Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
In the short span of four years, the author of this memoir lost five young men who she considered family. They died from different actual causes-drugs, suicide, accidents- but Ward couldn’t help believing there was some sort of connection between the five deaths. Something inside her whispered that they were all young, black, from the South and raised in poverty. She wrote this book to ask why these tragic deaths occurred, and to look at the possibility that who they were and where and how they lived was a part of the equation. Ward grew up in rural Mississippi, in a small, rural town called DeLisle. As she recounts her memories of these young men, readers will begin to draw their own conclusions about our society. One of the most poignant parts of the book states:
“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. And 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 did not trust our fathers to raise us, to 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 the pressure, let it erode our sense of self until we hated what we saw, without and within. And to blunt it all, some of us turned to drugs.” (page 168)
When I first heard Ward interviewed about her book, I thought that her primary thesis was weak and wouldn’t be supported by the facts. After reading the stories of these five young men, however, I can see how the impact of race, poverty and living in the rural South impacted their lives to a degree I had never originally anticipated. Seeing life through Ward’s eyes, as a young person who did leave the South for college but was always connected to it emotionally, will make readers rethink their own beliefs and assumptions our our nation with its easy “freedom for all” facade. I think this book will become a classic, much in the way Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Black Boy by Richard Wright have become. I will be recommending this title to all my high school students and think it will be a hit here at Berkeley High School.