My life growing up was, in many ways, very different from the people who populate my adult life. I find myself looking around often and saying “but why don’t you understand _____________?” I grew up in a very diverse area and my experiences and knowledge reflect that diversity. But it’s fair to say that my expanded viewpoint is only expanded to a certain extent because I still view life from a place of white, middle class privilege. But the high school that I attended started losing graduates to untimely death almost immediately following graduation and has proceeded at a steady pace of 1-2 alumni each year for the past 14. It should not be surprising that they are almost all African American men.
You might find yourself asking what this has to do with my choice to read Jesmyn Ward’s memoir. In Men We Reaped Ward tells the story of her family and community and the ravages of what society does to its underclass and how the pull of home, no matter how dangerous to one’s overall wellbeing, can be too strong to overcome. When I came across Julia in Austin’s review for CBR6 I added this book to my to read list because I knew instinctively that this was a truth I needed to bear witness to. Men We Reaped is an important, but not easy read.
The book is based around the five young men Jesmyn Ward lost to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty. In her own explanation of how this book came into being Ward explains that she was asking one question: Why? Through an accounting of growing up in southern Mississippi and providing quick glimpses of the personal stories of her brother and her friends who all died Ward pieces together the greater social causes of the epidemic she has lived. To her eyes these young men died because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships.
This is not a perfect book. In many ways Ward’s grief is perhaps too much on the surface, clouding the points she is attempting to make. While I appreciated the idea of the dual timelines she uses, bringing us both forward and backward to her brother’s death it also muddied the narrative in some ways as well. This book is still worthy of being read.