Illness, wounds, and death cast a shadow over the narrative of Sing, Unburied, Sing from the very beginning. In the opening scene, Jojo mentions that Mam is suffering from cancer, and then describes himself and Pop slaughtering a goat to be eaten. Immediately, this shows that while illness and injury are inherently dark, tragic phenomena, they—along with death itself—are also part of the natural cycle of life. Illness, wounds, and death are ever-present in the lives of the characters: there is no escape from them. Thus, even as the characters battle against them in different ways, it is clear that this is a battle that can never ultimately be won.
Even though illness and injury are inevitable aspects of the human condition, they are still connected to human fallibility and injustice. For example, although Kayla’s initial illness occurs randomly, because of Leonie’s poor parenting it is not treated and thus reaches a frighteningly severe intensity. Similarly, much of the injury that occurs in the novel is the result of racist violence and other acts of immoral cruelty. This idea is only further accentuated by all the times in which the characters collapse into fits of vomiting. Kayla vomits from her fever, and then Jojo forces her to vomit the blackberry remedy Leonie made for her. Later, Michael forces Leonie to vomit after she swallows the baggie of meth, and Richie vomits after being whipped at Parchman. Therefore—perhaps surprisingly, for some readers—the act of vomiting has profound thematic significance in the text. Vomiting is an act of expelling something poisonous from within the body, so the various scenes in which characters vomit can be read on a metaphorical level as well as a literal one. In the creole religious traditions that Jojo’s family practices, it is believed that people can be possessed by spirits. Vomiting is thus also linked to the idea that one’s body can house something evil which can only be expelled through a kind of purging—whether that is actual vomiting or a more symbolic, spiritual process. Perhaps the characters in Sing, Unburied, Sing are simply having physiological responses when they vomit, or perhaps they are trying to purge another type of toxin from their systems—whether that is an addiction, a trauma, or even the national legacy of slavery.
Death also plays a hugely important role in the novel. As the nearly constant presence of ghosts makes clear, the novel rejects the idea of a strict division between life and death. The “unburied” of the book’s title are present throughout the narrative, even though only some of the characters are capable of seeing them. The first time a ghost appears is when Leonie sees Given while she is high. At first, Leonie dismisses it as a possible hallucination, but it soon becomes clear that Given exists not only within Leonie’s consciousness, but in a real and objective way: despite being dead, he is literally present throughout the novel. Similarly, Richie is not only present but has an influence on Jojo’s actions and therefore impacts the action of the story—as does Given, most dramatically when he takes Mam with him to the world of the dead.
Although the dead are present in world of the novel, there is also a strong implication that there is another realm—a “home”—to which the ghosts in the narrative are ultimately headed. After Richie dies, the snake-bird asks him if he is ready to move onto this next place, before realizing that he still has unfinished business in the mortal world. The idea of ghostly existence as a liminal (in-between) state between life and death has a long history in both spiritual and literary traditions. At the same time, the novel also rejects the idea that people’s progress through the mortal world into ghostly existence and finally to death is necessarily a linear journey. Mam even tells Jojo that all people from the past, present, and future in fact exist at the same time—but it is just not possible for mortal humans to perceive the world that way. This is supported by Richie’s statement that Jojo doesn’t understand the world yet, and particularly not the nature of time.
Overall, there are multiple distinct ideas about death, the afterlife, ghostliness, and time proposed in the novel. While these ideas remain largely mysterious and at times appear contradictory, it is clear throughout the narrative that the dead play an important role in the world of the living in multiple different ways. The dead not only form personal relationships with the living, but serve as active reminders of a painful history of violence and oppression that continues to shadow the lives of the living in both subtle and overt ways.
Illness, Wounds, and Death ThemeTracker
Illness, Wounds, and Death 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.
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.
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.
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 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