Trauma theory focuses on the literary representations of traumatic experiences, and how these experiences relate to the author or characters of a specific work. The narrative of Jesmynn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing traces theoretical understandings of trauma in a myriad of ways. Set in a small town modeled after her own rural hometown of De Lisle, Mississippi, Ward uses multiple symbols to elucidate the historical, social, and individual levels of trauma that are not only pertinent to the deep South, but more broadly, black America. These are symbols of oppression and racism: particularly, the story’s recurring motifs of ghosts and the looming destination of Parchman farm set the stage for the traumatic events that are endured by the characters. Following three familial generations—Mam and Pop, Leonie and Michael, and Jojo and Kayla—Sing, Unburied, Sing is focused on the effects of trauma and its tendency to become an transgenerational burden.
Caruth defines trauma in its most general sense as ‘the unwitting reenactment of an event that one cannot simply leave behind (Caruth 2).’ This ‘reenactment’ surfaces in Ward’s emulation of her own hometown. A realistic portrayal of race relations, the story serves to review the racist history of America, particularly in the deep South. Set in Bois Sauvage, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a convolution of overlapping family ties, violent histories, and ever-present racism. The novel is set amidst the continuous drug epidemic in the United States, as well as the corresponding “War on Drugs” and era of mass incarceration. Even before the War on Drugs, however, the novel reminds us of a time when black people were imprisoned by slavery, long before the advent of desegregation. Evolved through time, these various forms of oppression contributed to the plight of impoverished, especially black, Southerners.
In this context of oppression, Michael and Leonie—who are bound by dysfunctional family ties—turn to drugs in order to cope with their traumatic life experiences. Michael, who used to work on an oil rig, is traumatized by an accident that killed eleven of his coworkers; he later serves time in Parchman for drug possession and trafficking. Leonie, meanwhile, struggles with her substance abuse and loss of her brother and lover, which strains her relationship with her children. The fact that Pop and Richie were also in Parchman highlights the transgenerational, or overlapping, effects of trauma. This trauma affects even the youngest family members—Jojo and Kayla—who, aside from being exposed to a culture of drugs, poverty, death, and racism, are also left to grow up without even the slightest semblance of parental guidance. In short, the three generations of family members are all affected by traumatic experiences that materialize within the story. History, Caruth suggests, ‘is precisely the way we are implicated in each other’s traumas (Caruth 24).’ Ward, through the power of her characters, is able to evoke the traumatic histories of Southerners with an odyssey—one that begins in the Mississippi Gulf Coast and ends in Parchman Farm, the notorious state penitentiary.
Individually, Leonie is perhaps the character most affected by her personal trauma. Though far from an identical representation of Ward, the author transmits bits and pieces of her life into Leonie’s character. Ward, for instance, is a mother of two, just like Leonie. She too had lost a brother, like Leonie, when she was younger. Ward’s brother died at the hands of a white drunk driver, while Leonie’s brother, Given, died as a senior in high school while on a hunting expedition. Given, after winning a bet that he would become the first to kill a buck, was shot and killed by one of Michael’s cousins. In an interview with Time Magazine, Ward admits that while she despises Leonie’s inattentiveness of her children, she couldn’t help but empathize with her situation, mentioning that ‘there’s a great loss’ in Leonie’s heart, ‘unhealed and festering in some ways (Begley 59).’ This loss, of course, is the primary source of Leonie’s trauma. While it may not justify her being a bad parent, it nonetheless explains how such a shocking occurrence could profoundly affect her life. Such an ‘inner catastrophe’ leaves ‘wounds and memory scars’, which influence her erratic behavior (Eyerman 41).
Her trauma, moreover, is exacerbated by her incessant drug use and the guilt she feels for dating not only a white person, but also for dating a person whose family was responsible for her brother’s murder. Her impending hallucinations of Given, therefore, are clearly a response to her guilt and trauma. Caruth explains that once trauma manifests itself into the lives of its victims, it then leads to ‘uncontrolled repetitive appearances of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena (Caruth 11).’ Leonie mentions that her hallucinations began “Three years ago’, when she ‘did a line and saw Given for the first time” (Ward 51). Besides being a memorable quote, Leonie’s words suggest that the ghost of Given is an unwelcome, lingering sight. Her plight, therefore, is exacerbated by the tensions between the unbearable nature of her survival, and the unbearable nature of the event (Caruth 7). According to Caruth’s description of the “wound of the mind”, Leonie is confronted with the belated effect of Given’s death, which results in nightmares, and specifically, drug-induced hallucinations (Steele-Nicholson 34). While Ward herself may or may not have experienced ‘hallucinations’ after enduring the loss of her brother, Leonie’s trauma surely resonates with her nonetheless.
Ward moves beyond the trauma of the individual to examine how it ‘resembles crisis at the societal level (Eyerman 42).’ She utilizes the fictional Parchman Farm (based off of real life Mississippi State Penitentiary) to illustrate how ‘transgenerational’ trauma extends from one generation to the next. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, the actions and experiences of past generations—most notably those of Pop, Leonie, and Michael—allow for trauma to be felt by future generations. Pop, for instance, cannot move past his time spent at Parchman when he was 15. While there he killed a young boy by the name of Richie; he did so to prevent him from being tortured and executed by the white guards, yet he continues to be haunted by his decision. On the other hand, Leonie and Michael are in a vastly flawed relationship; once Michael is released from prison, they continue to be connected not only by their mutual adoration, but also by their intensive drug use. Michael and his family, moreover, are responsible for the death of Jojo and Kayla’s uncle, and for introducing their mother to a life of crime and drug abuse.
As a result, not only do Jojo and Kayla struggle to grow up without a father or mother for most of their lives, but they also have to endure the adverse effects of living in a racist society. All things considered, the collective, or transgenerational, trauma felt by the entire family is exemplified by the shifting arrangements of Parchman. This ranges from the time that Pop served, to the time that Michael served at the same prison. In this length of time, Parchman had evolved “only superficially from the long-ago days when it was like a plantation (Steele-Nicholson 33).’ In reality, the prison continues to be a symbol of slavery and dehumanization, and it exemplifies the larger issue of racism in America. The road trip to Parchman is the narrative center of the book, and the prison farm is the foul realm at the heart of the story. The whips and rifles, the dogs, the men being worked to death and hunted all serve as a backdrop to the odious side of American history. This ‘odious side’ is responsible for the overwhelming trauma that haunts the family in Sing, Unburied, Sing. Connecting past and present suffering, Ward’s fiction revolves around inherited trauma in a deeply divided society, where the oppressor and the oppressed share a legacy (Eyerman 41). Simply put, past transgressions of whites committed against blacks have led to a legacy for both. This legacy is responsible for a social trauma that is encapsulated by the family’s undesirable connections to the prison.
As previously mentioned, people affected by traumatic experiences can dually be affected by ‘repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and other repetitive phenomena (Caruth 91).’ These symptoms are exemplified by the ghosts that appear sporadically to the family members. Jojo and his family see visions of ghosts Richie and Given; these two figures embody the story’s themes of racism and death, as each ghost died in an abhorrent, racially motivated way. Essentially, Ward uses the ghosts to symbolize enduring transgenerational trauma in American society (Steele-Nicholson 3). The ghost narratives convey to the audience the enduring effects of trauma, which are passed down from Pop to Jojo, inflicting several generations. The novel is a threnody of past and present voices, as Ward mourns the dead, both buried and unburied. In fact, the novel issues a scene of death from the very beginning, as 13-year-old Jojo watches his Pop butcher a goat. By the end, however, a butchery of a different kind is displayed. Obviously, Pop deeply regrets killing Richie, but he did so in order to spare him from the inescapable verities of the postbellum South.
The overlying symbol of death, which is strewn throughout the story itself, further magnifies the atrocities of the fictional Mississippi town—a town that mirrors a type of racist community that is particular to the deep South—a town that Ward herself metaphorically grew up in. Jojo and his family, growing up in the present, are burdened with the hauntings of past victims. Their transgenerational trauma is personified by literal ghosts—people that the characters in the story have carried with them for long after their tragic deaths (Steele-Nicholson 45). Ward positions her characters in contemporary Mississippi—a place where schools continue to struggle with segregation and interracial dating remains a historic taboo (Begley 59). She admits that although the South is indeed modern today, it is also mired in ‘multiple waves of the past (Begley 59).’ Her prose allows her to evoke this unique context, as the family’s stories, coupled with the horrifying accounts of the ghosts, represent the shifting arrangements of American racism from past to present. More specifically, the ghosts that haunt the family symbolize the intrusiveness of the past in the present; these figures epitomize the tragic aftermath of slavery that continues to haunt American society. Ward is able to evoke this long history of racism and suffering through her symbols of death and ghosts, which serve as effective vehicles for literary examinations of trauma and memory.
A history of trauma, if not acknowledged or tended to properly, can easily extend to future generations. Using Caruth as a reference, it’s evident that the family in Sing, Unburied, Sing is burdened by trauma-induced hallucinations of the past, which present themselves in the form of literal ghosts. The collective trauma felt by the town of Bois Sauvage—a place marred by the South’s racial legacy—is further encapsulated by the looming destination of Parchman Prison. Within this context, Ward personally models various aspects of the story after elements of her own life. Together, the author and her characters share a plight that exemplifies the individual and transgenerational reaches of trauma.
- Begley, Sarah. “Jesmyn Ward, Heir to Faulkner, Probes the Specter of Race in the South.” Time, vol. 190, no. 9, 2017, p. 58.
- Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
- Eyerman, Ron. “Social Theory and Trauma.” Acta Sociologica, vol. 56, no. 1, 2013, pp. 41–553.
- Steele-Nicholson, Sanne. “The Transgenerational Ghost of Slavery Haunting America: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing.” Utrecht University, 2019.
- Ward, Jesmyn. Sing, Unburied, Sing: a Novel. First Scribner hardcover ed., 2018.