“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.”
I’m really glad that Men We Reaped was the October pick for the Social Justice Book Club, because I had this on my to-read list for a long while and just hadn’t picked it up yet. Probably because I knew it was going to be heartbreaking, which it was, but it was so worth the read.
Jesmyn Ward lost five young black men that were close to her, within a period of a few years. Five. This memoir is centered on that fact, as she explores her own childhood growing up in a poor area of rural Mississippi and as she dedicates chapters to each of those men – their lives, their joys and sadness, their struggles. And then she takes a look at the racial inequality that contributed to each of their deaths.
Ward does something really interesting, in that she moves forward in time when discussing her childhood – but backwards in time when the focus is on the men who died, until the two alternating timelines meet in the middle with the death of her younger brother, the first to die out of the five. I wasn’t sure how much I was enjoying that unique structure, but in the end I think it made the emotional impact all the more searing. It was heart-wrenching to learn about and get to know each of those men, and know that somehow they end up dead and that she has had to live through that, and of course her pain is the most raw when discussing her brother. She is an incredibly talented writer, and she will make you feel her grief and anger in the pit of your stomach.
Through the discussion of her childhood, she takes a thoughtful look at black families, and the underlying roots of some of the problems they face. She points to the poor economic conditions that lead to drug abuse, unemployment, and selling drugs. She points to an education system that doesn’t care whether black children succeed that leads to a sense of resignation and hopelessness. She points to the tradition of breaking up slave families as a possible factor in single-parenthood households in the black community. And she talks about the desperation between wanting to escape the poverty and blatant racism of your hometown and wanting to stay, because those you love don’t have escaping as an option.
If you are a person wondering why Black Lives Matter is a valid point to be addressed, read this book. It will give you valuable insight into how the black population is constantly shown that to the rest of the country, their lives don’t matter. And Jesmyn Ward is just one person – think of how many other black women could tell similar stories. That mountain of grief and frustration must be staggering.
I’ve read this and the collection of essays about race that she put together (The Fire This Time), so I need to read her fiction next: Where the Lines Bleeds and Salvage the Bones. And I can’t wait to see what else Jesmyn Ward has in her. I have no doubt that she’s going to be an important, powerful voice in literature.