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.
That is the first line of a short poem by William Wordsworth, the English romantic poet. What follows is “when I behold/A rainbow in the sky.” Two magical happenings in my life recently have called Wordsworth to mind. A close friend and I have gone first to Crex Meadows in WI and then to the Sherburne Wildlife Refuge in MN to watch as thousands of sand hill cranes have returned to their temporary home after a day of eating corn and other grasses (the WI trip) and waked up, talked over breakfast, and eventually taken off for the day eating corn and other grasses (the MN trip). These events have let me know just what William experienced when he looked up to see color arcing across his sky. Another poem of his has also been rustling around in my brain as I recall all those graceful birds coming and going. On April 15, 1802, William and his devoted sister, Dorothy, were on a walking tour in their beloved Lake District. Again, all of a sudden Nature surprises him and he writes “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” The line from that poem that I keep playing is “All at once I saw a crowd,/A host of golden daffodils.”
My friend and I surely watched a huge bunch of sand hill cranes, but I felt pretty sure “host” was not the correct venereal word for such a large number of them. So I consulted my trusty book that tells me the proper venereal term for all manner of beings–An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton. There I learned that many cranes may be termed a “construction,” a “dance,” a “sedge,” a “siege,” or a “swoop.” (My playful self decided I’d hold “swoop” in reserve until I might witness the fly pattern of whooping cranes–a swoop of whoops.) What I saw in those skies feels like a dance since as one flock after the other came within binocular range, they seemed to make patterns of movement like aerial dancers given complete free reign over body movements and group formations.
At Crex Meadows, I stood looking up to watch some flocks flying away from the sunset. These looked like horizontal black lines because their long, thin necks and even longer, thinner legs, both of which extremities were extended but compressed in order to promote swiftness, I suspect. If I twisted about 90 degrees, the cranes overhead were flying directly into the setting sun. As the fading rays touched their underbellies, I gasped in amazement. Suddenly creatures I’d thought were dark or mottled gray with the signature little red dot atop their heads and the rather pronounced black bills glowed like magic lights. It seems sand hill cranes have golden chests and undersides of the gray wings. Because I felt immediate contact with something profoundly spiritual, I tended to keep looking at the thousands of birds that flew at that angle, marveling at their iridescent splendor. I also felt humbled before such imminent beauty that was being offered to me with no restraints. My mind flashed to Loren Eisley’s beautiful writings about the powerful mysteries he found in nature. He often reflected, as has Annie Dillard, on just how extravagant Nature so often is, forming trees that drop tens of thousands of seedlings that will never become even a tiny stick in someone’s yard. Both of these writers keep telling us to pay attention to this plenitude, and try not to be stingy in our own giving patterns. That’s how I felt standing with a small assortment of other people equally entranced by all the cranes flying over us in wave after wave. Nature was being hugely generous in sharing the cranes’ homing instincts with the motley group standing in the road, eyes upward, senses on alert.
Watching the slow lightening of the skies over the huge pond at Sherburne Wildlife Refuge, I felt a similar wonder and humility. The mood of the cranes was quite different from that of the returning birds in Wisconsin. As light slowly manifested, more and more cranes waked and began making quiet but persistent sounds. Our excellent guide, Cody, told me they were “talking to each other,” ta concept that charmed me. I know how sweet such first words of a morning can be for us humans, so I listened with interest, imagining how pleasing it was being for each waking crane to connect with her or his fellows before gathering enough energy to take flight and go find the corn fields. It was cold in the early light and some folks went back to their cars to warm up, but I just stayed, not wanting to lose a moment of this magical experience. It wasn’t until I was back in my car that I began to shiver, realizing that I was thoroughly chilled. Audre Lorde has a trenchant essay titled “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” In it she defines what eroticism used to mean before too many men tarnished the notion. Lorde says the erotic is any activity in which we engage where we lose ourselves. She went on in her wry way to posit that, if we’re lucky, a few times in our lives that will happen while we are being sexual with someone. But she asked readers to look closely inside ourselves and discover what it was in our lives that had this capacity to lift us out of our usual routines. My immediate response the first time I read her essay was to say “it’s gardening,” because in my yard I lose track of time, forget terrible events in the world, and feel intimate connections with some life force far greater than myself. As I kept training my binoculars on the next group of cranes, I realized I was having what Lorde would describe as an erotic experience.
So now my friend and I have completed a circle in relation to the “host” of cranes on the brink of migrating southward. I feel profound gratitude to be open to mystery–on the wing, in the sky. All I have to do is close my eyes, think “sandhill cranes,” and the experience washes back over me and my heart leaps up all over again.
During the Kavanaugh hearings, much was made of his heavy drinking during high school and college. I am a recovering alcoholic who will mark 44 years of sobriety on October 23rd of this year. My antennae are quick to pick up tell-tale signs of other people’s proclivity for alcohol; I am sure that Brett Kavanaugh could tick off lots of the boxes on any diagnostic questionnaire about whether one is alcohol dependent. In fact, he could “ace” that particular test. Many investigators into the language patterns of alcoholics point out that we often volunteer revealing information about our drinking behaviors. During his testimony “under oath,” recall the repeated references about his relationship to beer: “I like beer; I still like beer…1 beer, 3 beers…sometimes I have too many beers.” If you listen to those statements, you’ll detect a certain bravado in his tonality, as if to say “so what, I have no problem, I could stop any time I chose.”
But it was when I watched his rebuttal of Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s humble yet powerful words about the sexual assault she remembers by Kavanaugh that I became convinced of his alcohol dependency. Her words were spoken first, in the morning, while his were reserved for the afternoon. Over lunch, I suspect two things obtained: he was instructed in what words to speak that would endear him to the president’s “base”; he was told not to drink one of his beloved beers because someone in the hearing room might smell alcohol on his breath. During most of my own nineteen years of alcoholic drinking, I never lost a day of work and was a pretty good lecturer about English literature. But I always requested morning classes, since I could perform easily before lunch. But by mid-afternoon, sitting perhaps in one of innumerable boring meetings at my university, I began to fray at the edges. I also had to be sure I had a Kleenex on my person to get rid of the sweat beads that began to form on my forehead and upper lip, no matter what I did to try and remain calm. Finally, if a colleague or intrepid student engaged me in conversation, I could feel my nerves on edge, requiring me to work hard not to fly off the handle about the relative merits of some early modern poet.
As Kavanaugh began his afternoon delivery that swung between outrage and tearful self-pity, I turned off the sound for a while and just watched his facial expressions and hand gestures. Sweat began to form on his forehead and upper lip but he must have felt it would be too revealing to try and wipe them away with a tissue, so they just stayed there. His cheeks grew ever redder, attributed by many perhaps to the force of his denial of Dr. Ford’s accusations, but another sign to me of his body’s simple chemical response to not having a little alcoholic booster with his sandwich. Alerted by these familiar markers, I turned the sound back on and heard the increasing anger and agitation as Kavanaugh came closer and closer to losing control completely of what was coming out of his mouth. And his hand gestures, while again mimicking his commander-in-chief, also reminded me of my own skewed movements as I tried both to accent whatever point I was making at 3 p.m. and to do something with the “fidgets” overtaking me as the shakes came ever closer to the surface.
So I remain certain that the man who has just become the newest member of the highest court in the land was suffering from initial and inevitable early on-set withdrawal because he had not been allowed to feed the monkey on his back with a couple of those liked beers that usually let him maneuver his way to the cocktail hour when work was over. So as I get ready to feel tremendous gratitude for having stopped my own alcoholic drinking so long ago, I shudder to think what may ensue unless Kavanaugh can admit his own dependence and get help.
The year I began teaching literature at the University of Minnesota in 1964, Leo Marx published his important book, The Machine in the Garden. Though Marx was teaching literature in the newly minted department of American Studies, I never met him. Because everyone spoke about him in hushed and reverential tones, however, I figured I should read this critical examination of the effects of machine technologies on the pastoral ideal that surrounded 19th century American literature. What Marx wanted to show was the loss of national innocence many critics decried. After all, when our Puritan fathers (and mothers, don’t forget) landed on the eastern shores of what would become North America, they believed they were coming to a virgin land, a “city on the hill” sort of place, even a paradise regained since many were fleeing repressive and corrupt systems across the Atlantic Ocean. Scholars studying those early settlers report that in many of their chests and bags, only two books were found: the Bible and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Reality along that Eastern Seaboard probably looked a lot different from the idealized myth of unsullied and innocent nature, but by the 19th century the myth had taken hold in imaginations if not on the actual farms and in the emerging cities of this country. Yet Marx and many others after him insisted on a story in which an essentially agricultural country was being infected and sullied by rapidly developing technologies that began cutting people off from their natural settings. In England, a similar malaise developed around the Industrial Revolution. Poets like Oliver Goldsmith (“The Deserted Village”) and William Wordsworth (“London, 1802” or “The World Is Too Much With Us”) told us of how factories and noisy farm machines were destroying the tranquility of the country side even as they were alienating humans from their work. Well, in 2018, we’re a long way from any such bucolic ideal. Assembly lines have existed for over a century now, becoming more and more mechanized until today robots are doing more and more in many factories turning out cars and other necessities of today’s ultra-urbanized culture. And it is those very robots about which I want to speak briefly. A few days ago, I heard a long program on National Public Radio (NPR) about a recent decision in Los Vegas to begin using robots to do the work in some of the giant casinos and their accompanying hotels/restaurants. Already, a few mega-restaurants are using robotic salad choppers that can supply all the lettuce/cabbage/tomatoes and other ingredients for the thousands and thousands of salads served each day. The program described in great detail a robotic device that could make a perfect daikari or whiskey sour. This involves a large arm connected to supply sources holding the proper ingredients. A patron clicks on the drink of choice and the arm begins putting into the right kind of glass exactly the right amount of alcohol to produce that cocktail. The reporter involved interviewed some patrons who had used this arm and tasted the results. One woman was quite eloquent when she said “Well, yes, it tasted like what I ordered, but it was no fun. A big part of being at a bar is talking to the bar tender.” I suppose the industries involved will now have to find a version of Watson who can “talk” to the patron while it’s cranking out the drink punched into a computer grid.
Like so much of current technological advances that seem to be exploding into our consciences and environments, it seems to me no one is asking much about the human consequences of our increasing reliance on robotic devices to perform routine tasks. In the case of Los Vegas’ move toward using such machines to clean hotel rooms and allow restaurants to turn out food faster and more cheaply than is possible using human workers, what’s not being taken into serious account is the effects on a work force. The NPR investigative reporter made abundantly clear just who will be impacted by this move into robotics. He told us what we would would know if we thought about it for a few minutes: the two groups that will be affected immediately are women and Hispanics. Women and men from these populations currently perform the great bulk of this work in the casinos, so they will be the first to get pink slips as large metallic “arms” replace them in kitchens and bars and bedrooms. The same reporter was equally clear that no re-education or re-training programs are being mandated that might allow such displaced workers to apply for other jobs in order to provide them with the means to live with a modicum of self respect and to support families if they have them.
So, though few would call The Strip a “garden” of any kind, the new “machines” certainly will further alienate hard-working individuals from any serious guarantee of financial security. That denial will in turn exacerbate the already-present worries and fears surrounding the groups of low-income workers directly involved. And, not to be too pessimistic, already in place in some quarters, greedy corporations have their eyes on using appropriately designed robots to harvest this country’s dominant crops. We all know whom that mechanical advantage will permanently disadvantage. Leo Marx would be a lot sadder if he were breathing today.