Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

Until the past couple of months, I’ve been reading a lot of very heavy, kind of sad content. 2020 has been a weepy year, book-wise. Men We Reaped is another book that moved me to tears.

Synopsis – In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five men in her life, to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Jesmyn ask the question: why? And as she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth–and it took her breath away. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships. Jesmyn says the answer was so obvious she felt stupid for not seeing it. But it nagged at her until she knew she had to write about her community.

Losing someone in an accident… losing them to an illness… I’ve often used and heard the term a “meaningless loss” and death does seem so pointless and meaningless; something akin to a tornado happening upon its victims at random and utterly destroying them from inside out. And yet, when it comes to the death in Jesmyn Ward’s life, the death that fills it and surrounds it.. calling it “meaningless” would be callous and a gross injustice. Because it is not accidental and it’s not “out of nowhere.” This book takes the random statistics you would find in the pages of a newspaper and fleshes them out, it flashes a light on the “meanings” and “interpretations” that we may choose to keep buried.

Is this a story of any poverty, any grief, any addiction or any illiteracy? As easily as you might find parallels to yourself in the book… you’re reminded that you’re still an outsider peering into something far more complex… because your grief and your loss may have been meaningless, and that is your privilege. Hers isn’t a story of the ‘inexplicable,’ it’s a story of neglect. It is a book about systemic racism. It is about the plight of the southern man. It’s about the writer’s love and revulsion in parts for her childhood in Mississippi. It is anecdotal, emotional, nostalgic… but this style of writing adds substance to the dry and objective, instead of taking away from it.

“What I didn’t understand then was that the same pressure were weighing on us all. My entire community suffered from the lack of trust: we didn’t trust society to provide the basics of good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system. And even as we distrusted the society around us, the culture that cornered us and told us were perpetually less, we distrusted each other. We did not trust our fathers to raise us, provide for us. Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless. Some of us turned sour from pressure, let it erode our sense of self until we hated what we saw, within and without. And to blunt it all, some of us turned to drugs.”

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