African American History, African American Sociology, Autobiography, Black History, Black Lives Matter, Black Women, Jesmyn Ward, Memoir, Men We Reaped, Million Man March, Non-Fiction, Racism, Reading Suggestions, Sociology, Southern History
I am not sure who the “We” are in Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped. Is it society, black women, sowing of the seeds of boys to men. The time frame is 1970-2000s, Mississippi, New Orleans, with short stints at the University of Michigan, Stanford University and New York City, where the author attended school and worked post-graduate for a while. The theme is predominantly the death of young black men that the author grew up with in and near DeLisle, Mississippi on the Gulf Coast. The most affecting is the death of her brother Josh. This is not Black Men Matter. The deaths are self-inflicted, by accident, and black-on-black, which predominate today.
What bothered me about the “We” is that the subject I was more interested in was the black women who were carrying the load, while the sons and fathers were doing drugs, getting drunk, cheating with other women and creating families that they knew they could not support. The author ascribes the failure of these men to economic circumstances, racial prejudices, and substance abuse. These are clearly factors, but it ignores the women who are subject to the same influences and burdens, yet carry-on. There is no Million Women March because they are home with the kids trying to make ends meet.
The author is lucky. She drinks, does weed, but thanks to the financial help of a white family she gets to go to an all white prep school on scholarship. She is the eldest daughter who takes care of her younger siblings. Her father periodically abandons the family and provides no financial support, partly because of lack of work and partly because he spends what he earns on himself, his girl friends and new families. The author still has an attachment to him, as girls do to their dads, and seems to look beyond the warts. Her mother is the disciplinarian, the father is the boy who has not grown up. The positive aspect of the relationship, is that although a black belt, there does not seem to be spousal violence or child abuse. He is hard on Josh, as the author sees it, to prepare him for black manhood.
As the only black girl in an all white prep school in the South she bears the burden of prejudice and social and cultural isolation. She also bears the burden of black boys and men hitting on her. There is a weakness of black girls; they don’t become strong often until it is too late. Her mother refuses to let her date for fear of her becoming pregnant. The black girl does not seem to be as valued in the black community as the black boy, even if the girl is intellectually or otherwise superior. This is an undercurrent in the book, and about the author, but the author does not delve into it. She remains insecure. It is Josh, her younger brother, who seems more mature to her- has real life common sense.
Her book intends to give voice to the five black young men who died between 2000-2004.
“I wonder silence is the sound of our submitted rage, our accumulated grief. I decide this is not right, that I must give voice to this story.”
Desmond, a young black male friend from middle class background, does not escape the fate.
“Desmond’s family history wasn’t so different from my own, did that mean we were living the same story over and over again down through the generations? That the young and Black had always been dying, until all that was left were children and the few old, as in war?”
“The land that the community park is built on. I recently learned, is designated to be used as burial sites so the graveyard can expand as we die; one day our graves will swallow up our playground. Where we live becomes where we sleep. Could anything we do make the accretion of graves a little slower?”
The author’s mom cleans the homes of rich white people. One of them gets the author into the prep school on a scholarship. The wife talks to the author about what language she is taking. Her mom goes on cleaning the house in the room where they talking while the author tells the woman she is taking French because of her family’s Creole background. The author feels somewhat uncomfortable. It is not take your daughter to work day.
The last two pages of the book are used to finally express the author’s gratitude to her mom. She admits she never saw the burdens of the Black women- her mom’s. Her father’s dreams are cultivated, although they fail. Her mother’s dreams are vanquished without a thought. The author now has a baby daughter and will teach her child the legacy. It still seems male focused.
She needs to write another book.