Towards the end of Jesmyn Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped, she discusses some of the statistics for “what it means to be Black and poor in the South.” The facts are stark: in Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the union, where Ward grew up and lives today, 23% live below the poverty level; the median income is $34,473; studies have shown that poverty and lack of education can contribute to as many deaths as heart attacks, strokes, and lung cancer in the US. The state ranks last in the nation on the UN’s Human Development index, which measures life expectancy, literacy, education, and standard of living.
“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,” Ward writes. After hearing of the stories of Ward’s life growing up in the small town and community of DeLisle, Mississippi, and of the five black men — including her beloved younger brother who died in a car accident — whose lives were all cut short in their twenties, these statistics bear an awful, tragic weight.
Newly available in paperback, Men We Reaped is a powerful, urgent work that speaks truth to some of America’s fundamental lies of capitalism and all-too-sobering realities about the way our citizens are stuck in a system of limited choices that ends their lives. Ward writes with love and brutal honesty about her community, about the way that these young men’s lives, so full of hope, were cut short.
It’s a deeply personal book, and Ward was frank and emotional in a recent phone interview. It was hard not to tear up as she talked about her love for her brother and the tragedy that she’s dealt with in her community. People have cried when she’s read from Men We Reaped at readings, she noted. “Some chapters I can’t read. The chapter where my brother dies. I wrote it and I put it away. I can’t read it silently and I can’t read it out loud.”
Her third book (after two previous works of fiction about life in Mississippi, Where the Line Bleeds, and the 2011 National Book Award-winner about a Hurricane in the south, Salvage the Bones), Men We Reaped was written over the span of about a decade. “I couldn’t have written it when my brother first died,” Ward said. “I was angry, I’m still angry, and I’m still grieving. I wasn’t very nice to myself in the intervening years, either.” The process of grief has been difficult. “We treat grief like it’s something we move through and something we have to get over.” She mentioned a well-meaning friend, who said — a week after her brother’s death — that she should be over it by now.
Ward researched the history of her family, stretching back to her great-grandparents and the history of DeLisle, how the people in the town have enough tangled-up blood between them so that they’re all kin and cousins, part of a community and a shared bloodline. “I want people to know that the history of racism and of poverty leads to a larger culture that devalues black people and black lives,” she said. “What happens isn’t just the result of some mythical personal choice.”
She did extensive research to paint a full portrait of the lives of these men, with the choices they made for better or for worse. It was a delicate balance to strike, especially regarding members of her immediate family. “People see the dead as perfect angels,” she said. “My mother was in that place with my brother.” Although Men We Reaped took a long time to write, Ward noted that “I knew how to write this book from the beginning,” talking about the impressionistic structure and the way that her life intertwines with the chapters on the five men who died.
“When this book came out [in 2013] it was when the Trayvon Martin case was in the news,” Ward said. “Now, on the paperback release, it was when Mike Brown was shot in Ferguson. It’s dangerous to be a young black man, a young black person in the United States. I wanted to write about what it means to be a poor black person in the South.”
Books like Ward’s are vitally important into showing us the truth, the real human costs of poverty. She’s found some promise in the way that people are responding to Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson. “It was heartening to see the reaction, particularly on social media, and the way that people came to the town to say that this was not OK.” She cited ideas like the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown, where Twitter users show that the media can easily paint a young black person as a “thug” with the right photo and the right tone, in addition to the protests. “I feel a little bit of hope,” she said.