There are certain books I’ve avoided reading because I don’t know if I can handle the sadness within. And there are some books I’ve started to read and have had to abandon because the sadness was indeed too much. Then there are books I read despite through the tears, books that are so well-written and haunting and important that I feel almost duty-bound to continue.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward falls in the latter category. It’s a memoir, raw and aching in its portrayal of a time and place (late 20th century/early 21st century Gulfport/Pass Christian, MS area) where Black people, particularly Black men, live and die under the weight of continued racism, both systemic and individual. The book has an unusual structure. We alternate chapters about five individual men, friends and/or family of Ward’s, who all passed away in the span of four years, with chapters about Ward’s immediate family situation as she grew up. She begins with the most recent death and goes backward in time to the most grievous loss, that of her younger brother, Joshua Dedeaux.
As these young men fall one by one in a short time span, due to drugs, suicide, violence, and accidents, Ward and her friends feel as though they are being chased by something malevolent that wants their loved ones. It’s the same thing that haunts her whole community, that tells them from a young age that their lives are worth less than the lives of the white community. Frequently she and her friends drink and do drugs to escape the weight of this pressure and the weight of their grief. They come to loathe the phone ringing, as surely it will bring news of another passing.
She writes about her close-knit community and family, how her parents tried to make their marriage work, to stay together for the sake of their kids and to not become another family, like so many they knew, with no father present. Ward was able to go to a private Episcopal school because her mother worked for a wealthy white family as a maid, and they sponsored Jesmyn’s tuition as a scholarship. She writes lovingly of her mother’s hard work to provide for her children, as their father increasingly withdrew his financial support after they separated, and how hard it must have been for her to accept the charitable offer from the family she worked for. I got almost a sense of survivor’s guilt from her, as she was able to “escape” the low-wage service jobs so many people of her community had to take to provide for themselves, although we don’t get much, if any, of what Ward’s life is like now.
It is a beautifully written book, plain and simple. One reason I read so voraciously is that I want to learn and experience as many different times, places, and situations as I can. I want my understanding of people to expand. I want to broaden my compassion. This is a book that definitely touched me, made me cry and get angry that so many young people in our country are raised under the clouds of racism and poverty. Jesmyn Ward conveys that sense of despair and hopelessness so well, the collective damage racism does to young minds and hearts. I don’t know how anyone could read this book and not be touched and disturbed.
I was struck by the similarities between this memoir and Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which I listened to on CD recently. There’s a part where Alexie’s hero, Junior Spirit, talks about one of the biggest differences between his white high school classmates and the teenage Indians he knows – it’s in how many funerals they’ve attended. His classmates can count on one hand, one or two funerals at the most. He could take the fingers on both hands, his toes, legs, arms (and other cheeky body parts) to count how many funerals he’s attended. The same sense of hopelessness and despair runs throughout his Spokane, Washington reservation, and brings with it the same violence, addictions, depressions, and bad luck as Jesmyn Ward describes in Mississippi.
Reading Ward’s memoir was hard, and I did cry, but it wasn’t soul-crushing, and it certainly wasn’t manipulative in any way. The weight of the grief does build as the reader approaches the chapter about her brother, Joshua. I admit that I took a deep breath and steadied myself as I began that section, knowing that her most personal, heartbreaking writing was to come. I think that she wrote this memoir in part because she wanted to say that these young men lived; they were here and they laughed and loved and their short lives mattered. Near the end of the book, she writes a haunting passage that gets to the heart of this notion:
“I love Joshua. He was here. He lived. Something vast and large took him, took all of my friends: Roger, Demond, C.J., and Ronald. Once, they lived. We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”
Don’t be afraid to read this one, guys. It’s sad but worth it.