Men We Reaped
I am still gutted after reading Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward’s memoir. The book has two tracks: the story of her family and the story of five men close to her, including her brother, who died between 2000 and 2004. Ward grew up on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in a poor family with three siblings. Her parents often argued due to her father’s playboy ways and easy parting with money. Their housing was always precarious, and once they lived with her maternal grandmother with several other family members. Her parents got divorced, but her mother tried to reconcile with her father. That didn’t work since her father had several children out of wedlock and continued to see one of the baby mamas. Ward was bullied in school. Even when her mother’s employer offered to pay for her to attend an exclusive private school, she was singled out because of her race. When wearing a Malcolm X t-shirt, a girl cornered her in the bathroom and said that she should have worn her David Duke t-shirt. Ward had to get away, so went to college at Stanford. Ward’s story is difficult to read but so enlightening, and she writes it as though it’s a novel.
In alternating chapters, Ward tells the story of the young men who died. They had different histories and died in different ways, but they all were affected by the Southern culture that devalued black male lives. The community members left felt like their people were being killed off, and as more boys died, the grief radiated and expanded. These boys deserved having their stories told, and I was glad to read about their lives and their untimely and unfair deaths.
Ward’s memoir moved me, and I highly recommend it. The conditions of her childhood were unfathomable to me, and opened my eyes to the deprivation some families endure. I shared her grief at the unjust losses of the boys who died too soon. The only thing that I felt was missing was this–Ward blamed Southern culture for the deaths of the young men. I can believe this given the poverty that creates depression, fosters drug uses, pushes people into illegal activities, and keeps a community’s public services underfunded. However, because she made the claim, I wish she’d have discussed her reasoning a bit more.