“Men We Reaped”
by Jesmyn Ward
review by MEREDITH MCKINNIE
Ward’s heartbreaking and achingly poignant memoir explores her upbringing in DeLisle, Mississippi, a town that would eventually be wrecked by Hurricane Katrina. Raised primarily by her mother, with a father who was in and out of the house, Ward endures financial instability, her parent’s divorce, and the blessing/curse of being the only black girl in an all-white private school. But while the world she knew as a child was encompassed by hardship, Ward remembers the love between her siblings, the families in town, and the communal nature of growing up in her hometown. It can be hard to realize how hard life is when one is too busy living it. Being the only one of her siblings to pursue higher education, Ward escapes home for Michigan State University and eventually Stanford, two opposing realities to the place she calls home. She explores how anxious one can be to leave one reality for another, but how home always comes calling, and often in times of personal tragedy.
In the span of five years, Ward lost five young men from her community, one being her beloved brother Joshua, who was hit by a drunk driver. In this deep exploration of grief, Ward questions why so many young black lives are lost and why society doesn’t seem to care. Interwoven into her own biography are chapters devoted to each of the men: Roger, Demond, CJ, Ronald, and Joshua. She tells about their upbringing in the community, how two of them were personally close to her sisters Charline and Nerissa, and how all their deaths impacted a community who collectively never stops grieving. Ward admits it took her a long time to be able to tell this story, to move from active grieving to emotional telling. In braiding her own stories alongside the men’s stories, Ward shows the communal impact of loss, how the proximity to pain and grief cuts deep and all too often in poor black communities.
`Ward explores themes of economic hardship, familial struggle, heart wrenching loss, and the love at the core of it all. She depicts her mother, like so many black mothers, taking responsibility for the family, while her father explored his freedom apart from Ward and her siblings. She shows how her brother struggles with being a black man in the South, how men are given more freedom, but being black and male means being more likely to have that freedom taken away. For those interested in the origin of Ward’s work, this story provides a framework for the characters that continually surface and evolve in her novels. Men We Reaped was listed as one of the Best Books of 2013 by The New York Times Book Review. Jesmyn Ward still lives and writes from her hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi.
“Grief scabs over like scars and pulls into new, painful configurations as it knits. It hurts in new ways. We are never free from grief.”