As we begin 2019 and await the One Book, One Philadelphia Kickoff, I’ve been re-reading Sing, Unburied, Sing and thinking about its outward effects. Many people have called Jesmyn Ward’s book a protest novel. But what is that, exactly?
Howard Zinn gives probably the broadest possible definition, which is "any form of communication that has some effect on the consciousness of people reading or listening." Hannah Arendt has written that, while books aren’t a substitute for direct political action, a piece of writing can fuel social change with the necessary argument. James Baldwin, in his famous response to Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son, criticized protest literature for its use of exaggerated character portrayals and artistic failure to transcend stereotypes. He asked whether a protest novel could truly challenge "the American scene," or if it only reinforced existing ideas about it.
What do you think? Can fiction bring social change? What counts as a political agenda versus an address of basic human rights? In Sing, Unburied, Sing, America’s historical racial violence is plainly visible in contemporary life, so we can read how the past infiltrates present relationships in the novel.
As I read Leonie’s struggle to be present for her children, I turn over and over how the pervasive pain of her brother’s violent death keeps flaring up in front of her. The way her toddler never reaches but jolts away from her seems to carry devastating proof that something is not right between them, something has invaded their relationship. While Leonie can’t yet name or repair it, it seems to go on forever. Jesmyn Ward has said it was extremely difficult to write Leonie’s character and to make her so neglectful with so few redeeming moments.
Throughout Sing, as Pop continues to bear the untellable violence of Parchman Farm, the ghost Richie haunts his grandson. The family, both living and dead, is caught in the psychological loop that racial violence creates. They are entrapped by the power structures that interlock to design and enforce oppression as well as attempting to deny them humanity.
Ward builds the story using historical research about violence within the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which is still in operation today, offering a powerful demonstration of the relationship between slavery, the American economy, and the current prison system. But this is also a novel, with flickering light and shadow, and memory, and there is something undeniably alive here, and connected. There is voice, and it transcends the brutality.
While she was researching Parchman, Ward discovered that many young children had been incarcerated there and she has spoken about how their unheard stories helped give life to Richie’s character:
"Richie, he was called. Real name was Richard, and he wasn’t nothing but 12 years old. He was in for three years for stealing food: salted meat. Lot of folks was in there for stealing food because everybody was poor and starving, and even though White people couldn’t get your work for free, they did everything they could to avoid hiring you and paying you for it."
We come to know Richie and the images of his experiences can later be called up—maybe even in another novel, or by another author—in a continuation of the story or an extension that deepens its power, possibly in the same way Sing continues parts of the story in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or the way a community organizes or a chorus becomes louder.
To take a deeper look at how Jesmyn Ward’s life experiences inform her literature, read her memoir, Men We Reaped. You can also learn more about chronicling resistance narratives in Philadelphia. Visit the One Book calendar to find book discussions and events near you, and don’t miss Jesmyn Ward at the Parkway Central Library on January 16 at 7:30 p.m. as we officially get the programming season underway. The One Book, One Philadelphia season runs through March 13.