I am still thinking about Jesmyn Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped. The title comes from Harriet Tubman, one brave Black woman abolitionist who led hundreds of slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, and was a spy for the Union during the Civil War:
We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.
The dead men Ward is referring to are four young men, including her brother, who died in her hometown, rural, poor DeLisle, Mississippi. She paints a terrible portrait of the forces that claim their lives, one after the other, in her still young life. She is in her mid-30’s.
I was thinking particularly of the democratization, if you will, of the memoir: just as social media has taken away the privilege of corporate media to decide what’s “news,” writers like Ward have re-defined whose story is worth telling. And the skepticism that would accompany so young a person writing about her life, is absent in the reviews of Men We Reaped. Ward tells a darn good story, and it is hard to say that plenty of living (as well as dying) hasn’t already been done.
Readers will respond to her own emotional struggles as she emerges from DeLisle to get degrees from the University of Michigan and Stanford, to carve out a writing life for herself–and to win a National Book Award for her novel, Salvage the Bones. They will also identify with her decision to move back home.
And although the book is about Black men dying, it is also about Black women surviving. Jesmyn Ward had, as a child, absorbed the hatred she felt others had for Black women and turned that into a devastating self-hatred. Jesmyn Ward the grown-up has another view:
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 the 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. And my mother’s example teaches me other things: This is how a transplanted people survived a holocaust and slavery. This is how Black people in the South organized to vote under the shadow of terrorism and the noose. This is how human beings sleep and wake and fight and survive. In the end, this is how a mother teaches her daughter to have courage, to have strength, to be resilient, to open her eyes to what is, and to make something of it. As the eldest daughter of an eldest daughter, and having just borne a daughter, I hope to teach my child these lessons, to pass on my mother’s gifts.
With apologies to Jesmyn Ward for the long quote, but as I’ve said, it’s just so darn good.