5/5 Blue Devils
There are few authors who have a command of language like Jesmyn Ward. About a month ago, in the haze of another quarantine day, I opened the door to the closet in my house where my family stores the books we have read. Old science textbooks and yearbooks are shelved alongside “BOB Books” from when my brother and I were first learning how to form sentences. As I started to browse through these old memories, I immediately gravitated toward the glossy spine of Ward’s “Men We Reaped: A Memoir.”
I was briefly transported to two years ago, when I was reading her 2017 novel “Sing, Unburied, Sing” for The Common Experience Summer Reading Program as an incoming first-year. A few weeks later, I attended Ward’s talk about the novel at DPAC. Although it was a while ago, I remember her modest introduction: “I just quickly sketched this up backstage earlier, so bear with me.” In reality, whatever she claimed that she put together on a whim was so masterfully written that it kept me focused on her every word until the very end. As she demonstrated that evening, Ward wields an impressive power to illustrate a scene beyond our eyes. Her reading made us nervous, excitable and tense first-years momentarily forget about the discomfort of our adjustment.
From the start of the narrative, it is clear that “Men We Reaped” shares the same tragic sort of magic as “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” In her memoir, Jesmyn Ward chronicles her childhood and young adult years, most of which were spent in DeLisle, Miss. and marked by the deaths of five young men in her life. Although she focuses much of her discussion on her small nuclear family: Nerissa, Charine, Joshua, herself and their single mother, this family extends far beyond five. The descriptions of each of the vibrant men — Roger Eric Daniels III, Demond Cook, Charles Joseph Martin, Ronald Wayne Lizana and Joshua Adam Dedeaux — develop into similar threads of overwhelming tragedy and nostalgia. Each of these deaths shaped Ward’s growth into a writer who is conscious of both her humanity in the world and presence on the page.
Although Joshua was her younger brother, for example, he often felt older: a young man to whom she looked for affirmation. They had an unmatchable sibling kind of love and connection that surpassed the grief they experienced together. His death in 2000 by a drunk driver inspired Ward to become a writer to keep the legacy of these stories alive.
In “Men We Reaped,” Ward clutches onto the devastation her community suffered together. The ever present “We Are” that marks the titles of chapters “We Are in Wolf Town,” “We Are Born” and “We Are Wounded,” among them, forces the reader to see how a death is never an individual experience. These moments, in Ward’s language, shock, break and ruin the spirit of both those close to the deceased and those more distantly removed.
Ward details how she often left and returned to Mississippi throughout her schooling. She attended college at Stanford, completed an M.A. after her B.A. and then pursued an M.F.A from the University of Michigan. Eventually, she began working in New York City. With these journeys and brief escapes to new environments along the way, Ward writes that she could not help but miss the quiet humid nights, the late-night-into-early-morning talks with friends in dark cars and the simplicity of the place she still calls home. Although she strives to build something new, she is deeply connected to her haunted Mississippi roots. Ward notes how her goals to grow at elite schools were often overridden by personal insecurities. She admits that while she navigated these new spaces, she remained conscious of the stark differences between her new life and what she left behind.
Ward describes some of her hardest moments with a beauty that will keep readers glued to the finality of the vicious cycle between catching up to life and outrunning death. She often remarks on the lives of the men she lost. She writes:
“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?” Ward explores the existential questions that arise from this prolonged calamity. “That the young and Black had always been dying, until all that was left were children and the few old, as in war?”
In heartbreaking and salient moments such as these, Jesymn Ward captures the wrongful trials she has faced. Ultimately, though the memoir is her own story, she longs for a community-wide recovery.
“Men We Reaped” is a complex family narrative with raw and powerful imagery that makes for a compelling read. Ward tells this story because it is important for people to listen and learn from tragedies that may not be their own.
In the memoir, a conversation between Demond Cook, Ward and her sister Charine reveals the essence of Ward’s writing:
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“So what you doing up there?”
“I’m trying to be a writer.”
“What you want to write?”
“Books about home. About the hood.”
“She writing about real shit,” Charine said.
With this achingly true story, Ward captures a firsthand analysis of all too common patterns of prejudiced systems alongside the everlasting, deep love of family that “encompasses an entire community”.
Bates Crawford is a Trinity junior. Her book column, “A Devil’s Bookshelf,” runs bimonthly and she rates books on a 0-5 Blue Devil scale. Bates recommends books to her fellow students when (or if) they have spare time in their busy Duke lives.