Mississippi Book Festival

In a radio interview last fall, Jesmyn Ward recalled being 7 or 8 years old and having nightmares about male relatives getting arrested and sent to Parchman state prison.

Parchman is 300 miles away from DeLisle, where Ward grew up and lives today with her family; it also inspired Boi Sauvage, the fictional town where her novels are set. But to Ward’s point, no matter how far from the place a Mississippian lives, Parchman, one of the most notorious penal institutions in the world, looms large in the Mississippi imagination.

A former plantation, Parchman is located in unincorporated Sunflower County on nearly 28 square miles, making it bigger than the cities of Starkville, Greenville and Brandon. The prison was built in 1901, the year the state penitentiary in Jackson was demolished to build the new state Capitol, where the Legislature conducts business to this day. Parchman’s wardens invented the conjugal visit, an idea based on the racist belief that black men had unnaturally high sex drives and would work harder in the fields if they had a little something to look forward to at week’s end.

“So much about that place reveals the essence of, the worst of Mississippi,” Ward said of Parchman, known formally as Mississippi State Penitentiary.

Although two of the central characters in Ward’s latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, are ghosts, it’s the specter of Parchman that casts the longest shadow over the story. As much as Sing is a road novel, it also illustrates the toll of white supremacy and America’s long obsession with mass incarceration on black and poor families, generation after generation.  

Jesmyn Ward

The family at the center of Sing includes Ward’s protagonist, JoJo, a teenage boy raised by his grandparents and himself helping raise his 3-year-old sister, Kayla. This, despite the fact that their mother, Leonie, also lives in the home but has a drug addiction and is rarely around.

The tale begins with Leonie loading her hungry children into her coworker Misty’s car to trek through more than a dozen counties to retrieve Michael on the day of his release from Parchman, presumably on relatively minor drug charges given the brevity of his sentence. The heart breaks to realize that even though Leonie confesses in a chapter she narrates that she lacks the vocabulary and courage to express affection for her children, JoJo in particular, she does not hesitate showing the world that Michael, who is white, is her one true love.

JoJo is obsessed with listening to stories about the prison from his grandfather, Pap, who was imprisoned at Parchman as a young man. After seeing how well the animals responded to Pap, white prison officials reluctantly put Pap in charge of the hounds used to hunt down escaped convicts.

“It ain’t natural for a colored man to master dogs. A colored man doesn’t know how to master because it ain’t in him to master. The only thing a nigger knows how to do is slave,” Parchman’s warden said of Pap overseeing the dogs.

Pap was also charged with caring for the prison’s smallest inmate, a 12-year-old black boy named Richie. Even though Parchman houses death row, Richie’s extrajudicial execution haunted Pap and, eventually, JoJo to whom Richie’s ghost appears. As does Given, Leonie’s brother, who was killed by one of Michael’s cousins when they were in high school.

Along the journey, we also encountered Michael’s drug dealer defense attorney who offers the travelers sustenance — in the form of a spaghetti dinner and a chance to earn a little bit of extra money by carrying a package of drugs back down south. The car is stopped by a policeman, who forces Leonie and JoJo to get out of the car (both white passengers remain in the vehicle), while he searches for contraband.

When the travelers arrive home, in Bois Sauvage, they encounter Michael’s mother and father, Big Joseph (who is also the protagonist’s namesake), who wants nothing to do with his son’s racially mixed family.

Sing lays bare the real and psychic costs of cycles of trauma, poverty, and violence designed to siphon vulnerable people into jails and prisons. It was Michael who put it best, writing of Parchman in a letter to Leonie: “This ain’t no place for no man. Black or White. Don’t make no difference. This is a place for the dead.”

And until we reckon with these ghosts, Ward’s novel argues, we will forever be haunted.

Jesmyn Ward will talk about her body of work as well as her thoughts on our state and nation with her friend, Scott Naugle on the panel “A conversation with Jesmyn Ward” at 12:00 p.m. in State Capitol Room 113.

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Ryan L. Nave, a native of University City, Mo., served as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief from May 2018 until April 2020. Ryan began his career with Mississippi Today February 2016 as an original member of the editorial team. He became news editor August 2016. Ryan has a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked for Illinois Times and served as news editor for the Jackson Free Press.