens to her. Thankfully, Pop is a much better role model for Jojo than Mr__ is for Harpo.

Furthermore, the most intense bond Ward presents is that between Jojo and Kayla; he is only 13 and acts as her parental figure, in disposition to their own. One could argue their connection transcends beyond parental; they’re completely inseparable-as Leonie observes at one point, they even ‘sleep folded into one another’. However, the fracture of their family is also what contributes to what makes their world seem so hopeless. Leonie’s relationship with her children and her own parents is extremely problematic throughout the novel, Mam points out that Leonie never had “the mothering instinct,”; she loves her children, but this love is distorted by her streak of selfishness, crazed devotion to Michael, and drug addiction; all of which make her apparently hopeless world more bearable. As a result, her feelings and behavior toward Jojo and Kayla are erratic, cold, all of which have become a normality to Jojo; he has settled with the perplexity of his Mother as her instability is all he’s ever known; “sometimes I think I understand everything else more than I’ll ever understand Leonie”. However, readers can sympathise with Leonie as arguably, one is bound to be so unstable as a mother after the constant pain she has been the victim to while being a black American within a society full of prejudice and injustice. 

Additionally, the pain of her older brother, Given, being murdered due to his skin colour, was extremely scarring to her character, and arguably at fault for her toxic mothering; one could even argue she may be jealous of Kayla because she has the supportive figure of an older brother, which she never got to experience. Furthermore, through Given’s death, Ward is reflecting the continuously high levels of violence perpetrated against young black men in America today, for example the case of Trayvon Martin, which although tragic for the individual, even more tragically adds to the hopelessness of black Americans as a whole. Also, a freudian reading could argue that Leonie has unconsciously projected her anxieties of not being accepted by Micheal’s parents on to her own children, thus making them feel not accepted and that “they don’t care”. Furthermore, Big Joseph rejected Leonie because of her race; he claims “told you to never sleep with no nigger bitch”, which supports the idea that Leonie has rejected the idea of parenting because of society constantly rejecting her because of the colour of her skin.

Similarly, within The Color Purple, Walker also presents characters who are extremely dependent on family and their relationships. This is shown through the protagonist Celie who constantly draws hope and strength from other female characters, one being her little sister Nettie. Additionally, Celie often admires Nettie’s intelligence, evident rather early on in the novel; she helps with ‘spelling and everything else’ and ‘no matter what happen, Nettie steady try to teach me what going on in the world’. An intersectional feminist, for example Bell Hooks who in her most famous book ‘Ain’t I am a woman?:Black Women and Feminism’ addresses the effects of the intersection of racism and sexism on black women, and thus resulted in them having a low status in American society would recognise the need for working class female characters, such as Nettie, as they extremely important to show solidarity; it is a part of the hope that Walker offers to us as she presents a a character such as Nettie who is lower class black woman in 1930s America who pushes beyond her social constructs as ‘all day she read, she study, she practice her handwriting’. Arguably, Celie and Nettie hold the strongest bond in the novel; they are each others escape when their world is seeming most hopeless. This is shown through their letters; once Celie begins to lose her faith in God, she stops writing to him and to writes to her sister. Similarly, for the entirety of their separation, Nettie consoles in Celie by constantly writing to her. However, Mr.__ who stops Nettie's letters from actually reaching Celie, could be a metaphor to represent how black women in America are often oppressed by men, which in this case results in Celie not being able to reach her only source of hope; Nettie’s letters. However, the strength and power of their sisterhood overcomes the hopelessness around them as even though they are not physically together through the whole story, their spiritual and emotional presence for one another never fades. Furthermore, although Nettie should be discouraged in writing to Celie as logically she knows her letters won’t be able to reach her, she never loses hope; ‘I imagine that you really do get my letters and that you are writing me back’.

Also, throughout the novel Celie’s relationship with Shug Avery is extremely important as she symbolises her idea of freedom; in letter 14 Celie describes Shug with ‘nothing seem to be troubling her mind’ and she is ‘thankful to lay her eyes on her’. Arguably, Shug represents everything that Celie is not; a black woman who is admired by many, specifically by ‘Mr. __’, who in contrast abuses Celie immensely, which is why she idolizes her so much. As the novel progresses, their relationship becomes more requited; Celie opens up to Shug and Shug finds out the true nature of Mr.___ and Celie’s marriage, offering her guidance and support in how to deal with his abuse. To Celie, her relationship with Shug is important because Shug is a figure of hope and guidance; she gives her a sense of identity and makes her feel sexually, physically, and emotionally liberated. Furthermore, towards the end of the novel, their relationship could be seen as week due to Shug being involved with another man,, however in reality their love for eachother is just as strong before Germaine came along. Their ability to love eachother even after Shug is sexually involved with another person shows how their love can transcend their problems because of its platonic base. Furthemore, Celie and Shug’s relationship was crucial in Celie’s character development as it enabled Celie, the hopeless girl, grow into the independent free thinking woman that she is by the end of the novel.

Within both novels, religion and spirituality give the protagonists a sense of hope amongst their endless suffering and pain. In the Color Purple, Walker presents a protagonist who is extremely dependent on her religion in the beginning of the novel; Celie’s communication with God is the only way she can keep a sense of her sanity as he is her salvation. The opening letter addressed to God epitomises the core of their relationship; a plea for guidance and hope. Additionally, Celie begs ‘give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me’, showing how even she cannot comprehend the abuse and pain she has suffered. Arguably, when Celie is most vulnerable and dependent on his presence, that is when the relationship is most weak; as the novel progresses, Celie’s traditional view of God, one concerning the Western image, described as a “white man with a beard”, is reassessed where she uncovers a more abstract view. She begins to question her faith; “What god do for me?” and claims he “act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgetful and lowdown”. One could argue that Celie’s mislead relationship with God was foreshadowed by first line of the novel spoken by Alphonso; “You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy”. This is the only line that falls outside the framework of the letters written by Celie and Nettie, which emphasises its importance. One could argue it shows that from the start her relationship with God was forced upon her in a period of instability and suffering which enabled her to have hope and a paternal structure, in disposition to her own father. Furthermore, with the guidance of Shug Avery, Celie begins to change her perspective of God; he is not a physical figure that can be bounded but an entire entity of something that cannot be comprehended; God can even be found in ‘The Color Purple’. When Celie becomes less dependent on God and begins to realise he is not bound to a physical figure, she can find hope and faith within anything; her last letter being addressed to “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything, Dear God.” Furthermore, Walker uses this to show the importance of finding hope in the beauty of nature in an otherwise brutal world.

Similarly, Ward presents a fragmented family who have spiritual abilities which enable them to transcend beyond their hopeless surroundings. This is evident through the character of Mam, who has psychic abilities; she tells Leonie that when she was visited by the midwife Marie-Therese, she felt “like someone was humming in my ear, telling me they gift”, followed by being told that she had “seed of the gift”. The use of ‘seed’ creates imagery of new life; her abilities enable her to grow and overcome the hopelessness which surrounds her, this ‘seed’ has also been gifted to Leonie, Kayla and Jojo. Leonie has the ability to see the ghost of her brother Given, which arguably is a gift that enables a figure of hope to be present in her life once again; at one point Mam wishes for that ability as she has “dreamt” about being able to “see the dead”. However, the burden of seeing her dead brother only when she's high is rather haunting for Leonie; she tries ‘not to react’ so she wouldn't ‘look crazy’, thus Ward shows that one characters idea of hope is another's opposite.

Within the novel, spirituality is what makes the characters accepting of death, evident in the character of Mam, however, one could argue that they are already are comfortable with the idea of death as it enables her to transcend the ‘slow apocalypse’ she is surrounded by. Additionally, towards the end of the novel, Mam is on the verge of death and she wants be possessed by “the mother of the dead” so she can “leave with something of myself”, thus wanting the spirits to take control so she can ‘leave’ the hopeless reality of life. However, Ward also shows that even through their spirituality and transcendence after death, the suffering of Black America is inescapable, emphasised through the ghosts of Given and Richie. Furthermore, Richie; one of the novels narrators, holds onto the idea of Pop being his saviour who can finally set him free; he looks at him ‘with all the hope on his face’; however even that last inkling of hope is crushed when he discovers Pop was the one who killed him; he ‘roars’. The use of roar is purposely done by Ward to connote how animalistic his character has become after discovering the betrayal, suggesting after all the suffering, his humanity has finally been destroyed. Ward continues to demonise the Richie after he possesses the character of Given and sadistically tries to make Mam pass on; “come with me Mama”, further emphasizing that the constant horror of black America can break someone to the point of evility.

In conclusion, I would argue that the presentation of characters ‘seeking hope in an apparently hopeless world’ differ but also parallel in many ways. Additionally, Ward and Walker both reflect on the ‘pain of Black American history’, however whereas Walker uses it to draw hope from the progression in the 40 years that documents Celie’s life, Ward uses it to show that it will forever haunt Black Americans; just how Richie and Given haunt the characters. As a whole, the novel and the characters in The Color Purple is much more hopeful than that in Sing, Unburied, Sing as The Color Purple present characters who yearn the change of physical enslavement and legality, which still lets them have hope as yet in Sing, Unburied, Sing, even after the Black Americans have achieved that technically, they will forever be enslaved socially and thus psychologically. This argument can be supported through the endings of the novel, as in The Color Purple the characters and family are reunited and thus achieve freedom personally, and in relation to context, Walker wrote it in the early 1980s, thus expecting the hopelessness of Black Americans to have incredibly improved by now. However, although one could argue the ending of Sing, Unburied, Sing, is cathartic as their is an extremely powerful image of many black ghosts, including ones tracing back to slavery; ones who were ‘raped’ ’starved’ and ‘hung’ finally being set free by Kaylas singing, it lacks hope as Ward is reflecting that the only way they have finally achieved freedom has been been through death and escaping modern day Black America, arguably a world which is just as hopeless now as it was in the 1930s.    

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