Jesmyn Ward was born two days after me, in 1977. Both our families were from small towns in Mississippi. We both didn’t have hair until well into toddlerhood. We both spent large chunks of our childhood buried in books and libraries.
Ward and I both went to private high schools and felt out of place, and then attended elite colleges far away from home, where we felt even more out of place. We both decided that, for all its problems, all its pain, it was worth returning home to the South to try to make a life for ourselves. And we’ve both suffered the loss of close family members and friends, as only a lucky few who make it to their mid-30s do not.
But for all our superficial similarities, Ward’s experiences as chronicled in her shattering new memoir, Men We Reaped (Bloomsbury USA), could not be more different than mine. Or, most likely, than yours, given the demographics of alt-weekly book-review readers.
Ward grew up broke and black on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, and, like a female Ta-Nehisi Coates, she points out how laughable is the idea that we live in a “post-racial” society. If you want to understand the black experience in America, if you want to comprehend how f--cked up things truly are, you need to read this book.
Men We Reaped, which derives its name from a quote by Harriet Tubman, tells the story both of Ward’s childhood and maturity and of the deaths of five young black men in her community from 2000 to 2004, including her brother and her cousin. One death is drug-related, one is suicide, one is murder, one is a tragic car accident, and one, that of Ward’s brother Joshua, is a vehicular homicide for which the drunk driver gets just five years in jail.
“Five f--king years, I thought. This is what my brother’s life is worth in Mississippi. Five years,” Ward writes.
Her anger is palpable through much of book: anger at her white prep-school classmates, who taunt her with racist jokes; anger at her college boyfriend, who grew up black and privileged in Los Angeles and doesn’t understand her pain and grief; anger at her father, who cheated on her mother with a string of women, including a 14-year-old, and stopped paying child support for his 10 children (only three of whom are Ward’s full siblings).
But most of Ward’s anger is reserved for a society that drives young men into drug dealing to make ends meet, a culture whose minimum-wage jobs for black men without degrees or connections has them cleaning bathrooms at truck stops, a community that’s more likely to force failing students out of schools instead of trying to address their learning disabilities, a place where drugs and alcohol are the easiest way to escape the systemic problems, a country that doesn’t care about the generation of people it’s losing.
“Death spreads, eating away at the root of our community like a fungus,” Ward writes near the end of the book, detailing a list of others who have died since 2004. “This is why I choose the option of a life insurance plan at every job I work. This is why I hate answering my phone. This is why fear roots through me when I think of my nephew, who is funny and even-shouldered and quiet, when I think of what waits for him in the world.”
As Ward moves backward and forward in time—backward through the deaths of the five young men, ending with her brother’s, and forward through her childhood in Mississippi—she struggles with her place, both in her family and in the world. She is the one who got away—to Stanford, to New York, to the MFA program at the University of Michigan. When she’s away, she’s homesick, but when she’s home, she longer belongs the way she once did.
Ward solves this dilemma by writing about the world she comes from, the one she’s partially escaped but forever tied to. Although she mined similar territory in her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds, and the surprise winner of the National Book Award, 2011’s Salvage the Bones, Ward’s honest recounting of her life resonates on a deeper level.
It’s a shame that such a powerful work is at times marred by cliched phrases that a better editor would have cut—scars are “mottled” and “angry,” the air is “thick with humidity” more than once. A few of the childhood anecdotes also read as tedious more than formative and could have stood to be trimmed.
Still, these are quibbles. Men We Reaped is a powerful memoir and an important depiction of the black experience in America. Ward deftly illustrates in moving prose how the conservative myth of America—that we can all just pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and make something better of ourselves—is a falsity for most people trapped in a bitter cycle of poverty, compounded by race.
But Ward’s book, as heartbreaking as it is, also converts the strength and power of the black community in the South.
“My mother had the strength to work her body to its breaking point to provide for herself and her children,” Ward writes. “And my mother’s example teaches me other things: This is how a transplanted people survived a holocaust and slavery. This is how Black people in the South organized to vote under the shadow of terrorism and the noose. This is how human beings sleep and wake and fight and survive.”
Ward’s resilience is impressive, and her writing more so. However similar or dissimilar your experience to hers, you need to read this book.