Review of "Men We Reaped"
by Tony Lindsay
Jesmyn Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped, is a story of loss; specifically, the loss of males in her life. She takes the reader inside the small cities of DeLisle and Pass Christian, Mississippi which have been devastated by socioeconomic trends.
Ward sugar coats nothing in this intimately revealing and at times painful look at her life. What and who she values is apparent from page one; her life has been largely populated with Black males, although a personal memoir, the work speaks to a larger American problem, the premature death of young Black men across the nation. However, the first male loss she discusses is not a young Black man, but her father.
As one turns the early pages of Men We Reaped, Ward introduces her father. A strong, attractive young man who had the responsibility of family dropped on his shoulders at a young age. In the memoir, she develops her father as a child loving man who did try to be a responsible father and husband, but his response to socioeconomic trends and his own personal demons limited him in these roles. Ward,
Sometimes my father strapped us to the back of his motorcycle, where my brother or I clung to his back like monkeys, and he rode us around DeLisle or Pass Christen, headphones smashed into our soft heads under the weight of the helmet. Prince’s “Purple Rain” blasted from the cassette player my father strapped to his waist. Sometimes I think I should have known he was trying to tell me something, something like I am a man, I am young and handsome and alive, and I want to be free, but I did not.(93)
Ward lost her father through divorce, not wholly but there was loss, and it is reflected throughout the work. However, the loss that centers the text occurred “From 2000 to 2004, five Black young men I grew up with died, all violently, in seemingly unrelated deaths”(7). Five young Black men in one circle of friends and family died in four years; in a supposedly non-war zone: there are no bombs dropping in Mississippi, no military presence, but yet in two small cities with combined population under seven thousand, from one circle of friends, five die:
The first was my brother, Joshua, in October 2000. The second was Ronald in December 2002. The third was C.J. in January 2004. The fourth was Demond in February 2004. The last was Roger in June 2004. That’s a brutal list, in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time.(7)
The grief from such loss would certainly silence an individual and communities, but the artistic valor in Ward’s pen breaks through. Perhaps it is true that pain shared is pain lessened because Ward’s description of the agony she and her family and friends endured would stop a lesser scribe. However, Wards pushes through, and one could surmise that her strength comes in knowing that such loss in not limited to her community alone. She is not the only sister losing a brother, she is not the only cousin losing a cousin, or friend losing a friend. Young Black men are dying prematurely across America.
Men We Reaped stops the premature deaths of Black males from being merely a sad statistic, and stops the misconception that it is an urban problem. Ward’s work changes statistics to humans – to brothers, friends, and cousins. Jesmyn Ward puts faces and names on statistical numbers; she shows how the loss affects families, mothers, fathers, daughters, and the sons of those who die prematurely.
She has taken a personal pain and shared it with others allowing those who are experiencing this same pain in: New York, Memphis, Los Angeles, Newark, Gary, Seattle, Detroit, Chicago, and all across America the opportunity to say “Look, something is wrong here, our young men, our boys, our children are dying.”
Ward relates these deaths to a stark socioeconomic issue; what the young men in her community are left with to live on is not enough, and again she matches her concern with the nations. There are not enough resources in American cities for young Black men to become self-supporting men, citizens in their own country. Ward:
It was a necessity for most young Black men I knew in the community to do so, at one time or another, to sell some kinds of drugs in a sluggish economy where their labor was easy to come by and totally and completely expendable.(218)
Jesmyn Ward masterfully correlates “. . . seemingly unrelated deaths” to the poor distribution of resources in her community. It is apparent that Ward cares deeply for the men in her community, and she clearly sees the effects of living in an exploitive society on the men she loves, and that American society reaps.