I decided I wanted to read everything that Jesmyn Ward ever wrote after hearing her Other People podcast. I acquired two of her three books–Salvage the Bones and Men We Reaped–as Christmas gifts and started my Ward-intake with her memoir, Men We Reaped.
Between the year 2000 and the year 2004, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men who were important to her–her very dear younger brother, her cousin (who was, more importantly, her sister’s boyfriend), and three friends. These five young African-American men, all from her poor rural Mississippi community, died in ways that seem, on the surface, to be unrelated. Some of them seem to have been accidents rather than directly related to gun violence or drugs. But over the course of the book, Ward weaves together their stories with the broader stories of her own family and those like them, going back generations, to show that the same institutional racism, poverty, and crushing lack of opportunity played a large part in all five men’s deaths, as well as the deaths of many before and after them. She shows, through personal, poetic storytelling, that despite all of the love these men were given by those around them, despite their individual, unique and giving personalities, despite their own, personal specialness, they were part of a much bigger system they weren’t ever going to be able to escape.
Drugs touched many of these men’s lives, causing some of their deaths directly or indirectly. Ward’s brother, Joshua, sold crack when he was a young teen. Why? He wasn’t old enough to get an actual job and his father told him he had to contribute and make some money. What else was he supposed to do in depressed rural Mississippi?
The story she tells about education is just as upsetting. She talks about an overwhelmed school system, unwilling to help Black young men learn, ignoring them into feeling hopeless and worthless, or even bullying them into quitting. They thought school wasn’t for them because, simply, it wasn’t. Public education in this community, and sadly probably many, many others, wasn’t for everybody. Without education, their employment opportunities were even more limited. (Of course, when Ward returns to her community with a master’s degree from Stanford, she can’t get a job either).
Depression is an issue she returns to again and again, both for how it is has effected her and how it pervades the lives of many in her community. One of her friends tried to survive without a job, without a real home, suffering from depression–how was he supposed to get treated? He’d been taught to feel worthless and he did. He killed himself. In one of the few passages where she cites statistics, Ward talks about the prevalence of suicide among Black men. Is that something you hear on the news?
Although the book is, in many ways, about these five men, the shadow narrative of the book is about women. With generations of poor Black men set up to fail, she points out, women, by default, can’t. In her own family, while her father flailed, cheated, lost job after job, her mother had to work in positions that allowed her both to provide for her four children and be home to care for them. She moved from place to place trying to find the best lives for them, stayed in a job she may not have stayed in in order to keep Ward in the private school her employer paid for, raised her middle daughter’s son when she had him at thirteen, and took in cousins, yet more children to care for. She even cleared the land for her family’s home herself. Her mother had done the same.
Structurally, Ward hit on something really special with this book. She alternates chapters about the five men who died with chapters about her own upbringing and, near the end, her adult life. While the chapters about her proceed roughly chronologically, the chapters about the men appear in reverse order. The first is about the last man who died, the last is about her brother, who was the first and, to her, the most important. The effect of the narrative build up leading to her brother’s death is absolutely crushing. I started crying as soon as I saw his name as the chapter heading and am crying a little now as I write this. Without ever becoming sentimental, Ward gives the reader access to, at least a portion, of her grief. The way she reveal information is part of how she does this–over the course of the entire book, the reader gets to know Joshua as Ward did. We saw him as a newborn, as a toddler in diapers, as an eight year old, as a teenager. We knew the way he smiled, his skin tone, the turning point when he began to act more mature than his older sister and how this made her feel (proud). It was no secret that he died at nineteen, but he was so real throughout the book that reading about his death hit as if it were a surprise.
Ward says, near the end of the book, that it was important to her to make sure that these men’s lives were captured, that she could prove that they were here. She truly succeeded in that.