In the small town of
DeLisle, deep in southern Mississippi, too many black men die far too young, leaving women and children and elderly parents in their wake. Death, caused by bullets and drugs and drunk drivers, is rooted in chronic poverty and racism. Here, burials seem never-ending; blame gets self-directed; guilt poisons every soul.
“Men’s bodies litter my family history,” Jesmyn Ward writes in her poetic, heart-wrenching memoir, “Men We Reaped.” From 2000-2004, Ward recounts how she lost five young black men (Joshua, Ronald, C.J., Demond, and Roger) she grew up with.
Ward’s writing has earned high praise; her second novel, “Salvage the Bones,” won the 2011 National Book Award. Her earlier work shares much with this book. All are situated on Ward’s native Mississippi Gulf Coast, and her novels touched on issues close to home.
But “Men We Reaped,” her first personal account, is, she writes, “the hardest thing I ever done.” In it, Ward chronicles the lives of the lost men in separate chapters, starting with the most recent and working her way back in time. Through the telling, she illustrates the forces in the lethal cycle of death that haunts generation after generation of young black men in the South, and, indeed, in the rest of the nation.
Ward also weaves in her own personal narrative, beginning with the lives of her grandparents and tracing her family history up through her own adulthood. The result is an intricate patchwork. Because the story jumps back and forth in time, at points, characters already dead reappear; we see their futures before they do and anxiously await their tragedy.
Ward writes as both a careful observer and primary character. Her portraits are sharp and loving. While she pinpoints the destruction caused by infidelity, drugs, and poverty in her own family, Ward honors her parents’ ambitions, dedication, and dreams, naming obstacles that stood in their way. She outlines the residual effects of slavery and how closely tied that history is to her own.
One of Ward’s greatest accomplishments here is the way she dissects the complicated roles of black men and women, as they relate to her own family and friends. The history of oppression, Ward writes, leads black men to seek “a sense of freedom or a sense of power that being a Black man in the South denied them” and contributes to “the tradition of men leaving their families.”
Black men often didn’t finish school. Endemic poverty made life difficult; selling and using crack often became a means of survival. Women were often left with the pieces, saddled with worry and responsibility. Ward’s parents were both raised by single mothers. Her unfaithful father eventually left her mother and went off to have children with other women. Ward’s mother became the sole provider, struggling to care for their four children alone. Thus, the cycle continued.
In Ward’s childhood, food was often scarce. Her sister had a baby at age 13, and her teenage brother started dealing crack. But as the elder daughter, Ward learned hard work and responsibility from her mother. And turning to books for comfort, she eventually extracted herself from her circumstances, pursuing further education, becoming a writer. But when strong pull of her hometown brought her back, Ward realized it was the stories in her own community that needed to be told.
“I wonder why silence is the sound of our subsumed rage, our accumulated grief,” Ward observes. With the release of this brave and moving tribute, her silence is now broken.