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A More Diverse Universe
September 14-27Men We Reaped: A Memoir
We saw the lightening, and that was the guns, and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.
--Harriet TubmanJesmyn Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi, oldest daughter in a family fractured by divorce. She attended a mostly White Episcopalian private school, starting in the seventh grade, sponsored by her mother's White employer. After high school, Ward attended Stanford University, and then University of Michigan, where she received a MFA in Creative Writing.
In this raw, visceral memoir, Jesmyn Ward asks why so many Black men die, why their lives are "nothing" in this country, why the history of Black lives is a history of loss. Ward delves deep into her own life and the lives of her family and those in her community. She looks deeply into Black lives, including her own, exposing the forces that lead to substance abuse, suffering, death. The memoir goes back and forth in time, and Ward focuses on the loss of five young men, including her own brother Joshua, who died violently.
Every sentence in Men We Reaped leads inexorably to Joshua's death. Ward is unsparing in her examination of the lives of people, young and old, in her community. She builds her narrative patiently, showing how all the forces of systematic racism and deep-seeded hatred lead inevitably to the devaluing of Black lives, the impossible, devastating power of White privilege and power being used to deny the existence of Black lives.
In one scene, Ward and her family and friends are enjoying a day at the beach, Blacks separated from Whites, each group ignoring the other, when a boat flying the Confederate flag chugs past. The White people cheer, and Ward suddenly wants to leave:
....and suddenly I wanted to leave these White people to their beach, their stars and bars, their glances, the howl that said what so many of the White politicians in Mississippi have said in coded language, one time or another: You're nothing.
This message of black lives as "nothing" recurs throughout the book. In another passage, Ward writes of a secret cellar she and her brother find in the woods behind their house: someone has dug a perfectly square hole in the ground, and then covered it with boards and pine straw. The deep hole in the earth comes to signify something dark in Ward's consciousness:
If my mother knew, she'd be angry I left my two younger siblings alone, but I wanted to see that cellar again. I needed to see if it still gaped in that small clearing. I didn't fully understand that it had taken on a symbolic importance for me, a physical representation of all the hatred and loathing and sorrow I carried inside.
Ward's writing, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, is aching it its beauty. Men We Reaped is gorgeous, lyrical, devastating, visceral, and should be required reading for every American.