Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward
I was all of sixteen pages into this book when I started weeping. I knew then that this would not be one of those easy reads, those books that I can just slip into and zip straight through to the end. It took me the better part of two weeks to finish this because I knew every time I picked it up, my heart was going to be freshly broken. And yet, I kept coming back. Men We Reaped gutted me. I, too, am a Black woman from the South as who was desperate to leave home and did only to continue to be called back by the death of those that I loved and my love for the place that continued to kill them. Love and death.
How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back home by a love so thick it choked me.pg. 195
Jesmyn Ward’s memoir calls back to her childhood in the Mississippi gulf in and around a town called DeLisle. She traces her family’s history in, away from, and back to this town. To be Black and southern is to have a keen ancestral knowledge of struggle, pain and loss, no matter how unasked for it may be. Young Ward feels these things in a pronounced way even as she lacked the langauge for them as a child. In between chapters about her coming of age, she tells the stories of the men reaped: four friends and her younger brother. Roger Eric Daniels III. Demond Cook. Charles Joseph Martin. Ronald Wayne Lizana. Joshua Adam Dedeaux.
I think it’s important that we know their names. They were here. Their ghosts still populate the bedrooms they used to occupy, the chairs at dinner tables, couches in living room, the streets they used to walk down and the remnants of the cars they drove. They are still here in the hearts of the people who knew and loved them. They are still here on these pages.
Ward painstakingly recalls the details of the time leading up to their death. She keeps a brave record of her own drug and alcohol use as she and her friends and family coped with these loses. I can’t help but imagine how badly it hurt to write this book. These are not simply eulogies or memorials. She writes these men as complex and full within the system and culture that was built around them. They are not just statistics or anonymous data.
There was so much in this book that felt like my home. I read my family’s stories in between its lines. Ward talks about the fear that gripped her as she watched her younger brother, Joshua, grow up. Fear that he was in danger. Fear that he was all alone. Fear, I think, that comes from a subconscious understanding that at any point, for any reason, her brother might not come home. I know that fear well too. I watch him be foolhardy and young and carefree, and worry about the stakes for his carelessness. This world often punishes young, Black men who want too much. Death is always close by.
Ward’s relationship with her mother takes up a significant portion of the text as well. She considers the legacy of Black women in the South, of eldest daughters turned caretakers as their own mothers worked long, difficult hours, of the women left behind by the men who were unwilling to commit or honor wedding vows. How Black girls in the South have to grow up so quickly. How little they have to look forward to when they can trace the line of their mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers all in much the same way. Ward’s determination to discover what else her life could be and hold by leaving was then a bold imagination of what she could not yet see, even as she continued to be called back to the South — to home — over and over.
I think you should reap Men We Reaped because these stories and these men deserve to hold space in your heart and mind as well. You will read the stories of the young, Black men you have lost here too. You will see your families legacies on the pages. You might see how to fashion some beauty from those ashes as well.
Have you read Men We Reaped? Let’s chat in the comments below! I hope that you and your loved ones are staying home as much as is possible and are safe, healthy, and well.