Jesmyn Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped, derives its title from an arresting Harriet Tubman quote that appears in the book as an epigraph:
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 in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.–Harriet Tubman
It’s an interesting frame for the story of a young African-American woman’s life, especially one who has been as successful as Ward. With Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward has now won two National Book Awards for fiction and she’s only written three novels. You can hand her whatever prize there is for memoir as well, because she has delivered a work of vulnerability, honesty, and anger that ranks among the best I’ve read. She has cemented my impression that she is the most important and talented author of her generation.
Not that this is an easy read. You do get the sensual detail that makes her work so atmospheric and ‘of’ a place. There are breezes off the Gulf of Mexico, the tall pines of DeLisle, Mississippi, which have loomed over Ward for most of her life, “and then the wind buffets my eyes open, and the trees shiver darkly at both sides of the road and the air smells of burning pine needles, and I open my eyes to what is.”(249) ‘What is’ is not pretty to behold.
There’s a presence in this place. Ghosts, like those that populate Sing, Unburied, Sing, linger in the humid air. Ghosts like the ones her brother, Joshua, insisted haunted their father’s house. But now Joshua is one of the five dead men that haunt Ward’s story. “Men’s bodies litter my family’s history,” Ward says. “The pain of the women they left behind pulls them from the beyond, makes them appear as ghosts.”(14)
As Joshua said when they were kids hunting down ghosts:
Somebody died here. From 2000 to 2004, five Black young men I grew up with died, all violently, in seemingly unrelated deaths. The first was my brother, Joshua, in October 2000. The second was Ronald in December 2002. The third was C.J. in January 2004. The fourth was Demond in February 2004. The last was Roger in June 2004. That’s a brutal list, in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time. To say this is difficult is understatement: telling this story is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. (7)
You realize by the end how hard it is to pick up the pieces after a litany like that. But you know from the beginning that this is an old Southern story and Ward is not alone in it. The texture of African-American lives in Mississippi is constrained before they begin. Ward wonders if it’s the ghosts that determine the course. Maybe it’s something in the dirt. Maybe “we were living the same story over and over again, down through the generations.”(68)
Only she’s not going to let you reduce the lives of these young men to a stereotype. You’re going to see each one, just as you see her father, who rides in to scattered scenes in her life, sometimes on a motorcycle in a leather suit. “There was something at the heart of my father that felt too big for the life he’d been born into. He was forever in love with the promise of the horizon: the girls he cheated with, fell in love with, one after another, all corporeal telescopes to another reality.”(146)
She knows and cherishes the tangibility of these black lives. She wants us to know how much love knit them together with her. She wants to break our hearts and does.
Ward skips deftly through time. Back to her childhood. Forward to the most recent death. The timelines converge on the death of Joshua. “This is where the past and the future meet…This is the summer of the year 2000. This is the last summer that I will spend with my brother. This is the heart. This is. Every day, this is.”(213)
It’s personal. It’s systemic. Each life is irreducible, and yet in aggregate they reveal a shame and a lingering oppression that is national in scope and as old as this country. When Ward writes about Mississippi it’s the same haunted place it was for Faulkner, only seen with new eyes.
Ward concludes her book by saying, “By the numbers, by all the official records, here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing.”(237) So she goes beyond the numbers to tell the stories. And what she reclaims in the lives of the black men she lost is a wispy hint of something substantial, like a ghost. But to borrow a phrase of the moment, she says their names. And in saying them she fights back against the forces that would leave them nameless and nothing.
Who is Jesmyn Ward, this woman who writes her life story as a narrative of dead men? She’s a witness whose burning is not yet done. There’ll be more because she has a lot yet to say.