Guest contributor: Bill Lundgren
categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence
In an indescribably powerful memoir, Men We Reaped, author Jesmyn Ward offers a rare, honest look at the complex dynamics of race relations in the United States. Men We Reaped is at once a searing indictment of racism and poverty in America and a cri de couer of grief over the premature deaths of five young Black men that Ward counted as friends and family. While there are threads of the aforementioned DuBois’ notion of double identity in the Black community and Franz Fanon’s argument in The Wretched of the Earth that an oppressed group of people will inevitably develop a sense of self-loathing, this book is not a sociological treatise. Rather, Ward’s memoir is a searing, personal story of an intelligent young woman seeking escape. Early on she turns to drugs and alcohol and then the hallowed halls of academia, but she always returns to her small town in Mississippi and the harsh reality that awaits her there. Eventually she understands that to begin to exorcise her demons she needs to write this memoir.
Ward recounts her early struggles in school when her mother moves the family to a larger city. When she is not invisible in school, she is bullied and only escapes when her mother’s employer, a wealthy white lawyer, offers to send her to the private school that his daughters attend. Her mother she describes as “… (un)comfortable with physical affection… Sometimes I think that my mother felt that if she relaxed even a tiny bit, the world she’d so laboriously built to sustain us would fall apart.” The absence of her father, a charismatic man-child with a constant string of girlfriends, she ascribes both to his irresponsibility and the conundrum of Black men in America, beaten down by racism, poverty and a lack of opportunity and taking solace in the hyper-masculinity results. Ward muses that maybe her father and men like him were “searching for a sense of freedom or a sense of power that being a Black man in the South denied them.”
This is not an easy book to read, suffused as it is with grief for her fallen friends and brothers, but it is a necessary book. Ward, winner of the National Book Award for fiction for Salvage the Bones, has now returned to the small town where she grew up, to teach at a nearby college and write and bear witness. She writes, “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. Hopefully I’ll understand why my brother died while I live, and why I’ve been saddled with this story.”
[Bill Lundgren is a writer and blogger, also a bookseller at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine (“A Fiercely Independent Community Bookstore”). He keeps a bird named Ruby, and teaches at Southern Maine Community College.]