“It’s All Happening at Once”: Jesmyn Ward’s Post-National Black Fiction

This essay is part of a symposium on Yogita Goyal’s Runaway Genres. All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

And how could I conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once? That the history and sentiment that carved the place out of the wilderness would show me that time is a vast ocean, and that everything is happening at once?

Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing[2]


“It’s all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once.

Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing[3]


I have always been puzzled by how Leonie, one of three protagonist-narrators in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, gets absorbed alive into the novel’s landscape of ghosts. She is a Black mother of two who begins a dangerously co-dependent relationship with Michael, a cousin to the white man who murders her brother Given as a teenager, because Black Given was not supposed to beat his white counterparts in a hunting contest. Leonie starts down the road of destructive substance abuse after Michael gets sent to Parchman for cooking meth. Michael begins to use and then cook meth because of the trauma he witnessed while working on the Deep Water Horizon oil rig when it exploded, as well as his inability to find legitimate gainful employment after his severance pay runs out (92). In a plot that attends to the trans-historicity of racialized trauma and how it continues to plague Black life in new and compounded ways, Leonie’s inability to function healthily in any of her relationships, as daughter, partner, or mother, is demonstrative of the complex familial dysfunction that characterizes some of the afterlives of slavery.  Besides substance abuse, this inability to function manifests itself in Leonie’s inability to express what we might imagine is a proper range of feelings towards her children. She admits to herself that her devotion to them is “inconstant” (98). Her son Jojo tells us, “Leonie kill things” (108).

In this vein, after Leonie helps her cancer riddled mother, Mam, die, she abrogates all responsibilities over caring for her children—and, indeed, staying alive herself.  Here’s how Jojo describes his parents’ movements at the end of the novel:

… she aint ever here. Not really. She come back every week, stay for two days and then leave again. Her and Michael sleep on the sofa, both of them fish-thin, slender as two gray sardines, packed just as tight. They don’t move when I walk past them out the door in the morning to bring Kayla to the Head Start Bus. Some mornings they gone by the time I come back inside for my book bag. The long dent in the sofa the only way I know they was there (277).

For Jojo the certainty that his parents were there is registered in their absence, in the indentations of the sofa that are left behind by their bodies. On the one hand, we can think of Leonie’s retreat into substance abuse as a strategy of refusal to engage in a life that is punctuated by racialized traumas. There is Given’s death, officially ruled as a hunting accident. And before Leonie and Given are born, but during the time of the Black Codes, their father River is wrongly convicted of harboring a fugitive and sent to Parchman Penitentiary as a teenager. On the other hand, even though she is barely a spectral presence to her family at the end of the novel, Leonie also represents the ways horror in Ward’s novel is characterized by a mixture of afterlife spectrality (actual ghosts like the dead boy Ritchie who is also a narrator and “chemical figments” like Given) and present day terrors like the police pointing his gun at a twelve year old Black boy (34). The indentations on the couch are, we might say, a symbolic accompaniment of the forms of haunting that Ward’s genre-bending novel literalizes.

A question that I keep coming back to is whether or not it is possible to think about Leonie’s refusal to mother, daughter, and adult in general as a refusal to exist in a place that has only meant violence for her and her loved ones. Is there a way to think about this as passive resistance? We see a satirical version of this refusal to live under prevailing unjust conditions in Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle, where the protagonist describes “mass suicide as the ultimate sit in.” And of course, it’s a central question in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where filicide is cast as a form of motherly love and devotion. What does Leonie’s choice of a special half-life alongside other kinds of ghosts tell us about subversion, resistance, and protest in the contemporary diasporic novel?

In Runaway Genres: The Global Afterlives of Slavery, Yogita Goyal helps us to think about this question by also paying closer attention to the role played by affect and in particular sentimentality, in the long history of Black writing that stretches all the way back to the slave narrative. Today, affect and empathy persist as substitutes for social change.[4] As a result, Goyal suggests, “the rejection of the sentimental mode and the embrace of the gothic” in contemporary literature, “enables a different sense of the relation between the audience and the figure of the victim, as well as a fuller appreciation of the itineraries of terror, rooted in colonial history that have led us to this moment” (68).  In this brief essay, I’d like to propose that Ward’s engagement with gothic via the tropes of horror and ghost narratives accomplish something similar, in that it reconfigures the reader’s relationship to the process of recovery, reckoning, and reconciliation.

A part of this reconfiguration are the ways in which Leonie’s place among the ghosts at the end of the novel expands how ghosts and haunting have functioned in Black literature as a mode of recovery. Morrison’s Beloved, for example is a recovery project in which haunting allows her still-living protagonists to acknowledge traumatic aspects of their past. But while the ghost Richie’s journey back to River to find out how he died is also one of rememory, Ward’s novel presents such recoveries as neither settling, cathartic, nor liberating. Indeed, because of his violent death, Richie is cut off from an afterlife in the land across the sea where Given’s ghost takes his mother, Philomen, after she dies. Among the things that Ward’s text refuses, then, is the sense that recovery and resolution are the same thing. In its representations of various visions of the afterlife—the land across the water where Given and Mam go after Mam passes away, as well as the tree of ghosts where Richie and others haunt, Sing, Unburied, Sing revises the role of the afterlife in sentimental catharsis, demonstrating, as Goyal suggests, how “contemporary literature chronicles the history of violence in a world that has not yet figured out a politics of reconciliation and reckoning” (3).

While Leonie’s lingering not quite dead, but not quite alive is one way the novel enables this through a suspension of states between life and death, it is perhaps the persistence of the tree of ghosts at the end of the novel that most vividly represents the novel’s refusal of affective catharsis through sentimentality. Towards the end of the novel Jojo, comes across “a great live oak…full with ghosts.” “With their eyes,” the ghosts speak their violent deaths to him in unpunctuated prose: “He raped me and suffocated me until I died I put my hands up and he shot me eight times…they came in my cell in the middle of the night and they hung me they found out I could read and they dragged me out to the barn and gouged my eyes before they beat me still” (282). This litany of brutal torture and death spans the history of black life in America. The ghosts’ attire, “rags and breeches, T-shirts and tignons, fedoras and hoodies,” brings together in a single image the brutality of slavery and Jim Crow–era lynchings and the more contemporary and familiar violence that claimed the lives of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown (283). In the logic of the novel, Ward’s ghosts are “stuck” and unable to “cross the water,” the final transition in the Yoruba cosmology that also makes its way into Louisiana Voodoo culture. They are confined to the terrestrial realm, searching for “keyholes” of human misery and need through which they can slip into the lives of the living and amplify their suffering, while approximating a sort of half-life for themselves.

It is in thinking with Goyal that I have come to see how this aspect of Ward’s book goes hand in hand with its subtle, but nonetheless quite real, disregard for the nation as a hermeneutic frame. In Goyal’s book, the reality of the incomplete abolition of slavery in America in particular requires us to think about American and global literature in relation, or perhaps to think more fully about the global presence in American literature. Indeed, the ways this incomplete abolition manifests in contemporary literature demonstrates how we have not yet figured out how to reckon with—or, more accurately, have in fact repressed—global histories of violence, such as that of the transatlantic slave trade. While Ward’s novel never leaves the shores of the United States and only contains American characters, it gestures to a global history in its understanding of the afterlife. While slavery itself is not represented in this novel, its afterlives are present most obviously in the novel’s iconic image of a tree filled with transhistorical ghosts who refuse to leave, intoning instead, “home.” It is also present in the racist criminal justice system that persists in its violent exploitation and failures of Leonie’s family across two generations. As Goyal makes clear though, these residues of slavery are less about the persistence of the actual relations of slavery in the novel’s/our present, but rather about the ways in contemporary diasporic literature that slavery emerges as “the defining template through which current forms of human rights abuses are understood in order to rethink race in a global frame” (3).

When JoJo’s sister, the toddler Kayla, faces the tree of ghosts and tells them to “go home.” They “shudder, but they do not leave” at her command. As if recognizing their need for comfort, she “raises one arm in the air, palm up, like she is trying to soothe…but the ghosts don’t still, don’t rise, don’t ascend and disappear. They stay.” Kayla’s next effort in comforting or ushering the ghosts home is to begin singing “a song of mismatches, half garble words” that her brother, Jojo, cannot understand, though the melody is familiar (284). Kayla’s song contrasts the one from the land across the sea—“the most beautiful song”—that Richie hears, but cannot understand (241). As she sings, the ghosts “smile with something like relief, something like remembrance, something like ease.” While they seem soothed by her song, they are not encouraged away from their perch. They remain there in the trees, still saying “home,” perhaps affirming in Kayla’s song that, like Richie, they are home. In this way, Ward also defamiliarizes the concept of home, not as a place of refuge and comfort, but for ghosts like Richie, an endless limbo. Ironically, it is from the ghost narrator Richie’s perspective that we see the desirability and respite of the land across the water, from which he is barred. The final vision here is, not to put too fine a point on it, less one of national belonging than of migrancy. Here, for a brief moment, Ward’s use of haunting becomes less a metaphor for past trauma than an embodiment of a very real, concrete state experienced by many in the contemporary world.

Returning to Goyal then, in its resolution, Ward’s novel offers “a fuller appreciation of the itineraries of terror, rooted in colonial history that have led us to this moment,” through “the rejection of the sentimental mode” (68).  Sing, Unburied, Sing does not offer safe passage home for the ghosts of the past who have suffered racial violence across centuries. The novel also does not offer correctives or hope for a brighter future, nor does it exorcise the ghosts from past brutality. It instead lays bare the realities of our time and their roots in systems that depend on the criminalization and disenfranchisement of black people. Even more striking are the ways their needs are understood by black children, like Kayla. If Richie is cut off from understanding the song of the golden isle, Kayla’s song affirms and soothes the presence of the violently dead among us. “Home, they say. Home” are the last words of the novel. At home with these two black children is a literal tree filled with the specters of trans-historical trauma and a mother whose presence is registered only through a sofa indentation.


[1] The quotation in the essay’s title is from Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing (Simon and Schuster, 2017), 238.

[2] Ward, 186.

[3] Ward, 236.

[4] Yogita Goyal, Runaway Genres: The Global Afterlives of Slavery (New York: New York University Press, 2019), https://nyupress.org/9781479832712/runaway-genres.

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