In Sing, Unburied, Sing, the boundary between human existence and the natural world is not a strict one––and at times, it seems barely to exist at all. Jojo and his family live in a rural part of Mississippi, and Jojo is extremely comfortable in nature. Indeed, the natural world is often presented as a source of relief, comfort, and solace to the characters. The gris-gris bag that Pop gives Jojo contains a rock, a feather, and an animal tooth, suggesting that tokens from nature have a kind of spiritual power to protect the living. When Michael wants to bond with Jojo, he takes him fishing. When Leonie wants to cure Kayla’s nausea, she uses blackberry leaves as a natural remedy. Thus, through communion with nature, the characters are reminded of their place in the greater order of things—including the past, present, and future, and the community of the living as well as the dead.
Certain animals take on particular significance in the novel’s exploration of death and the afterlife. After Richie dies, he encounters a mysterious hybrid snake-bird who tells him: “There are things you need to see.” This mystical encounter emphasizes the idea of a community that includes animals and humans who are both living and dead. It could also be interpreted as a reference to West African religions that imagine gods taking on animal forms. When Kayla sees the ghost of Given, she calls him both “black bird” and “Black boy.” As a ghost, Given appears to Kayla as something not quite animal and not quite human. At the very end of the novel, Jojo witnesses a large group of ghosts sitting in a tree who seem halfway between people and birds. In the afterlife, the division between animal and human is seemingly even less strong than it is in the mortal world, suggesting that the hierarchies according to which people value different forms of life are misguided.
However, the connection between humans and animals is not always presented in positive terms. As the book reminds readers, a recurrent motif in anti-black racist rhetoric is the comparison of black people and animals. During slavery, black people were spoken of—and treated—as having the same status as animals whose only value lay in their ability to work and create profit for their “owner.” As the book shows, such thinking has continued long after the abolition of slavery. Pop explains that Stag’s parents lied to the census takers to avoid being controlled and treated like “livestock” by government authorities. White people constantly insult black people by comparing them to animals, and this happens with particular viciousness during Pop’s time at Parchman. The book is clearly opposed to such baseless and brutal racism, and at the same time it is also critical of the dismissive and cruel way in which animals themselves are treated. In this sense Sing, Unburied, Sing suggests that the liberation of all people—and the end of racism—depends on a renewed, newly respectful connection with the natural world.
Animals and Nature ThemeTracker
Animals and Nature Quotes in Sing, Unburied, Sing
It's the smell of death, the rot coming from something just alive, something hot with blood and life. I grimace, wanting to make Kayla's stink face, the face she makes when she's angry or impatient; to everyone else, it looks like she's smelled something nasty: her green eyes squinting, her nose a mushroom, her twelve tiny toddler teeth showing through her open mouth. I want to make that face because something about scrunching up my nose and squeezing the smell away might lessen it, might cut off that stink of death. I know it's the stomach and intestines, but all I can see is Kayla's stink face and the soft eye of the goat and then I can't hold myself still and watch no more, then I'm out the door of the shed and I'm throwing up in the grass outside.
His maman and daddy avoided them census takes, never answered their questions right, changed the number of kids they had, never registered none of their births. Said them people came around, sniffing out that information to control them, to cage them like livestock.
The only animal I saw in front of me was Pop, Pop with his straight shoulders and his tall back, his pleading eyes the only thing that spoke to me in that moment and told me what he said without words: I love you, boy. I love you.
She ain't Mam. She ain't Pop. She ain't never healed nothing or grown nothing in her life, and she don't know.
“All the birds go bye,” Kayla says, and then she leans forward and rubs my face with both hands, and for a second I think she's going to tell me something amazing, some secret, something come from God Himself.
I know Jojo is innocent because I can read it in the unmarked swell of him: his smooth face, ripe with baby fat; his round, full stomach; his hands and feet soft as his younger sister's. He looks even younger when he falls asleep. His baby sister has flung herself across him, and both of them slumber like young feral cats: open mouths, splayed arms and legs, exposed throats. When I was thirteen, I knew much more than him. I knew that metal shackles could grow into the skin. I knew that leather could split flesh like butter. I knew that hunger could hurt, could scoop me hollow as a gourd, and that seeing my siblings starving could hollow out a different part of me, too.
I didn't understand time, either, when I was young. How could I know that after I died, Parchman would pull me from the sky? How could I imagine Parchman would pull me to it and refuse to let go? 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?
We are all sinking, and there are manta rays gliding beneath us and sharks jostling us. I am trying to keep everyone above water, even as I struggle to stay afloat. I sink below the waves and push Jojo upward so he can stay above the waves and breathe, but then Michaela sinks and I push her up, and Michael sinks so I shove him to the air as I sink and struggle, but they won't stay up: they want to sink like stones. I thrust them up toward the surface, to the fractured sky so they can live, but they keep slipping from my hands. It is so real that I can feel their sodden clothes against my palms. I am failing them. We are all drowning.
I actually cried, Michael told the water. He seemed ashamed to say that, but he went on anyway. How the dolphins were dying off, how whole pods of them washed up on the beaches in Florida, in Louisiana, in Alabama and Mississippi: oil-burnt, sick with lesions, hollowed out from the insides. And then Michael said something I'll never forget: Some scientists for BP said this didn’t have nothing to do with the oil, that sometimes this what happens to animals: they die for unexpected reasons. Sometimes a lot of them. Sometimes all at once. And then Michael looked at me and said: And when that scientist said that, I thought about humans. Because humans is animals. And the way he looked at me that night told me he wasn't just thinking about any humans; he was thinking about me.
I ain't never have the talent for it. Seeing the dead. I could read people, read the future or the past in they bodies. Know what was wrong or needed by their songs: in the plants, in the animals, too. But never saw the dead. Wanted it so bad after Given died––
I washed my hands every day, Jojo. But that damn blood ain't never come out. Hold my hands up to my face, I can smell it under my skin. Smelled it when the warden and sergeant came up on us, the dogs yipping and licking blood from they muzzles. They'd torn his throat out, hamstringed him. Smelled it when the warden told me I'd done good. Smelled it the day they let me out on account I'd led the dogs that caught and killed Richie. Smelled it when I finally found his mama after weeks of searching, just so I could tell her Richie was dead and she could look at me with a stone face and shut the door on me.
And the branches are full. They are full with ghosts, two or three, all the way up to the top, to the feathered leaves. There are women and men and boys and girls. Some of them near to babies. They crouch, looking at me. Black and brown and the closest near baby, smoke white. None of them reveal their deaths, but I see it in their eyes, their great black eyes. They perch like birds, but look as people. They speak with their eyes: He raped me and suffocated me until I died I put my hands up and he shot me eight times she locked me in the shed and starved me to death while I listened to my babies playing with her in the yard they came in my cell in the middle of the night and they hung me they found I could read and they dragged me out to the barn and gouged my eyes before they beat me