Two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward has written a masterly memoir, Men We Reaped, which recounts her life in the Gulf region of Mississippi and more importantly, how she grapples with the unexpected deaths of five young Black men from her home town of DeLisle, Mississippi. The book is, at turns, heartbreaking and harrowing as Ward attempts to understand how such human tragedy has occurred in such a short span of time. She eloquently captures the aim of the book:
“My hope is that learning something about our lives and the lives of the people in our community will mean that when I get to the heart. . . . I’ll understand a bit better why this epidemic happened and how the history of racism and economic inequality and lapsed public and personal responsibility festered and turned sour and spread here.”
The book is deftly crafted as these are some of the most poignant, beautifully written pages I have read in the past months. The book’s structure is compelling as one narrative—the string of deaths from drug overdose, murder, a locomotive accident, suicide, and a drunk driving accident—is told in reverse chronological order while the second narrative—Jesmyn’s personal life—is told in chronological order. Each narrative is interspersed with the other with the two merging in the last two chapters which marks the death of her younger brother, Joshua.
Ward’s life, like that of most of the young men she memorializes, is shorn through with poverty, violence, and hardship. In rural Mississippi, it is not uncommon to hear about the hardscrabble lives filling the pages of this remarkable book—dog fighting is common, violence is ever present, and hardworking women moor their families the best they can. It becomes apparent quickly that the Ward family is held together by a strong maternal presence while Jesmyn’s dad is frequently hustling side jobs that includes a “pipe dream” of operating a martial arts studio. This pattern of matriarchs is common in earlier generations of Ward’s family as well. Her mother understands the struggles particular to Black men’s experiences but nevertheless grows weary of her husband’s economic instability. Despite that unsteadiness, Ward and her siblings are interminably impacted by their dad’s leaving as she writes,
“Along with the responsibilities I’d resumed when my father left again, his departure renewed my sense of abandonment, worthlessness. . .”
The real question at the root of the book is why all this hardship is experienced by Ward and the extent to which it is endemic to the rural South, notably Mississippi. Ward pinpoints the ravage of her community as one of “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 those systemic forms of racism in terms of employment, education, and community infrastructure lead to hopelessness. According to the U.S. Census American Community Survey of 2014-2016, the level of poverty in Mississippi at 19.8% outranks the national average of 13.7%. This figure becomes even starker in Black communities, as nearly one-third (31.3%) of African Americans live below the poverty line in Mississippi, according to talkpoverty.org. Many youth lack a high school diploma which also yields a higher rate of joblessness. Some 17% of Mississippians are what Talk Poverty refers to as “disconnected youth,” meaning that they lack a high school diploma and a job. This often results in feeding the school-to-prison pipeline whereby students subject to disciplinary action and stringent zero tolerance policies often become those occupying the bunks of juvenile hall and later jail or prison. Such students of color are routinely written off as 'apathetic' about school instead of recognition of the realities they face such as food insecurity, poverty, and family instability. All too aware of these realities, Ward concludes,
“We inherit these things that breed despair and self-hatred, and tragedy multiplies.”
I have been ruminating on the book for the past several days. The loss experienced by Ward and the community of DeLisle is heartbreaking. At the same time, these systemic forms of racism, especially in places like rural Mississippi, are not difficult to understand. The South still suffers from the collateral damage of slavery, Jim Crow, and attendant decades stretching into centuries of inequality. Books like Ward’s touching memoir draw light to this vast chasm of inequality in America.
Men We Reaped
by Jesmyn Ward
273 pages. 2013.
Buy it here.