Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped

Jesmyn Ward first came to my attention through her 2011 interview in The Paris Review, where she boldly staked her claim not to the parochial concerns of race or gender – however valuable these may be – but to the wider “Western literary heritage,” which locates the universal in the particular. She was in her early 30s at the time, fresh off of a National Book Award victory for her novel Salvage The Bones, and I found her audacity both refreshing and magnetic. Men We Reaped, her first memoir, covers a decidedly less cheery subject: the violent, premature deaths of five young black men from her Mississippi home, including her younger brother, and the impact their loss had on her and her community.

Though born in Berkley, California, Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi, nicknamed Wolf Town by the early settlers, and she does an admirable job conjuring for us what life in one of the poorest states in America is like, particularly for its black inhabitants. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, when much of her story transpires, the well-paying manufacturing jobs that enabled a man to provide for an entire family are largely gone, outsourced or automated, leaving only menial (and less remunerative) service jobs. And if the changing tides swept the desirable jobs overseas, they also brought a less desirable source of income: crack cocaine, that early scourge of America’s black communities. More consequential, perhaps, than the economic shift was the social one:

It used to be that the Catholic Church was a strong presence in my community and divorce unheard of; men did not leave their women and shared children. But in my grandmother’s generation, this changed. In the sixties, men and women began to divorce, and women who’d grown up with the expectation that they’d have partners to help them raise their children found themselves with none.

Ward’s relationship with her father, unsurprisingly, emerges as one of this book’s most important topics, but it is fraught with pain and feelings of abandonment, as he fails, at almost every turn, to be a loyal husband and devoted father. Ward’s mother, on the other hand, seems the personification of motherly devotion, though she demonstrates her love in ways Ward can only appreciate in hindsight: cooking healthy and elaborate meals for her children, even when their father has custody of them, and working long hours as a housecleaner for wealthy white families so that her children do not want for basic necessities.

Men We Reaped employs an interesting structure, offering us the deaths of these five men in reverse-chronological order, beginning with the most recent death – a suicide by a sad young man, in a moment of heartbreak – and working backward in time to the earliest death, that of Ward’s younger brother, Joshua, killed by a drunk driver.

My hope is that learning something about our lives and the lives of the people in my community will mean that when I get to the heart, when my marches forward through the past and backward from the present meet in the middle with my brother’s death, I’ll understand a bit better why this epidemic happened, about how the history of racism and economic inequality and lapsed public and personal responsibility festered and turned sour and spread here. Hopefully, I’ll understand why my brother died while I live, and why I’ve been saddled with this rotten fucking story.

This artistic license gives her an increased scope, allowing her to take us into the “distant past” of her parents and grandparents, but also reserves for last the most impactful death, giving the narrative time to build momentum and dramatic weight. By 2003, when Ward is just 26 years old, she has already buried three young men, and the impact of their deaths weighs heavily on her and her peers:

We’d gone crazy. We’d lost three friends by then, and we were so green we couldn’t reconcile our youth with the fact that we were dying, so we drank and smoked and did other things, because these things allowed us the illusion that our youth might save us, that there was someone somewhere who would have mercy on us.

If tomorrow is an uncertainty, how would you live today? Ward and her friends steal what freedoms they can, escaping from their collective loss by drinking and partying, and her description of these moments of respite testifies to her powers as a writer:

The sun came up, washed the yard a milky gray, then white, and we departed one by one to our houses, where we eased open doors, tiptoed inside, and fell into dead sleeps while the sun burned its way higher into the sky and the community rose to face the day. Everything about the night seemed stolen, lived in those murky hours while others slept or worked. We crawled through time like roaches through the linings of walls, the neglected spaces and hours, foolishly happy that we were still alive even as we did everything to die.

Sociologists have done much, in recent decades, to quantify the sense of despair that creeps into communities such as Ward’s, eroding them from the inside like a cancer; in a single paragraph, she can make us feel it.

My quarrel with this memoir – an admittedly minor one, with an otherwise beautiful book – is with Ward’s attempt to play two roles at once: the lyrical memoirist, evoking a painful past, and the scholarly sociologist, analyzing trends, citing studies (with footnotes to websites, no less). The latter role is too impersonal for so personal a story, and robs the narrative of some of its dramatic heft. She also seems to go to great lengths to excuse her father’s negligence and selfishness. A summary indictment of his behaviour: he cheats on his wife, Ward’s mother, repeatedly, including an affair with a 14-year-old girl; he trains fighting dogs on their property, which will eventually result in Ward receiving a vicious and near-fatal bite; he spends money deliberately set aside for the purchase of land on a motorcycle; by the book’s conclusion, he will have fathered ten children by six different mothers, and seems at best unreliable in his financial duties to them. When she ceases to report on these facts and is forced to interpret them, she sounds unconvincing at best, apologetic at worst: “Remaining faithful to my mother required a kind of moral discipline he’d never developed, since it was constantly undermined by his natural gifts: his charm, his sense of humor, his uncommon beauty” – as if charm and good lucks prohibit a person from being faithful. When she steps back from this very personal relationship, however, her analysis seems unimpeachable:

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 endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless. Some of us turned sour from the pressure, let it erode our sense of self until we hated what we saw, without and within. And to blunt it all, some of us turned to drugs.

This description meshes remarkably well with Thomas Chatterton Williams’ description of growing up in New Jersey, where social dysfunction and despair soured even the male-female relationship.

Men We Reaped proved a sad and powerful introduction to Ward’s work, and a moving tribute to five men who would otherwise have gone unmemorialized, mere statistics in a nation that still sees far too many young black men die before their time.