Sing, Unburied, Sing is a family saga. Although the main action of the plot takes place over only a few days, the narrative jumps back to tell stories of Jojo’s family’s history that happened many years before he was born. Indeed, one of the most important ideas in the novel is the connection that exists even between family members who are not alive at the same time, such as the connection between Jojo and his dead uncle, Given. All the members of Jojo’s family feel a strong sense of connection with one another. Mam and Pop’s relationship to Jojo and Kayla is particularly close, but the most intense bond of all is the one between Jojo and Kayla themselves. Although Jojo is only 13, he is Kayla’s main caretaker, fulfilling the role of a parent to her. At the same time, his relationship to Kayla is in many ways deeper than the bond between parent and child because they are inseparable––as Leonie observes at one point, they even sleep folded into one another––and possess a psychic connection that allows them to understand the other’s thoughts without speaking.
Despite the intensity of these familial bonds, Jojo’s family is also afflicted by a number of difficulties and traumas, and family connections do not always come easily to the characters as a result. Mam points out that Leonie never had “the mothering instinct,” and that this is why Mam and Pop had to essentially take over as Jojo and Kayla’s parents. Leonie loves her children, but this love is distorted by her streak of selfishness, crazed devotion to Michael, and drug addiction. As a result, her feelings and behavior toward Jojo and Kayla are erratic, cold, and sometimes cruel. She resents Jojo’s role as Kayla’s stand-in parent and is jealous of Kayla because her older brother––unlike her own older brother, Given––is still alive. Leonie’s feelings toward her children are often immature, the kinds of emotions readers are more likely to associate with children themselves rather than parents. In this sense, the novel suggests that the roles people play within their families do not necessarily correspond to their actual age. This is particularly pronounced in the case of Leonie and Jojo, who take the opposite roles within the parent-child relationship than is traditional.
Family is also significant because of its link to heritage. Throughout the novel there are reminders of Jojo’s family’s connection to the history of African Americans in Mississippi going back to the slavery era. This is most pronounced at the very end of the novel when Jojo and Kayla are surrounded by a large mass of ghosts, some of whom are the ghosts of enslaved people. The very fact that Jojo and Kayla are able to see these ghosts also relates to the theme of heritage, since—as Mam explains to Leonie—certain people in their family possess the gift of psychic intuition, allowing them to see aspects of the world that are not visible to others. Although this gift sometimes skips generations or particular individuals, it has been passed down through the family lineage stretching all the way back to their African ancestors.
The novel also plays on ideas about home and homecoming, while suggesting that “home” is not necessarily a physical place but a more spiritual condition of rest and belonging. The entire premise of the family’s road trip is to bring Michael home from prison, but Michael’s relationship to his current “home”––Mam and Pop’s house––is a troubled one, as is his relationship to his nearby childhood home, due to his conflict with his racist father. Not long after Michael comes back, he and Leonie begin regularly using drugs again and staying away from “home” for most days of the week. This emphasizes the idea that “home” can often be an elusive destination, for which people often spend their whole lives (and even afterlives) searching in vain.
The idea of homecoming is also central to Richie’s character, along with the other ghosts who appear in the novel. After Richie is whipped at Parchman, he tells Pop that he is “going home.” However, after Richie tries to escape Parchman, he is hunted down by a lynch mob, at which point Pop kills him in order to spare him a more gruesome fate. This violent death propels Richie into a liminal (in-between) existence where he is forced to search for Pop in order to find out how he died, since only then will he be able to travel to his true home, his final resting place. Indeed, much of the novel deals with the ways in which people resist going home (in all senses of this phrase) even as they long to go there. Mam fights against her cancer, but eventually gives in and allows the ghost of Given to take her “home” through death. Similarly, at the end of the novel Kayla urges the ghosts to go home by singing to them. Although all people have an intrinsic yearning for home, life is full of forces that interrupt the homecoming journey—including prison, addiction, and memories and traumas that haunt people like ghosts.
Family, Heritage, and Homecoming ThemeTracker
Family, Heritage, and Homecoming 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.
I lay there until I can't no more, and then I carry Kayla into the bathroom and stick my finger down her throat and make her throw up. She fights me, hitting at my arms, crying against my hand, sobbing but not making no words, but I do it three times, make her vomit over my hand, hot as her little body, three times, all of it red and smelling sweet, until I'm crying and she's shrieking. I turn off the light and go back into the room and wipe her with my shirt and lay in the bed with her, scared that Leonie's going to walk in and find all that red throw-up in the bathroom, find out I made Kayla throw up Leonie's potion. But nobody comes.
“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.
It feels good to be mean, to speak past the baby I can't hit and let that anger touch another. The one I'm never good enough for. Never Mama for. Just Leonie, a name wrapped around the same disappointed syllables I've heard from Mama, from Pop, even from Given, my whole fucking life.
This is a miracle, I think, so I close my eyes and ignore Given-not-Given, who is sitting there with a sad look on his face, mouth in a soft frown, and think of Michael, real Michael, and wonder if we had another baby, if it would look more like him than Michaela. If we had another baby, we could get it right.
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.
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––
He ran so fast. Sometimes I had to follow him by sound. Him talking to hisself the whole time. Not hisself. His mama. Telling her he was coming home. That he wanted her to sing for him. Sing for your son, he said. Sing.
I said: It's going to be all right, Richie. He said. I heeled the dogs. Held out my hands to him, right side out. Moved slow. Soothed him. Said: We gone get you out of this. We gone get you away from here. Touched his arm: he was burning up. I'm going home, Riv? he asked. I squatted down next to him, the dogs steady yipping, and I looked at him. He had baby hair on the edge of his scalp, Jojo. Little fine hair he'd had since he sucked at his mama's tit. Yes, Richie. I'm a take you home, I said. And then I took the shank I kept in my boot and I punched it one time into his neck. In the big vein on his right side. Held him till the blood stopped spurting. Him looking at me, mouth open. A child. Tears and snot all over his face. Shocked and scared, until he was still.
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