CBR12Bingo – Nostalgia
Men We Reaped: 5/5 Stars
I can’t say I am nostalgic here, as I can’t imagine a childhood and teenage in America much different from mine, but I am about the age of Jesmyn Ward’s brother Joshua (and some of the other men and boys mentioned in this book), so it provides an interesting contrast to say the least.
This 2013 memoir comes at the heels of Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award winning novel Salvage the Bones and right before her second National Book Award winning novel Sing, Unburied, Sing and splits that time in a way. So the book works through two timelines: the meeting of her parents, her birth and her childhood leading up to the death of her brother in 2000, and, counting backward from the writing of the memoir, but specifically beginning with the fifth death in about five years of a young Black man from her youth. As she works through these two time periods, it becomes clear she is working backwards to the death of her brother, which is obviously the closest death to her, but also only the first of five, so that while it seems so hard and so painful, we understand that it begins a period of loss that will continue for several more years and informs how she processes those other deaths.
The writing in the book is mostly clear and direct, with some dreaminess and rumination, but not the ways her novels work. She also uses her education, her research, and her having moved away from much of the setting this book shows us to help create a sense of contrast both emotionally as she herself went through but also geographically, and given the reading audience in America, situationally.
This is an incredibly painful book, but there’s a strange sense of distance enfolding the whole thing, so that these events, while they happened about 10 year or so previous to the writing, feel deep in the past, while never feeling that far in the past either. This is in part because we are tracking a writer’s sense of things as she grows from her youth to adulthood, but also because of some large structural changes in policing, politics, and cultural consciousness in the same time.
There’s an image that happens with the first (but last) death in the book where at the funeral someone is selling t-shirts with pictures of the dead man with some catchphrases and slogans important to him. In addition, there’s a handful of other names and pictures of people who died before him. This list includes the author’s brother. She doesn’t recognize the specific picture they used for her brother, or ultimately the person who the picture apparently represents. This outsiderness, this feeling that the t-shirt is too “pat”, and this feeling of how shallow this tribute feels (no matter how heartfelt, but how little it brings life to this loss), creates for the reader (especially one so far outside the context of young Black men in the South) that same sense of loss. The idea here as I see it is that we are so far removed from understanding the life of this person, we’ll never know what we lost with his death.
Naviate Your Stars
Generally I am not a big fan of printed and published commencement addresses, but since I just read Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped this works as a nice companion piece. I think if I were running a summer reading program at Tulane or other colleges in the South, I could do worse than assign both books to look at them in comparison. What stands out to me here is Ward’s refusal to engage in the kinds of speeches I am sure she’s heard her share of: scolding and respectability politics. I have spent many years working in predominantly Black public schools, so I have heard my fair share of speeches pre-blaming students for their inability to succeed. Instead Ward thanks her forebears for working hard to give her a lift out of poverty (and especially as it intertwines with racism) and grants her luck from escaping so far from many of its trappings.