By Chet Yarbrough
Sing, Unburied, Sing
By: Jesmyn Ward
Narrated by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chris Chalk, Rutina Wesley
Jesmyn Ward (American Author, associate Professor of English at Tulane University)
Songs about poverty are hard to listen to. Like Whitehead’s story about “The Underground Railroad”, one wonders “Is this America”? It is and it is not.
Jesmyn Ward’s song is about an American family. In one sense, the story is unrelatable because most American families escape dire poverty. But Ward’s depicted family is poor with the added burden of being a minority of a minority.
Though every family’s story is unique, there are familial lessons to be learned from Ward’s story. On many levels, the story is about troubles of every poor American family.
Poverty amplifies good, bad, and indifference in all families.
Ward introduces a black family headed by a patriarchal grandfather, a wise and wizened grandmother, a grown daughter, and two grandchildren living under the same roof. The daughter is in a committed relationship to a young white man who is about to be released from prison. He is the father of the two grandchildren.
The boy grandchild adores his grandfather. The girl grandchild adores her brother. Both children are ambivalent about their mother because of her self-absorption and inability to comfort either of them. As her grandmother explains, it is not that her daughter does not love her children. She just does not know how to express her love.
The grandmother is nearing death with regrets about her daughter’s inability to comfort her children and raise them with the values she and the grandfather live by.
The grief of her daughter when her mother dies is palpable. It is a grief borne of self-pity but also of deep love for what her mother knew and tried to teach her.
Life seems bleak. The only ray of light comes from the grandson who copes with the indifference of his mother, and fear of a father he barely knows. This ray of light comes from stories told, and examples set by his black grandfather.
This grim story describes a poverty trap made in America. The father who is being released from jail is estranged from his family because of his relationship with a black family. He is damaged by his experience in jail and the irony of being the son of a bigot.
The downward spiral of this father’s life and his companion appear set in motion. The mother of his children loves and depends on him, but their destiny is bleak. Ward ends her story with the grandmother’s death, and the parents leaving the children with their black grandfather.
One presumes the boy will grow to manhood with the moral compass of his black grandfather, but the fate of the daughter seems as bleak as her parents. Without the guidance of a loving mother or grandmother, it seems the daughter is destined to remain in poverty.
Being black is a struggle not understood by white America. Even with a powerfully good moral compass, a young black boy-man or girl-woman bares the burden of being black in a world of white authority.
This is a beautifully written book of a tragedy, made and remade in America.