Reviewed by Rebecca Hussey
Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped is a difficult book, but a necessary and compelling one. As Ward says in the book’s prologue, “telling this story is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” The book’s importance becomes even clearer in the light of recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and in other cities across the United States, against the deaths of innocent, unarmed African American men. Ward has stories to tell of African American men she knew, some of whom she knew well and loved, who lost their lives at early ages in sad and tragic ways. One of these men was a beloved brother. She tells these stories with passion, leading readers to ponder the failings of a society that can produce such suffering.
Ward grew up in the small, coastal-Mississippi town of Delisle, not far from New Orleans. It is a close-knit community she describes, but one that has suffered from the loss of stable, decent-paying blue-collar jobs, from the influx of drugs and drug addiction, and from natural disasters, of which Hurricane Katrina is only the most recent. The area also suffers from the legacy of systemic racism and the isolation and bitterness it has created:
My entire community suffered from a lack of trust: we didn’t trust society to provide the basics of a good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system. And even as we distrusted the society around us, the culture that cornered us and told us we were perpetually less, we distrusted each other. We did not trust our fathers to raise us, to provide for us. Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless.
Emerging from this context is Ward’s own story, and interspersed between these autobiographical sections are chapters devoted to each of the lost men. Their chapters appear in reverse chronological order, beginning with the last death, which happened in June 2004, and ending with the first, her brother’s, in October 2000. The effect of this structure is to end on the most moving, most powerful note, the place where her story and her brother’s death converge. The picture that emerges from all these lives is one of pain, but also of deep love, both for family and friends and for place. As an adult, Ward has lived in many places, but eventually always headed back to her home community and is there now, as a Professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Ward’s early years were ones of struggle as her parents separated and her mother carried the heavy responsibility of raising four children on her own. Her parents were fully aware of the hardships that broken families can bring and they did their best to avoid separating, but personal failures and larger social circumstances kept them apart. Ward’s early experiences also brought crippling self-loathing. She suffered from isolation in schools that were mostly white with students who were unapologetically racist. She internalized society’s messages about her identity:
I looked at myself and saw a walking embodiment of everything the world around me seemed to despise: an unattractive, poor, Black woman. Undervalued by her family, a perpetual workhorse. Undervalued by society regarding her labor and her beauty. This seed buried itself in my stomach and bore fruit. I hated myself.
Women have it both harder and easier than men: Ward had much less freedom as a girl than the boys around her did, but she also had more opportunities. She was encouraged to further her education, while her brother gave up on his early on and turned to low-paying jobs and selling drugs. Ward describes the bind that she and everyone around her are in: they are aware of the contempt the larger culture has for African Americans and do their best to fight against it, but the obstacles are many and too often fighting against those obstacles gets them nowhere. Implicit in the book is a critique of the idea that enough hard work and effort will get a person out of bad circumstances. Americans love this idea – pull yourself up by your bootstraps! – but sometimes all the hard work in the world won’t lead to overcoming hardships when the barriers are just too high. As Ward puts it:
By the numbers, by all the official records, here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing.
In the light of that realization, what, exactly, is a person supposed to do?
Ward finds a way to survive and to achieve the kind of success no one will argue with – that she won a National Book Award for her novel Salvage the Bones is just one proof of this – but she is haunted by those who did not make it. The deaths she describes are caused by drug overdoses, train and car crashes, shootings, and suicide. Some of the deaths are closely connected to the context of racism and poverty Ward evokes and some are less so, but all the stories have important things to say about the particular hardships of being black in America. Ward gives some statistics and history to create a context for her stories, but most of the book is about the details of people’s lives. This is not the book to turn to for historical background, for research and statistics, or for theoretical arguments. Rather, it’s valuable for the way it makes the statistics and the context come alive through the stories of particular people’s lives and the way it makes us care about those lives on a personal level. It’s a painful read at times, but valuable for anyone who wants to see American society for what it actually is, inequalities and injustices included.
Rebecca Hussey is an English professor, blogger, reviewer, and, most of all, a reader. She blogs at Of Books and Bicycles.
Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped (November 2014; Bloomsbury USA) 978-1608197651, 272 pages, paperback.