Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, an illuminating, brutal memoir of loss in the Deep South ★★★★½

At the beginning of her harrowing, lyrical memoir, Jesmyn Ward tells us: ‘telling this story is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But my ghosts were once people, and I cannot forget that.’ 

Through this slim book, Jesmyn humanizes these ghosts – the five dead young men, boys she grew up with in the rural South, and tells their stories. Through her thoughtful, introspective storytelling, these men are not statistics but real people with hopes and dreams – even if they were always lingering just out of reach. 

Born and raised the Mississippi coast where ‘where the dirty gray Gulf lapped desultorily at a man-made beach ringed by concrete and pine trees’, Jesmyn was no stranger to poverty, discrimination, addiction, and abandonment. Her father left the family to pursue his dreams (and other women), and her mother worked tirelessly as a housekeeper for rich white families to keep Jesmyn and her three siblings fed and clothed.

“Both of us on the cusp of adulthood, and this is how my brother and I understood what it meant to be a woman: working, dour, full of worry. What it meant to be a man: resentful, angry, wanting life to be everything but what it was.”

In a place with little hope of a better life, the men in her life turn to drink, or drugs, or crime. Jesmyn herself narrowly escapes – she attends a Christian private school, paid for by the rich white family who her mother works for. She’s the only Black girl for long periods of school, and endures constant, grinding racism. But at least the chance at an education offers her a potential route out of the cycle of poverty, the ‘cycle of futility.’ 

“This was like walking into a storm surge: a cycle of futility. Maybe he looked at those who still lived and those who’d died, and didn’t see much difference between the two; pinioned beneath poverty and history and racism, we were all dying inside.”

It’s a complex heritage, a place that may offer little in the way of economic opportunity but a lot in the way of community, and a place that pulls Jesmyn back time and time again. Amongst the relentless grind of survival, there’s freedom and friendship – even if fleeting – on hot summer nights when Jesmyn and her siblings or cousins or friends roll down the windows and drive along the coastal highway, or sit sipping warm beer in the park, listening to music turned up loud. It reminds you they were just children, forced to grow up too soon.

The novel isn’t linear, but instead weaves its way through the timeline of Jesmyn’s life and the deaths of these five young men. The structure took a little while to get used to, but really came into its own when the narratives converged for the penultimate chapter, the death of her beloved brother, Joshua. The final chapter zooms out from her personal tragedies and takes a look at the statistics – of being poor, Black, and from the rural South, of incarceration, discrimination, and the historical context into which these five men were born and died. My only quibble would be that she could have taken this further, and woven it throughout, to really drive home the pernicious and enduring effects of racism. 

Her writing is elegiac and restrained, even as she writes about events and circumstances that have caused her unending sorrow. Jesmyn writes as she is still trying to process and make sense of what happened to her. It’s engrossing and beautiful, and hard to look away from. 

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