Monday, July 29, 2019

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Published: September 2013 by Bloomsbury USA
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men in her life—to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Jesmyn ask the question: Why? And as she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth—and it took her breath away. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships. Jesmyn says the answer was so obvious she felt stupid for not seeing it. But it nagged at her until she knew she had to write about her community, to write their stories and her own.

Jesmyn grew up in poverty in rural Mississippi. She writes powerfully about the pressures this brings, on the men who can do no right and the women who stand in for family in a society where the men are often absent. She bravely tells her story, revisiting the agonizing losses of her only brother and her friends. As the sole member of her family to leave home and pursue higher education, she writes about this parallel American universe with the objectivity distance provides and the intimacy of utter familiarity.

My Thoughts:
I was a fan of Ward’s after reading Salvage The Bones, which won the National Book Award. Since then I have also read Sing, Unburied, Sing (for which she also won the National Book Award) and now Men We Reaped and Ward has quickly become one of my favorite authors. With each book, she opens my eyes anew to a world well beyond my middle-class, white, suburban life.

Ward writes about people, her people, who the rest of us so easily forget. What Ward wants us to know, to remember, is that these people are not nothing. In telling these young men’s stories, Ward is also trying to make us understand the cost to society of forgetting, marginalizing whole groups of people. The black community in the South is not alone in suffering because their countrymen ignored what was happening to them economically as jobs disappeared, but they also carry the overwhelming weight of racism in all of its ugly forms. E
very single day they live with the fear that the police may pull them over for the least thing, that white people will flaunt racism in their faces to try to provoke a reaction, and the very real chance that there will not be enough food to put a meal on the table. There is no hope. So they drink, they do drugs, they try to numb the pain; and they hold onto each other because that is all that they have even as they tear each other apart.
”…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 distrusted each other. We did not trust our fathers to raise us, to provide for us. Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless.”
Ward weaves her own life around the stories of four boys she grew up with until she finally works her way to the death of her younger brother. These are those young men’s stories; but this book is also Ward’s story about awakening to what is really happening all around her and why. It is about understanding why her father left the family, why her mother is so unemotional, why she grew up feeling like she didn’t deserve better than she was getting, and learning what is really at the heart of the problems that plague Black people.
”I knew that I lived in a place where hope and a sense of possibility were as ephemeral as morning fog, but I did not see the despair at the heart of our drug use.”
Ward is haunted by the lives and the tragic deaths of Roger Eric Daniels III, Ronald Wayne Lizana, Charles Joseph Martin, Demond Cook, and Joshua Adam Dedeaux. If you aren’t, too, by the time you finish this book, I’m not sure we can be friends any more.

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