MEN WE REAPED
by Jesmyn Ward
Bloomsbury; Sept. 17, 2013
Hardcover; 256 pages
In four years, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men she cared deeply about. On the surface, these men, including her brother, died from drug overdose, homicide, suicide, and car crashes. However, in her struggle to make sense of these deaths, Ward sees a deeper cause. These men died because they were male and Southern and Black*. In her memoir, Ward tells the story of her family, memorializes the men she lost, and seeks insight into their deaths.
Men We Reaped is a devastating, gut-wrenching book. Anyone who has read Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones knows how elementally powerful her writing is, and Men We Reaped is possibly even stronger. It howls with grief as she tries to deal with the losses she has suffered and her constant fear of more bad news as the men she loves die, one by one.
This is a beautiful memorial to the men she lost: Rog, Demond, C.J., Ronald, and Josh. She tells stories that show their struggles and bring them to life. They aren’t just statistics. They are real people who were loveable and loved. Their stories are heartbreaking, and it’s easy to see how their deaths were caused by their identities, economic situations, and geography. These men grew up in a society that didn’t care about them. They were viewed as problems in school, causing many of them to drop out at an early age. In their low-income area, many turned to dealing drugs as the only way to earn money. Poor infrastructure due to the low value placed on primarily Black areas also lead to deaths.
“I write these words to find Joshua, to assert that what happened happened, in a vain attempt to find meaning. And in the end, I know little, some small facts: I love Joshua. He was here. He lived. Something vast and large took him, took all of my friends: Roger, Demond, C.J., and Ronald. Once, they lived. We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”
I’m trying to read more books by authors of color, and this book is exactly why. As a middle-class white 20-something who has spent my entire life in the North, I have a pretty narrow view of the world. I need books like this to show me what life is like for people who don’t look like me, who haven’t had my advantages. The stories of these men aren’t the ones you see in the news. They’re a regular occurrence, and they have everything to do with the victims being Southern Black males.
As you might be able to surmise, this isn’t an easy, entertaining read. It’s heartbreaking and filled with hopelessness. Ward and her friends and family abuse drugs and alcohol, driving as hard as they can toward death in order to feel alive. It’s brutal, but it’s also eye opening.
“We crawled through time like roaches through the linings of walls, the neglected spaces and hours, foolishly happy that we were still alive even as we did everything to die.”
Men We Reaped is a powerful book about five young men who were failed by their society. It’s the history of a place and its people, their methods of coping in a world that tells them they’re nothing. It’s a book of deep love and earth-shaking grief. This is an important book that I really think everyone should read.
*Ward capitalizes Black in her book, so I am doing so in my review.