Jesmyn Ward, a prolific and no-nonsense writer who penned the 2011 National Book Award winner SALVAGE THE BONES (one of my favorite books that year), says telling the stories of the deaths of important men in her life was the hardest thing she’s ever done. Living through it was surely tough enough, but finding the right words to convey the despair and loss she felt during that time while, at the same time, tying her personal experiences to what she sees as the confining and defining issues facing Southern Blacks today --- versions of the same inherent problems they’ve battled for centuries --- is what makes MEN WE REAPED a truly revealing memoir.
In alternating chapters, Ward hopscotches back and forth though time, traveling from the present into the past and recalling the circumstances of each death as it happened, while simultaneously reliving her coming of age from a child of lesser means into the accomplished but conflicted adult she is today. In this manner, she writes in the prologue, “my hope is that learning something about our lives and the lives of the people in my community will mean that when I get to the heart…I’ll understand a bit better why this epidemic happened, about how the history of racism and economic inequality and lapsed public and personal responsibility festered and turned sour and spread here…why my brother died while I live, and why I’ve been saddled with this rotten f--king story.”
And it is a rotten f--king story. From 2000-2004, five men Ward knew closely died brutal deaths, either by their own hand or by an act of fate. There was Roger Eric Daniels III, who, at 23, died of a heart attack on June 3, 2004, after ingesting a lethal cocktail of cocaine and pills. He had been dead for days before his sister found him passed out in his bed, still damp from the sweltering Mississippi heat. Thirty-one-year-old Demond Cook died on February 26, 2004, gunned down on the steps of the house he shared with his fiancé and young daughter. Although his shooter was never identified, Ward believes it may have been related to two court cases in which Cook was scheduled to testify --- one as the witness to a shooting and the other involving a known drug dealer.
"Living through it was surely tough enough, but finding the right words to convey the despair and loss she felt during that time while, at the same time, tying her personal experiences to what she sees as the confining and defining issues facing Southern Blacks today...is what makes MEN WE REAPED a truly revealing memoir."
Charles Joseph (C.J.) Martin, a free-spirited cousin of Ward’s who dated Ward’s youngest sister, Charine, and loved wandering in the middle of the night, never felt he’d live to adulthood. “Maybe he looked at those who still lived and those who’d died, and didn’t see much difference between the two,” Ward wonders. “Pinioned between poverty and history and racism, we were all dying inside.” In fact, he only reached the age of 20. On January 5, 2004, C.J. died after a train struck the car he had been riding in, causing it to burst into flames. The two friends he was with escaped unscathed, but he remained in the passenger seat, pinned inside.
Perhaps the most gruesome death was 19-year-old Ronald Wayne Lizana’s --- a friend who shot himself at his sister’s apartment on December 16, 2002, following a fight with his girlfriend. But the one that hit Ward hardest and closest was the first: Joshua Adam Dedeaux. While she was in New York for a job interview, Ward’s 19-year-old brother was killed by a drunk driver back home on October 2, 2000 --- a hit and run. The driver was a 40-year-old white man who was given a five-year sentence with a $14,000 fine not for vehicular manslaughter, but for leaving the scene of the crime. He was released after three years, and Ward’s mother never saw a cent of the money.
To be sure, these deaths had a profound impact on Ward’s life, as did the way she was raised in poverty-stricken rural Mississippi. Although her parents were together during the time she and her brother were adolescents, and briefly reunited for a few years after her younger sisters Nerissa and Charine were born, a financially stable two-parent home like the one Ward had for a while, and craved after it was gone, was rare. Like her own father, many of the men in Ward’s community fathered children and chased after failed dreams while being unfaithful (including having other children out of wedlock), while the women sacrificed everything and worked multiple jobs to hold down the home. “Like many of the young Black women of her generation, my mother understood that she had to forget the meaning of possibility, the tender heat of romance, the lure of the vistas of the world. My mother understood that her vistas were the walls of her home…. like the women in my family before her, my mother knew the family was her burden to bear.”
But the adults weren’t the only ones who carried the weight of the world on their shoulders; the kids felt the pressures, too. Most, like Ward, were either bullied or were bullies in school. Those who did poorly academically were ignored by their teachers who blamed these students for their lack of discipline rather than helping them learn and believe in their own futures. Consequently, many of the kids Ward knew dropped out of school to sell dope or work odd jobs for pocket money. They partied. They drank and smoked weed. “We crawled through time like roaches through the linings of walls, the neglected spaces and hours, foolishly happy that we were still alive even as we did everything to die,” Ward writes. “We were so green we couldn’t reconcile our youth with the fact that we were dying, so we drank and smoked and did other things, because these things allowed us the illusion that our youth might save us, that there was someone somewhere who would have mercy on us.”
Here and in so many passages throughout MEN WE REAPED, what comes through in Ward’s writing is not only her bewilderment and anger over her circumstances but also her fierce loyalty to the people she loves --- including those who might have shown poor judgment, like her father. If it sometimes seems disjointed or repetitive in the reading, it’s only because it reflects a seemingly unending cycle of inescapable repression, fear and baseless inequality that she, her ancestors, and her peers were --- and still are --- facing.
The question still remains: Why must so many die, and how is it possible that we let them slip through the cracks? What can we as a society do to quell the murder of innocents? And why was Ward able to “rise above her circumstances” (to use a clichéd phrase that also seems like part of the problem), while others like Demond Cook or her brother Josh couldn’t? Was it luck? Was it her high school education, made possible by a scholarship provided by the man who owned the house Ward’s mother cleaned? Or was it Ward’s own inner strength and desire to prove everyone wrong? To show --- even if she didn’t believe it at the time --- that her life and the lives of her friends and those in her community were worth something? “My entire community suffered from a lack of trust: we didn’t trust society to provide the basics of a good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system…even as we distrusted the society around us, the culture that cornered us and told us we were perpetually less, we distrusted each other…we hated what we saw, without and within.” In fact, they are worth more than something. They are worth everything.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on September 20, 2013