Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Ok, I have a little confession to make before I share my thoughts on this book. When I first saw it, on a shelf at the bookstore, I thought the title read “Men We Raped”. I picked it up thinking it was a memoir dealing with sexual abuse against men. Sexual abuse/assault against boys and men is so absent from the daily consciousness that I was glad to see a book that might be able to shed some light on it and raise awareness. Once the book was in my hand, however, my brain finally processed the title and I remembered reading that phrase somewhere else before. I couldn’t place it immediately, though. I had heard of Jesmyn Ward and I felt like that book didn’t catch my eyes by accident, also I can hardly resist books, so I bought it. While waiting in line to check out, I opened the book for the first time and found out where the title came from. Harriet Tubman. And here is the quote: “We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”
In this non-fictional work, Jesmyn Ward chronicles the death of five important black men in her life, and these men’s lives leading up to their untimely demise.
-Joshua was the author’s only brother. He was killed in October 2000 when a drunk driver forced his car off the road and he hit a fire hydrant. He was 19.
-Ronald was a family friend. He shot himself in the head while alone in his sister’s apartment in December 2002. He was 19.
-Charles aka C.J. was one of the author’s cousins. He was killed in January 2004 when the car he was riding in with other cousins was hit by a train. CJ got stuck in the car and it caught fire. He was 21.
-Demond was another family friend. He was shot on the doorstep of his house as he was coming back home from working the third shift at night, in February 2004. He was 31.
-Roger was also a friend of the author’s family. He died of a heart attack in June 2004. He was 23.
The deaths are told in reverse chronological order, ending with Joshua, her little brother. The loss that started it all.
Through the lives of these young men as well as that of her own father, Jesmyn Ward paints a portrait of what it means, what it looks like and what it feels like to be a black man in the modern South. The history of racism and poverty of the area, and their legacy, have shaped the residents for generations, for better and for worse. They have been dealing with some unimaginable struggles but continuously cultivated a sense of pride in themselves and their community. Men like the author’s father seem to have attempted to compensate for their lack of power, control, influence and relevance in society by exercising the little power they had in their personal lives, sometimes in dysfunctional ways. For her father, it meant leaving his family, shacking up with other women, while pursuing his various interests. Substances like drugs and alcohol were also a way for some of these men to numb their emotions and deal with everyday life. Selling narcotics, for many, became a way to survive economically, sometimes the only way. The boys and young men who came after them were not dealt a much better hand at birth and had to figure out how to survive themselves, which often meant walking in their grandfathers, fathers and uncles’ footsteps, repeating the cycle, because, if times were somewhat different, life as a black man really wasn’t all that different. This younger generation, these boys and men had to create a value and relevance for themselves that society was still not ready nor willing to afford them.
Although the focus is on the black men, especially the five who lost their lives, the black women are not absent from the narrative. Not at all. They are the foundation, the backbone and the pillars of these families and communities. More often than not, they carry the load for the men lost to death, incarceration, infidelity, life.
The author herself weaved in her own life journey through these pages. She is a survivor. Born three months premature, she developed blood tumors and had to undergo multiple surgeries. Doctors did not think she would make it and thought that if she did, she would have severe developmental problems. Not only did she make it but she thrived. Although she was fortunate to get opportunities to see other places and other worlds for her studies- she went to a private school in her youth, she graduated from Michigan University and Stanford University – and later for work, it is abundantly clear that home for her is the South. It is DeLisle, Mississippi. No matter what, she always went back and this is where she lives now. Some might wonder why someone like her who had a chance at a better existence than what her hometown had to offer would not just leave for good, never to return. The fact that her nuclear family was still in the area could certainly explain her connection to the place, but it goes beyond that for her, and for so many others who grew up in similar places, conditions and environments. For all that was and is still wrong with life in DeLisle, there was and still is also so much good. Things that its residents cannot duplicate or find elsewhere, no matter where they go and how hard they try. Their roots, their culture, their essence, and the kinship that exists, resists and persists there, are the things that keep home the majority with fewer options and what bring the minority with more options back home. Life in DeLisle can be sad, cruel, unforgiving, exhausting, painful and even hopeless but it can also be so happy, beautiful, sweet, carefree, liberating, and comforting. Nobody in this book is perfect or made to appear perfect. Not the deceased. Not the living. But everyone and everything is very real.
These five deaths, as tragic as they are, are part of the fabric and identity of DeLisle and of so many other places around the South, around the U.S., and beyond. With this memoir, Jesmyn Ward takes us beyond the hashtags on social media, the headlines in mainstream media, and the statistics thrown around in lieu of faces and names. By telling the stories of Joshua, Ronald, Charles, Demond and Roger, she tells the stories of so many others just like them, imperfect beings who lead real existences, achieved things, made mistakes, loved and were loved, laughed and cried, whose presence had touched those around them and whose absence is being felt past the funerals, vigils, and commemorative t-shirts. Those who remain behind carry those losses with them every day. Thanks to Jesmyn Ward’s brilliant writing, I, as a reader, will never forget them either.
“Men’s bodies litter my family history. The pain of the women they left behind pulls them from the beyond, makes them appear as ghosts. In death, they transcend the circumstances of this place that I love and hate all at once and become supernatural. Sometimes, when I think of all the men who’ve died early in my family over the generations, I think DeLisle is the wolf.”
“Both of us on the cusp of adulthood, and this is how my brother and I understood 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.”
“When Joshua died, he took so many of our stories with him. My sisters are too young to remember them. They cannot see the full enormity of what happened because they did not live what we did. I write these words to find Joshua, to assert that what happened happened, in a vain attempt to find meaning. And in the end, I know little, some small facts: I love Joshua. He was there. He lived. Something vast and large took him, took all my friends, Roger, Demond, CJ., and Ronald. Once, they lived. We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is great darkness down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”
About the author: Jesmyn Ward received her M.F.A. from the University of Michigan and is currently an associate professor of creative writing at Tulane University. She is the editor of the anthology The Fire This Time and the author of the novels Sing, Unburied, Sing; Where the Line Bleeds; and Salvage the Bones, the latter of which won the 2011 National Book Award and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Ward lives in DeLisle, Mississippi. In 2016, the American Academy of Arts and Letters selected Ward for the Strauss Living Award, a prize given every five years to enable authors to take time off from teaching and focus exclusively on writing.