“To be a man was to posture strength and capability; for my brother, this meant he had to be unafraid. He had to show a strength he may not have felt, had to evince a ruthlessness in his swagger that was not in him.”
“Men’s bodies litter my family history. The pain of the women they left behind pulls them from the beyond, makes them appear as ghosts. In death, they transcend the circumstances of this place that I love and hate all at once and become supernatural.”
Jesmyn Ward’s book is full of anger and grief. The death of four people close to you will do that. First her brother dies, in October 2000, then by summer 2004, three of her friends had died as well. She is still hurting, it is evident from every line in the book, every word that she pours out onto the page.
Ward takes us through her life, growing up poor in Mississippi, and in between these recollections of her life, she talks about the lives of her friends – and their deaths through accidents, drugs, suicide. She thinks back to the last time she saw them, to how she found out the news of their deaths, and the reactions of their loved ones. She also examines the socioeconomic factors that have affected their lives and their community:
“And the school administration at the time solved the problem of the Black male by practicing a kind of benign neglect. Years later, that benign neglect would turn malignant and would involve illegal strip searches of middle schoolers accused of drug dealing, typing these same students as troublemakers, laying a thick paper trail of imagined or real discipline offenses, and once the paper trail grew thick enough, kicking out the students who endangered the blue-ribbon rating with lackluster grades and test scores.”
And how she sought escape in books
“I think my love for books sprang from my need to escape the world I was born into, to slide into another where words were straightforward and honest, where there was clearly delineated good and evil, where I found girls who were strong and smart and creative and foolish enough to fight dragons, to run away from home to live in museums, to become child spies, to make new friends and build secret gardens. Perhaps it was easier for me to navigate that world than my home, where my parents were having heated, whispered arguments in the dining room turned bedroom, and my father was disappearing after those arguments for weeks at a time to live at his mother’s house in Pass Christian before coming back to us. Perhaps it was easier for me to sink into those worlds than to navigate a world that would not explain anything to me, where I could not delineate good and bad. My grandmother worked ten-hour-long shifts at the plant. My mother had a job as a maid at a hotel. My father still worked at the glass plant, and when he was living with us, he would often disappear on his motorcycle.”
Men We Reaped was a heartwrencher, an eyeopener. It was a very personal journey, Ward’s attempt to write away her sadness and her pain.