Race may be one of the most difficult topics to confront in America. Everyone has an opinion and no one has a solution. We both obsess on it and ignore it every day in our interactions with each other. We are all victims in some fashion or other.
In Men We Reaped: a Memoir by Jesmyn Ward we learn about race from the perspective of a small Mississippi town called DeLisle where Ward grew up. Ward left her home town to get degrees from Stanford and Michigan but returns because this place on the earth is always home for her.
While she has written two novels, one of which one the National Book Award, this is different. This is telling the story of four male Americans of African Descent who are dead. This is the story of how their deaths affect DeLisle. But most importantly, this is displaying the pain that Jesmyn Ward carries within her every day because of who she is, where she was born and how she is perceived because of that.
Ward tells us that the primary causes of depression in black men are racism, poverty and violence. The display of violence is both internal and external. Ward says of her father’s pit bull training that “alternatively he coddled his dog, treated it tenderly as one of his children, but the dog’s ability to fight was paramount.” Ward’s brother Joshua received this kind of fathering: “There was no room for error in disciplining my brother, my father thought, because my brother was a boy. A son. A child who would be harder pressed to be a fighter.”
The poverty is dominant. “My mother had buried her dreams on that long ride from California to Mississippi. She’d secreted them next to my brother in the womb, convinced as she was, with a sinking dread, that they were futile. She’d tried to escape the role she’d been born to, women working, of absent fathers, of little education and no opportunity.”
While there are specific examples of racism shown, what bothered me the most about the book is that the racism seems to be imbued within every action in the book. Racism is omnipresent.
What happened to hope? Gone and returned, Ward only finds more death in DeLisle over the period covered by the book. “We knew we were old; by the end of summer, we’d know we had one foot in the grave.” The saddest statements are these: “My entire community suffered from a lack of trust.” Then, even more tragic, she says, “We distrusted each other.”
Our staff read this book for our monthly reader’s advisory training in the category of biography, autobiography and memoir. We selected it because (so far) it was selected by PW as a Best Book 2013 and is shortlisted by the National Book Critics Circle. The book is written in reverse by filling in the details of the last death and working back to the first: the death of her brother Joshua. The writing is disturbing, powerful and emotional.
When we were done, we had no answer for this book discussion query: “Tell me one thing you found in this book to bring you comfort.” Perhaps, because we still have so far to go, this was the best answer possible.