Optimist is not a word you at first associate with the gifted Jesmyn Ward, since at first reading, her work is full of sadness. Her 2011 novel, Salvage the Bones, won a National Book Award for its devastating depiction of a post-Katrina Mississippi featuring a young pregnant narrator. Her latest book, Men We Reaped, is her first nonfiction book, a memoir of murder and mayhem in black men's lives that starts with geography, the logistics of place and time, then draws the reader closer to Ward's personal, searing anguish.
But Ward has a talent for elevating bleak phrases to poetry. In fact, the book’s title is a quote from Harriet Tubman’s plainspoken lyricism: “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.”
Tubman was talking about slavery, but Ward is writing about a contemporary culture of death. Men We Reaped is elegiac and briefly journalistic, combining her personal story with statistics and language that evokes systemic forces, limited mobility, class and other factors that bear down on her family almost like hurricanes. The book documents the death of Ward’s brother and four other men she knew. "There's power in looking at something and looking at it squarely and reckoning with that," she says.
Just as with her fiction, the beauty of Men We Reaped is how penetratingly honest she is with herself and readers about what she can and cannot reconcile as a sister and niece to murdered men, and as a writer. That the book is being published in the shadow of a summer during which the value of black men's lives was brought to the fore of American racial consciousness adds to its weight.
George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer arrested and tried for the 2012 fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, was found not guilty, igniting national protests and prompting a statement on the racial challenges young black men face from President Barack Obama. The verdict was handed down not long before the release of Fruitvale Station, a film about 22-year-old Oscar Grant III, who was shot in the back by former Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle in 2009. Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and served a year of his two-year sentence before he was released.
For Ward, both verdicts awakened in her frustration and sadness.
"The Trayvon Martin verdict broke my heart again," she says. "I was actually living in the Bay Area when Oscar Grant was killed, and that verdict was equally as frustrating and infuriating. Of course, the verdict made me think about the man who killed my brother. It made me angry all over again about the fact that he's out in the world living and breathing now, none the worse for what he did. It's horrible to think that he's not even convicted of the crime of killing my brother, that he was only charged with leaving the scene of an accident."
What becomes immediately apparent is that the men Ward writes about are stymied in myriad ways. "Over and over, the justice system and the facts of life tell black people that their bodies and lives are worth less," Ward says. "It makes me even more committed to writing about the community that I write about in the hope that if I make some white person in New Zealand, say, empathize with the people that I write about, then I've done something. My characters may change the perception that someone like that might have about black people and make us more human to them."
Because of the personal nature of the topic, as well as the pain and grief associated with it, Ward sat on the book idea for years before she decided to attempt writing it. "It was healing in the sense that I wrote something that I feel does justice both to the young men I knew and to my experience," Ward says. "But I don't know emotionally how much healing I did while I was writing. I can say that it was difficult to do."
Her overarching hope was that the book would serve as a cautionary tale in communities like hers in Mississippi as well as a kind of instruction manual for outsiders. "I hope that for readers who come from the types of places that I come from and who really are in the same sort of community, it will let them know that they're not alone and that there are many of us who live in cultures like this and survive,” she explains. “I think it's important to remember to have some sort of hope."
Black people who create art “whether by writing or painting or creating music or film is revolutionary,” Ward asserts. “It's a powerful statement. It says: We exist. We are here. We are human. It's a way of counteracting that message that society sends us all over and over again that posits that we are less."
Joshunda Sanders is a writer based in Austin.