book review: Men We Reaped


Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. Publisher: Bloomsbury (2013). Memoir. Hardcover. 272 pages. ISBN 9781608195213

“From 2000 to 2004, five Black young men I grew up with died, all violently, in seemingly unrelated deaths. The first was my brother, Joshua, in October 2000. The second was Ronald in December 2002. The third was C.J. in January 2004. The fourth was Desmond in February 2004. The last was Roger in June 2004. That’s a brutal list in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time.”

A heartbreaking, honest and gripping memoir in which Jesmyn Ward describes growing up poor and black in Louisiana and its impact on both the deaths of these five black young men as well as on her writing and her life. statistically these black young men have little chance to succeed—to make it much beyond high school, to college, to age 21, to age 25 and beyond, to get past a life of drugs, poverty and living paycheck to paycheck. Ward illuminates the broadening gap between race and class in our country. These struggles and prejudices have long existed in the south for young black man for which this memoir’s a distressing reminder.

Ward’s mother never went to college and worked cleaning houses to take care of her four children—Jesmyn, her brother Joshua and two sisters Charine and Nerissa. My mom didn’t go to college either but secretarial school. My parents also divorced when I was in elementary school. My mom did re-marry, Never did I doubt my future educational path: college and graduate school. White-privilege. I get it. I understand I have it. I was born in Massachusetts. Grew up middle-class in Connecticut and Massachusetts, now live in Boston and that’s my point of reference. Though I’m unemployed, don’t receive unemployment benefits, SSDI or a paycheck, I’ll likely never know the poverty that these men and Ward herself knew growing up in Louisiana.

Ward’s parents didn’t divorce right away but her father wasn’t around often and wasn’t faithful to her mother. A drifter and dreamer, her father moved out. [“He was forever in love with the promise of the horizon: the girls he cheated with, fell in love with, one after another, all corporeal telescopes to another reality.”]

Ward writes: “His leaving felt like a repudiation of the child I was and the young woman I was growing into. I looked at myself and saw a walking embodiment of everything the world around me seemed to despise: an unattractive, poor, Black woman. Undervalued by society regarding her labor and her beauty.” She didn’t have the best grades at school but she fell in love with books and reading. As for many girls, literature proved to be somewhere to escape for Ward. She could engulf herself between the pages and discover new worlds and literary role models “. . . I found girls who were strong and smart and creative and foolish enough to fight dragons, to run away from home and live in museums, to become child spies, to make new friends and build secret gardens.”

At some point, her mom worked for a wealthy and generous lawyer, a Harvard alumnus, who practiced in New Orleans and offered to pay to send Jesmyn to private school—of course an amazing opportunity for her—allowing her a chance to attend college which she does. She writes: “I knew there was much to hate about home, the racism and inequality and poverty, which is why I’d left, yet I loved it.” Ward earned her undergraduate degree from Stanford and her M.F.A. from the University of Michigan. When her brother died she was working in New York at a publishing company.

“Perhaps my father taught my brother what it meant to be a Black man in the South too well: unsteady work, one dead-end job after another, institutions that systematically undervalue him as a work, a citizen, a human being.”

RATING: *****/5

also on my Best Books of 2013 List

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Bloomsbury.

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