After a drunk driver killed Jesmyn Ward’s younger brother, Joshua, in a horrific car accident, the court sentenced the driver, who was white, to five years in jail for leaving the scene of an accident, but declined to charge him with vehicular manslaughter. Ward, in disbelief, thought to herself, “This is what my brother’s life is worth in Mississippi. Five years.” In fact, the driver served only two years before being released.
Bewilderment, pain, rage and resentment flow through the bones of Men We Reaped, Ward’s memoir of growing up poor and black in a rural Mississippi still bathed in the waters of hatred, prejudice and racism. She weaves a tale of loss that begins with her father, who left the family behind to follow his own desires. Other losses quickly followed, and she recounts the stories of five young men—friends, a cousin, her beloved brother—who died between 2000 and 2004, from some combination of drugs, suicide, murder, accident and bad luck. A poignant memorial to Roger Eric Daniels III, Demond Dedeaux, Charles Joseph (C.J.) Martin, Ronald Wayne Lizana and Joshua Adam Dedeaux, Ward’s book also underscores a harsh truth: Poverty often cripples black men, causing them either to fall into destructive behaviors or to flee from it, leaving their families in the process. Such absences mar her own family, and Ward stands up to tell the stories. “Men’s bodies litter my family’s history,” she writes. “The pain of the women they left behind pulls them from the beyond, makes them appear as ghosts.”
Searingly honest and brutal, Ward holds nothing back as she strives to find her way in a community that she both loves and hates. There are no platitudes for her as she comes to terms with her losses: “Grief doesn’t fade. Grief scabs over like my scars and pulls into new, painful configurations as it knits. . . . We are never free from the feeling that something is wrong with us, not with the world that made this mess.” In Men We Reaped, she makes her readers feel that pain, too; but more than that, she makes us understand that these men mattered—that their lives were worth something after all.