Men We Reaped
- Jesmyn Ward
- Bloomsbury USA
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Justin C. Young
- October 7, 2013
The deaths of five loved men and how their loss shaped the life of the National Book Award-winning author of Salvage the Bones.
What is it like to grow up black and poor in the Deep South and to experience the death of five men close to you? In Men We Reaped: A Memoir, Jesmyn Ward, with an honesty few other writers often express, bravely recounts her own story of being an African American living in poverty in rural Mississippi over the last few decades. This story is her truth as she wrestles simultaneously with grief and growth into the present day. While interlacing her memories of childhood and becoming an adult, Ward’s memoir centers on the loss of young men who were very close to her, including her brother. Her Southern family, rich in strong matriarchs and mired by troubled men, contains a family tree that bears branches with broken limbs and splintered dreams where the men are concerned.
The book suggests something sinister and unspoken as the cause of the circumstances that led to racial bias and death in the Deep South, including the dark lore of the legends of the South or some supernatural force known as “the wolf,” an unseen beast targeting black men from the shadows. By the time readers reach the book’s end, the stories all collide in her brother’s death and then progress further into her adulthood, losing the clarity of who may be responsible for these men’s deaths. Racism is the assumed culprit, but Ward implicates other targets a bit more complex than just demons white and black: disparity, drugs, socio-economic status and educational access.
Ward avoided these pitfalls because of her mother’s commitment to provide her with an education. Through the generosity of her mother’s employers, Ward was able to attend an exclusive private school on scholarship where she began to finally flourish academically. This initial education led her to attend college and graduate school and begin her career as a writer. By narrating her own story, she acknowledges the steps taken to rise above poverty even though many in her life have not.
Ward convincingly transports the reader to the steamy woods of the bayou and gulf regions of Mississippi and Louisiana, all filled with crowded homes, mosquito-filled backyards and sweaty parties in the park. Readers witness Ward’s transition from an unbridled, wild youth, who spends summers playing with neighbors and partying late at night in the park, to a young woman who realizes and embraces the opportunity to free herself from the South through education. Ward’s transition out of the South, however, places a heavy weight on her conscience as to why she found success while others have not and why she lives while others have died. It’s as if the longer she remains in her hometown of DeLisle, Miss., the more the mortality that appears inescapable for the men in her life closes in on her. DeLisle, a place she loves, ultimately became a place she needed to escape.
The book’s dizzying structure occasionally jars the reader through a series of time warps as the chapters detailing each man’s death interrupt her linear life story. One chapter tracks her childhood forward while the deaths are revealed in reverse order leading to her brother’s, the most affecting of them all. While navigating this timeline dually forward and backward, the effect tends to carry more heft as each man is instantly taken from Ward, her friends and family.
The predominant question of why these deaths persist hovers on every page of Ward’s memoir and draws the reader in, making it clear why Ward feels compelled to share these stories. It becomes evident that a part of her has died as well; for her to live, her story needs to be processed personally and then told. In Men We Reaped, she reveals that journey and why it is important her story is told through the loss of these men.
Ward’s life and successes, not the book itself, become a tribute to her brother. Each of the men in these chapters reminds her of her brother. Remarking on her brother’s birth she states, “One day he isn’t there, and the next day he is. And just like that, I’m his big sister.” The memoir captures how significant her brother was to her and how the events surrounding his life and death shaped who she is today. With her brother she realizes some of her most profound moments of growth. Even though he was her younger brother, she respected his ability to come up with solutions for his problems and to take responsibility for his path.
While he remained in DeLisle, Ward left for school, and their distance seemed to afford a disparate sense of maturity as he appeared to gain more wisdom about the challenges of life. In one poignant moment, she states: “He would do what he had to do to survive while I dreamed a future. My brother was already adept with facts. His world, his life: here and now. Josh is older than me, I thought. More mature.” She also recalls completing chores with her brother in their youth, approaching adulthood and implicitly accepting “what it meant to be a woman: working, dour, full of worry. What it meant to be a man: resentful, angry, wanting life to be everything but what it was.” This universally accepted realization is the bleak reality for many Southern black men and women.
It’s easy to think that this is a work that celebrates black and criticizes white, but the reasons for the men’s deaths are both nebulous and precise, with choices of personal responsibility being problematic as well. There are brief moments of wonder and helplessness at the end of the chapters chronicling each man’s death, but by the end of the work Ward emerges a changed woman who realizes the importance of what she has endured. This makes her present day journey ever more critical; the reason these men need to be honored in this way is to attempt to change the outcome for future generations. Beyond a plea to make clear to others what black men and women are worth to the outside world, it also gives weight to the importance of making sure black men and women understand how much they are worth to themselves and each other.
The power of this book shares a sense of devastating loss with readers. Her brother’s death becomes the meaningful force behind this book and Ward’s life. While Ward compliments the simplicity of her brother’s birth, his death becomes all too familiar: as if one day he is there and the next day he just isn’t, which is a fate too common for many black men in this country.
Justin C. Young, M.D., is a physician from Atlanta, Ga. He has a passion for movies and screenwriting, and when he is not working with patients, he travels the world and trains for triathlons. He grew up reading science fiction but also enjoys political non-fiction, thrillers and good dialogue.