“If Demond’s family history wasn’t so different from my own, did that mean we were living the same story over and over again, down the through the generations? That the young and the Black had always been dying until all that was left were children and the few old, as in war?”
Between October 2000 and June 2004, no less than five young, black men died in DeLisle, Mississippi, Jesmyn Ward’s hometown. Of course, there were more than five, but the loss of these particular young men, beginning with her brother Joshua, and ending with her friend Roger emotionally devastated Ward. The causes of death ranged from drug-induced heart attack to car accident to murder, but though they were unconnected on the surface, Ward lays bare the reality of life in the South, exposing the invisible threads of poverty and blackness that unite their untimely deaths. These deaths and a confusing homesickness called Ward home to the South again and again, even as she was trying to escape by attending college on the West coast, and then grad school in Michigan.
Men We Reaped is a series of obituaries, hung together by the context of life in the South, and a deep sense of foreboding about the next inevitable death. Ward begins with her family history, leading up to the marriage of her parents, then switches off to recount the life and death of the final victim, Roger Eric Daniels III. Returning to her own family, she shares her childhood and her parents’ troubled marriage, and continues to switch off biography and autobiography until the two timelines meet, and her story culminates with the first death, the loss of her younger brother, Joshua Adam Dedeaux. This unusual structure means that those who died first are ghosts in the stories of those who died later, but covering the deaths in reverse chronological order has the peculiar effect of bringing those ghosts back to life, only to relive their tragic deaths once more.
Though the litany of deaths make clear the extent of the problem, Ward writes most movingly about her own family’s history, and her relationship with her brother. There is no surprise or admonition when thirteen-year-old Joshua, three years her junior, reveals that he is selling drugs to help make ends meet in their father’s household. It is simply the inevitable stop-gap for most young men in the depressed Southern economy. Ward herself is sixteen at the time, and living with their mother, being slowly lifted away from her brother as she is educated at a private Christian school paid for by the white man whose house her mother cleans. The gulf between them continues to widen until Ward feels like the naïve and sheltered younger sibling in contrast to her hardened and street smart younger brother.
Writing this book is part of Ward’s struggle to make sense of make happened and come to terms with it, and the events are clearly still quite emotionally raw even a decade later. The list of tragedies is grim and unrelenting, “it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time,” Ward writes. The spectre of her own substance abuse—self-medication for grief and despair—hangs over the narrative, but is never completely addressed. But by setting the women of her family—two sisters, her mother, and grandmother—against the short and violent lives of the men in the community, Ward is able to draw an incisive portrait of the gendered consequences of racism and poverty in the American South.
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