Two years after publishing her gripping novel, Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward gave us a memoir entitled Men We Reaped. This arresting and disturbing title comes from the writings of Harriet Tubman who said: “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.” Tubman may well have been speaking about the Civil War. Certainly Ward is speaking about the world of her youth in which black men were being lost to police violence, street gangs, or drugs and alcohol used to help ease the pain of living as throwaways in a world ruled by white supremacists. For Jesmyn Ward, the men she reaped included her beloved brother Joshua, who was killed in a car crash in 2000 when very young, a black boyfriend, and three other young black males who mattered significantly to her. All five deaths occurred within a tiny window in time, between 2000 and 2004.
The book speaks about each of these untimely and traumatic losses in chapters that alternate with ones in which the author traces her own development from early childhood to the present. What distinguishes this memoir about maturation and growth is the ordering of its alternating chapters. While she traces her own life in logical chronological order, her writing about the black men she loses begins with the last of the five losses and ends with the death of her brother. In talking about this book with a good friend, I came to see the wisdom of her explanation for the reverse ordering of the deaths: Ward can’t face the loss of her brother first because it’s just too searing. So she saves his going out of her life for last and gains the emotional strength to speak about that loss only after confronting the deaths that come later in time but which involve men a little more distant from her.
The chapters about her are centered in DeLisle, Mississippi, a small town formerly called Wolf Town. Ward tells us in illuminating detail about just how “wild” it was for her ancestors, one of whom–her great-great grandfather–was shot near his stills by white Revenuers who left his body to rot in the cold until some family members went into the woods to retrieve it. Violence didn’t just come to her in stories about her town’s past, however. When she was a child, her father’s new white pit bull, Chief, mauled her badly, making the centerpiece relationship in Salvage the Bones especially significant for those of us who’ve read both books. Current theorists are writing about how intergenerational trauma can deepen damage caused by individual trauma happening to members of groups like black or Native Americans. Ward presents this theory in her memoir in which she describes all the ways in which she and her black family and community are subjected to constant and loud assault by racist institutions and individuals. What amazes me as a reader, however, is the beauty of her language used to describe these horrors. I’m reminded of Toni Morrison’s similar use of gorgeous prose to write about the most destructive aspects of slavery. In her masterpiece, Beloved, she has her character Sethe wonder why it can be that when she thinks about her childhood on the slave plantation, she remembers running through a field of thorny plants that scratch her legs and arms before she reaches a stand of sycamore trees. She then lapses into beautiful words about how lovely those trees seem to her before feeling puzzled and confused to think of their beauty rather than the fact that black slaves had been hanged from the trees’ branches. If I try to unravel Ward’s own metaphors and descriptive details both of her own life and especially of the violent and senseless deaths of those five young men who mattered to her, I come to understand that she honors the resilience and potential of people snatched away from her but nonetheless carrying major value and, yes, beauty in her memory world. One example may show what I’m talking about: Ward is writing about her friend Demond who was making his way home from the factory where he worked until late at night. He is almost home, “tired and grimy with dried sweat, wanting a shower, maybe a beer.” He won’t get either because “someone stepped out of the bushes in front of Demond’s house and shot him as he walked up to his door.” The total senselessness and terrorism of this shooting reminded me of tiny entries in the daily paper I read in my own white childhood in Fairfield, Alabama. Often it reported in a few dry words about the discovery of a body in some shallow river near town. Those reports never had names attached since nothing was ever done to find out who the “someone” might be, but we all knew the body was of some “Negro” just as I know reading Ward that the “someone” who shoots Demond is some “white man.” Where my newspaper report was flat, Ward’s words give light and humanity to the horrid moment. She goes on in the same vein, speaking about Demond’s fiancée’s discovery of her beloved’s body: “She walked out on her porch, her small feet making the wood creak, and saw someone asleep on the lawn. Why was asleep in the yard?” Tenderness pervades this description, thereby giving Demond the proper respect and love deserved by anyone trying to make his or her way in a world that can’t or won’t see them as human. And this attitude persists throughout the memoir, making the horrible losses all the more intimate for us readers even as it allows the author gradually to find meaning if not solace in her losses.
Finally, then, Ward comes to Joshua, her younger brother–three years separated their births–with whom she has spent so many intimate hours inside their house and out in their world, the brother she admires as much as she loves, the brother she tried to protect from some of the white scorn and danger surrounding him. To prepare us and perhaps herself for the story of his death, Ward tells us she made a decision after completing her work at Stanford to move back to Mississippi, saying “…I was tired of being away: I was tired of being small in the big world. I was tired of being perpetually lonely.” Deciding to stop off in New York City before going on to DeLisle, she decides to spend time with her boyfriend who meets her at his apartment door to tell her to call her father who tells her first “Josh was in an accident last night,” only to say minutes later “He didn’t make it.” Ward felt her life alter fundamentally at that moment, even as she recounts the details of how the fatal accident happened. At one point, Ward writes just what many people who have lost loved ones have felt: “Years later, I would be grateful my family waited until October 3 to tell me Josh died: I’d had seventeen more hours wherein, for me, Joshua was still alive” (italics mine). The chapter about losing her closest connection is markedly short. We watch as she walks to the podium to read a poem she wrote for the occasion but subsequently lost. The only thing she remembers from that elegy is: “He taught me love is stronger than death,” said as much to the four black youths “who would later lie in caskets, but who stood alive on that day at the back of the church.” The rest of this chapter is about the man who killed Joshua. We’ve already heard her tender and not so tender memories, so I know her and Josh’s relationship in clear details. What she wants to force me to face is the injustice of what happened to his killer because that person was white and Joshua was black. That white driver was in his forties and indisputably drunk. He hit Joshua’s car going eighty miles an hour–another indisputable fact. Eight months after the funeral, Ward gets a call from her sister, Nerissa, reporting the outcome of the court case against the drunk white driver: “they sentenced [him] to five years… They didn’t charge him with vehicular manslaughter. They charged him with something else. Leaving the scene of an accident.” I am outraged because this man CAUSED the accident from which he then fled, and the white justice system refused to act of that causality. He got a “pass” while Joshua lost his future.
I spoke earlier in this blog about the dramatic contrast between Ward’s subject matter and her language. I want to end this response to her moving story by thinking about the language of racism. It is blunt and ugly. It is intended to silence, debase, terrorize, and erase anyone who is not “white.” So Jesmyn Ward triumphs over all that dross by insisting on bringing her elaborate sense of the beauty of language to bear on the hard stories she must recount. That’s a sign of her deep faith in the power of words not just to help us survive but to help us see that a special kind of linguistic love really is stronger than the death wish that underlies so much of what white supremacists yearn for.