Men We Reaped
Two years after Jesmyn Ward won the 2011 National Book Award for her novel Salvage the Bones, she’s back with Men We Reaped, a memoir of her upbringing in the ghetto of rural Mississippi. Fans of her novels will find many of the situations recognizable; dog fights, girls pregnant before they enter high school, drug dealers hustling in the streets, and the dank humidity of the South permeating each story, giving a hazy, ethereal quality to the stories of teenagers playing basketball and smoking weed on the hoods of their cars.
The title of the memoir refers to five young men close to Ward who died between 2000 and 2004. The ways in which these young men died varies, but the ultimate reasons for their deaths are the same (or so Ward would like us to believe) that as young black men in an environment where their families and schools place little value on their lives, these men succumb to the inevitable fate of being poor and black in the South.
The stories of these five men appear between chapters about Ward’s own childhood, the two narratives alternating. We learn that Ward was born three months premature and doctors told her parents that if she survived at all, she would suffer from severe developmental issues. Her childhood—though polluted by the drug use and crime that plagued the Mississippi towns where she grew up—provides the memoir with its few moments of warmth and levity, primarily through the bonds she has with her siblings and parents. In one passage, we see Ward make the best of the only gift her mother could afford to get her for her 8th birthday: a piece of rope that her father ties to the bough of a tree and turns into a swing. In another passage, Ward, her brother, sister, and cousin play a game they make up to pass the time, That’s My Car.
The rules were simple: as the oldest, I assigned each of us a number, and afterwards, we sat and waited for our corresponding cars to drive by…. The first car that passed … was dark blue, fairly new, and boxy.
“That’s my car!” I yelled, and the others cheered.
A white two-door with a long, pointy hood zipped by.
“That’s your car,” I told Nerissa. We cheered dutifully. It was an okay draw.
We heard it before we saw it: a loud, syncopated clunking weighted by an ornery engine.
“Oooooohhhhh,” Josh crowed.
The car, grey and brown in patches, puttered across the street before us. The driver, as if he knew he drove a car he should be ashamed of, did not wave or blow his horn as a neighbor might, but instead looked straight ahead.
“That’s your car!” I pointed at Aldon, laughing.
“Hunk of junk!” Josh screamed.
“Why I had to get the junky car?” Aldon said.
We all laughed.
These moments are the most engaging because they are unique to Ward’s life; while the stories of the men could take place in many communities across the country in very similar circumstances, Ward’s personal anecdotes are surprising and often funny, and they allow us access to a writer we have come to admire through her fiction.
The dual narratives move in opposite directions; the chapters about Ward’s upbringing move in chronological order from her birth to the present, while the chapters about the five men move backward in time, from the most recent death in 2004 to the death of Ward’s brother in 2000.
In the memoir’s somewhat clumsy prologue, Ward claims that moving in this order is somehow necessary:
[This story] is not straightforward. To tell it, I must tell the story of my town, and the history of my community. And then I must revisit each of the five young black men who died: follow them backward in time. […] At the same time, I must tell this story forward through time. […] My hope is that learning something about our lives and the lives of the people in my community will mean that when I get to the heart, when my marches forward through the past and backward from the present meet in the middle with my brother’s death, I’ll understand a bit better why this epidemic happened.
Ultimately, the choice to move in these reverse directions creates some confusion; we come to Ward’s forward-moving chapters confused about who has died already in the narrative present. The issue is exacerbated when we move to the next death; since time flows backwards, the character we just watched die is reanimated, but Ward—writing from a place where all of these men are dead—continues to talk about their deaths in a way that is disorienting.
It becomes clear that placing Joshua’s death at the end of the book serves an emotional and climactic purpose, but it does so at the expense of clarity. Joshua’s section is indeed one of the book’s strongest moments, but by the time we get there, we’ve read about four very similar deaths, and much of the sentiment is repeated in surprisingly similar language; we’re told about a dozen times that society has “failed” the young men, and other similar sentiments are repeated so often that they lose effect by the end.
Ward has an important story to tell. One can’t fault her for wanting to discuss the tragedy of losing these young men. But in the space of such a short memoir, too much time is devoted to repetitive actions and language and not enough time is spent on Ward herself. Her own personal triumph is evident in every sentence of her memoir and in the very fact that she came from this background into a best-selling, National Book Award-winning writer. Yet she only discusses her fiction once and spends a few pages on her college education. We know that many people fall victim to the racial inequities in the South, but hear less about those like Ward, who rise above their circumstances and go on to win national acclaim for their work. This is the story I want to hear.