July 29, 2014 by magpiemenina
At last, here’s another book review. I haven’t found one recently that so moved me to blog. This one is a memoir, which is a bit different than my usual nonfiction fare. I don’t recollect where I heard about this book, but I am certainly glad that I did. I encourage you to read it.
Jesmyn Ward. Men We Reaped: A Memoir. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
I just finished reading Jesmyn Ward’s powerful memoir, Men We Reaped (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013). Ward, an educated Black woman born impoverished in rural Mississippi, wraps her memories of childhood and adolescence around the stories of five men – her brother, cousin, and friends – who died in quick succession.
She intersperses her memories of growing up, poor, rural, and Black, in the South, as the perpetual Other in America, with sketches of these men she loved, each sketch ending with that loved one’s death. Ward skillfully uses the experiences in her life to elucidate the near inevitability of death for young Black men living in poverty; to demonstrate the near inevitability and trap of poverty based on skin color and class; and to lay bare the psychological impacts and devastation of community, family, and trust, fostered by centuries of institutionalized racism. Her men die in car accidents, a shooting, an early heart attack. Their families receive no closure, no justice; instead, they are left to cope with their sorrow and anger as best they can, and to ask themselves the cruelest question, what if I had done something differently? There is nothing different to be done, though. There are far too few ways out.
Through the course of the memoir, Ward subtly and gradually demonstrates the nature of the pit that swallows the men she loves. She also weaves into the work other subtexts, highlighting what it to often means to be poor and female and Black. She struggles with depression and despair and self-loathing. The family for whom her mother cleans house offers to send Ward to a private school on scholarship, a gift that ultimately enables Ward to earn a Master’s degree. As she struggles with her peers and, later, the lack of understanding from those outside of her community and the desire to return to that community, Ward also quietly suggests the difficulties of being educated in a community of people without that opportunity. She suggests a world in which even the best opportunities can be devastating. Through her memories of being a scholarship student, Ward holds the mantle of White privilege, worn so easily and unwittingly by her classmates, up to the light by contrasting it with her own experience. Her stories of both unwitting and deliberate, malicious racism on the part of her White peers are made more powerful for her straightforward relation. Her memories make clear the utterly menacing and ostracizing power of racist words and gestures.
This is a memoir necessarily filled with tremendous grief, bewilderment, and despair. Despite the loss Ward has experienced in her life (loss of family, stability, childhood, and self-worth, to name a few), this is not a work that seeks pity, and this is not an author who pities herself. Instead, it is an unflinching statement of the reality that too many Americans, ostracized in their own county, face. Men We Reaped lays bare that complex, violent, and unjust world, and asks what the answer is to such pervasive grief and loss.