This past summer, America had a long conversation with itself about its pervasive culture of violence, a culture that often literally consumes the lives of young black men. I’m not saying it was a satisfactory conversation, that anyone came out of it feeling like we’d treated the subject with respect. In fact, I’d say it was just the opposite. There was a lot of loud, loud, loud racist yelling on Fox News, thankfully countered by good and resourceful programming by Melissa Harris-Perry, but mostly the aftertaste was sour. Perhaps that explains why Jesmyn Ward’s new memoir, Men We Reaped, isn’t generating as much public discussion as I would have expected from a brilliant piece of work that also happened to be on point.
Ward is the author of the 2011 National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones. She grew up in Mississippi with her mother, two sisters, and her brother, and this book is to an extent about that childhood. It is also about the world of the Black South, and racism, and classism, and the way all of those things combine to make people more prone to a certain kind of fate. The achievement of the book is that Ward manages to take this notion, which pundits repeat endlessly on television, and display its truth by way of telling stories. Specifically, the stories of five men she knew who all died. They didn’t all die in ways analogous to someone like Trayvon Martin. There’s an overdose, and a suicide, and a car accident.
I confess that whenever Trayvon Martin-like incidents happen, I feel torn. There’s certainly something cathartic in the screaming of the punditry. The punditry on the right side of the question, that is. These incidents provoke moments of great eloquence from the op-ed writers of the world, too. But I often feel frustrated that the people at the heart of the story are obscured by the opinions and “thought leadership” of journalists who, if they know the people and the situation at all, rarely know them intimately. We are always missing the crucial details in favor of focusing on hoodies and Skittles and hairstyles, as though any of those things told us something essential about the people that wore them. And though the visuals can impart useful information, they also always miss something essential about a case. By which I mean the humanity at its center.
What Ward has, over and above the pundits, is a deep and careful sense of context, of the way lingering over a person’s outfit or a short memory of the way they used to talk, can better sketch out the whole person than a short segment on the 11 o’clock news. It’s sort of incredible that we need to be reminded of this in a media-addled world. But in fact the power of information is not all about the amount that’s thrown at you. It’s also about presentation that emphasizes understanding over volume.
That sort of carefulness, the carefulness of a good novelist, is what makes Men We Reaped a more complicated and thus vital bit of work than any op-ed writer could possibly provide. Consider, for example, the way Ward describes learning that her brother sold crack, when he confesses it to her one day on the street. In other hands it would have indicated pathology, dysfunction, evil, full stop. In Ward’s, it’s something much more conflicted:
I looked at the fine down over his top lip and his dark brown eyes and thought for the first time: He knows something I don’t. Perhaps he’s looked into his own mirror and seen my father when I only say my fathers absence. My father taught my brother what it meant to be a Black man in the South too well: unsteady work, one dead-end job after another, institutions that systematically undervalue him as a worker, a citizen, a human being…. For me there were hopes: a house of brick and wood, a dream job doing something demanding and worthwhile, a new, gleaming car that never ran out of gas. Joshua would hustle. He would do what he had to do to survive while I dreamed a future. My bother was already adept with facts. His world, his life: here and now.
The conflicted feelings there are the stuff of real life, and they are also the stuff that real-life solutions will have to be built on. One of the biggest problems with social reform is the way these projects tend to be built on the half-truths of pundits, rarely consulting the people they are intended to help. Ward alludes to this when she writes that,
The land that the community park is built on, I recently learned, is designated to be used as burial sites so the graveyard can expand as we die; one day our graves will swallow up our playground. Where we live becomes where we sleep. Could anything we do make that accretion of graves a little slower?
Like most good writers, Ward’s already implicitly answered that question: the thing we can do is get more books of this kind on the shelves, and in people’s hands, and get them discussed.