Sunday, November 26, 2017

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

A memoir structured around the violent deaths of five young African American men

Jesmyn Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi, a coastal town whose racially segregated people and culture remain deeply damaged by the legacy of slavery. Each of the book's five parts is dedicated to  one of her young male friends and relatives. All of the young men died in violent careless ways, including, most painfully, her nineteen year old younger brother. They died young and society did really not care. Men We Reaped also chronicles Ward’s life: her growing understanding of her charming dad’s lack of dependability which fuels the no nonsense strictness of her mother, a domestic worker supporting four young kids. Thanks to her mother, Ward is offered a scholarship to a private school which leads to a gold plated ticket out of DeLisle: Stanford and the University of Michigan. Far from Mississippi, she can’t, however, shake her homesickness.

I read this book practically in one sitting. Ward is a master of establishing tension. The young men, their love of life and partying, are deftly portrayed. She relates their risky and not so great decisions as well as describes the oppression of small town Mississippi: early neglect in substandard schools, the overpolicing of the black population and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs. These uneducated young men cannot have a single misstep. Otherwise they will pay a life altering price. Sadness permeates this book.

As her first class education takes her further from DeLisle, Ward can’t help but lead a double life. I felt panicky after she returned to Mississippi from Stanford and couldn’t even get a job at the local Barnes and Noble. This book achieves two things: A portrait of the artist as a young woman, and a spotlight shining upon unacceptable conditions existing in America today.

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