Arts & Entertainment
Mississippi yearning: A writer returns to her Southern roots and finds sorrow tinged with beauty
Book Review - Men We Reaped: A Memoir | By Jesmyn Ward
In the span of four years, Jesmyn “Mimi” Ward’s brother and four of her friends, all young men, died: one from a gunshot, one from suicide, one of a heart attack from habitual cocaine use and two in auto accidents. “Men We Reaped” is Ward’s impassioned response to an overwhelming amount of grief — grief not just for those five young men, but for a community that’s being torn apart by continued racism and economic decline.
Ward grew up in DeLisle, Miss., in a community of African Americans that counts slaves as their ancestors, in an area where people not only know each other but are related, as cousins married cousins. But this book isn’t about a traditional community that’s just now being torn apart. Ward grew up in the 1990s and 2000s, her parents in the 1960s. DeLisle is not isolated from the rest of America: Kids perform hip hop and listen to rap music; crack is sold on the streets; young adults emigrate to Oakland or Los Angeles. They stay there or find their way home again, homesick for the closeness of community, however hard the life is at home.
DeLisle, as a semi-rural Mississippi town, is also not Los Angeles or Oakland in very distinct ways. Being in the Deep South, its African-American families are affected by pervasive in-your-face racism. As in other parts of the country, black kids with learning problems are considered unimportant.But in Mississippi, some white people still provocatively fly the Confederate flag in the face of black people and aren’t ashamed to tell racist jokes in public. DeLisle is also a place where everybody knows everybody else’s business: When her father left her mother, Jesmyn’s mother moved the family to an adjoining town where she could avoid unkind remarks and have relative anonymity. DeLisle is a place where going to college or getting a job outside the service industry — now that manufacturing jobs are practically nonexistent — is something that nobody, or hardly anybody you know, will ever do.
Ward, who won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction for “Salvage the Bones,” was an exception because of a combination of circumstances. She loved reading and books. Her mother worked as a housekeeper for a white liberal; he offered to pay her daughter’s tuition to an elite private school. Once started on this course, Ward felt that it was her obligation to succeed even as her family and community were collapsing around her.
She was one of a handful of black students (and the only one from a poor family) in that school. She put up with racial epithets from fellow students and ongoing isolation. She made it into Stanford and then got a graduate degree in English. Even in college, the only black students she was close to were from upper-class or middle-class families. They didn’t understand or didn’t want to know about how poor black people lived. Ward paid the emotional price of her isolation, with binge drinking and depression, among other things.
Unlike the more typical story of someone coming out of a poor neighborhood, Ward was neither rejected by her family and community nor did she distance herself from them. She was always aware “how the privilege of my education … was born in the inexorable push of my mother’s hands. How unfair it all seemed.” She grew up in a family without enough resources; abandoned by her father, she was a second mother to her younger siblings. She suffered from the racism and classism around her. She recognized that she was struggling with the same despair and self-loathing that brought her friends and family to destroy themselves. “We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing.”
Ward loves her community — but she doesn’t try to make it prettier than it is. Rather, she shows why the young man down the street deals crack in between the intermittent jobs that aren’t enough to keep his family fed. She explains why her father, who truly loved his children, also was drawn by a flashy lifestyle of women and motorcycles.
Ward points out the difference in the community between growing up male and growing up female — how while the men are torn between the impossible responsibility of supporting a family and the seductiveness of a consumerist world, the women find their opportunities have shrunk to the four walls where they raise their children. “My mother had the courage to look at four hungry children and find a way to fill them. My mother had the strength to work her body to its breaking point to provide for herself and her children. My mother had the resilience to cobble together a family from the broken bits of another.”
While acknowledging how her people destroy themselves, she shows how this self-destruction is rooted in a larger racist culture that offers little hope to them. And all the time she grieves, even as she shows the beauty of the people she mourns.
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