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.