Men We Reaped begins with this epigraph by Harriet Tubman:
“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.”
It’s a chilling foreshadowing of what’s to come. From 2000-2004, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men who were dear to her. It started with the tragic death of her brother, then grew more and more overwhelming as death kept coming for friends she grew up with in rural Mississippi. And as she notes in her first chapter, it’s nothing new. A brief survey of her family history reveals that several of her male Southern ancestors’ lives were cut short in violent ways, leaving the women in the family reeling and scraping by.
As Ward struggles to make sense of it all, she juggles a few different histories. Every other chapter in the book is about her own family’s story. With them, she starts in the past and moves her way forward in time, talking about growing up poor in the rural South, her parents’ doomed marriage, and her mother’s struggle raise four children. She’s frank about her depression and her feelings of inadequacy; she was a gifted child but was poor and often the only black person in an all-white, wealthy school where she experienced blatant racism.
In discussing her friends’ deaths, she starts with the most recent death and works her way backwards to the point where everything shattered for her: her younger brother’s death. Whether they died from drugs, accidents, violence, or suicide, Ward shows that they were all victims of their circumstances: they were all young Black men living in poverty in the rural South. Their environment and the legacies of racism all factored into their early demise.
As you can imagine, it’s a book that’s filled with elegiac prose. Ward is an elegant writer, and her grief is palpable throughout. This is what she writes of her friend Demond’s death:
Even though Demond’s parents had remained married and both had good jobs, his family wasn’t so different from my family, his reality the same, death stalking us all. If Demond’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?
If you read Ward’s last book, the National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, you’ll immediately see some of the parallels and come away with a newfound understanding of why Ward writes what she writes. It’s an incredibly sad book to read — you can feel the undercurrent of Ward’s raw emotion — but it’s also an incredibly important book to read.
Men We Reaped: A Memoir was published on September 17, 2013 by Bloomsbury USA.