Book Review: Men We Reaped
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, author of two previous acclaimed novels, Where The Line Bleeds and Salvage The Bones, closely examines her life with a chilling, stylish memoir, Men We Reaped, that chronicles the all-too brief lives of five young men who die senseless violent deaths. It is a terrible situation that many Black families experience daily in each and every community. There is an overwhelming note of sadness and tragedy that underlines the words and images in this very articulate work, spelling out the abbreviated existences of her only brother, a cousin, and three friends in an atmosphere of grinding poverty and hopelessness.
Ward is an interesting person. Born premature, she is a survivor, with a collection of medical mishaps yet she escapes the lethal economic dragnet tossed over many of the poor Black communities in the South. Education lifts her but she watches her collapsing family and her absent father in DeLisle, Mississippi. Her parents split, with her father moving to New Orleans to sire children with other women. As oldest of four, she looks on the grim rural landscape as drink and drugs and wanton sex offer a mental respite that the harsh poverty and hate does not permit.
Written in a poetic, mesmerizing prose, the book not only examines Ward’s life in the sleepy Mississippi town, but a quintet of doomed young Black men, all close to her heart, who died too soon. They perish over a four-year period, from 2000 to 2004, succumbing to a number of causes. Ward is most eloquent when she writes of her only brother, Joshua, who died on October 2, 2000 in a car accident with a drunk driver and Charles Joseph Martin, a cousin, who died on January 5, 2004 in a fiery auto smash-up with a train. However, her compassionate words tug at the heartstrings while she describes the sad event of a friend, Roger, also found dead in a house of a crack-induced heart attack in 2004 and another friend, Desmond, discovered shot to death near his car that same year after agreeing to testify against a drug dealer. The theme of mental illness among young Black men is explored when she writes of a depressed friend, Ronald, who shoots himself in the head after an argument with his girlfriend in 2002.
There are several passages in the memoir that should be highlighted or at least, studied. Ward writes: “By the numbers, by all the official records, here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing. We inherit these things that breed despair and self-hatred, and tragedy multiplies.” (pg. 237)
Some reviews have criticized that Ward overemphasizes certain themes of poverty, racism, and hopelessness in the book. However, these themes are critical and essential to the survival of our families, our youth, our communities. It is a welcome thing that Ward stresses these plagues in our midst. More of our authors should do the same. In this work, she addresses the ugly things, the frightening things, but in the telling, she makes our community want to live and survive. Her writing heals.