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Men We Reaped

Jesmyn Ward's powerful, wrenching memoir tells the story of her upbringing, and chronicles the deaths of five young black men that she loved, including her brother Joshua.

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Men We Reaped,
by Jesmyn Ward,
Bloomsbury USA,
272 pp.

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In 2000, Jesmyn Ward's 19-year-old brother, Joshua, was driving home from work when a drunk driver plowed into his car, killing him.

Ward was so grief-stricken that she fantasized about killing herself – tattooing her brother's name on one wrist and his handwriting on the other as protection, because she knew she would never cut through them.

“My first stories were attempts to honor my brother,” she said in her speech accepting the National Book Award in 2011 for her second novel, “Salvage the Bones.”

Over the next four years, Ward lost four more young men dear to her – three in 2004 alone.

“From 2000 to 2004, five Black young men I grew up with died, all violently, seemingly unrelated deaths,” she writes in her powerful, wrenching memoir, Men We Reaped. Her cousin C.J. was killed when a train hit his car. Her friend Demond was murdered in his front yard after agreeing to testify in a drug-related case; her friend Ronald committed suicide; and her friend Roger died of a heart attack, likely brought on by drug use.

“Death spreads, eating away at the root of our community like a fungus,” she writes.

To Ward, the deaths are all inextricably linked to growing up poor and Black in DeLisle, Miss., a place nicknamed Wolf Town by its early settlers. The novel takes its title from a quote by Harriet Tubman: “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.”

Ward alternates elegies for each of her loved ones, working backward in time from the date of their deaths, with a memoir of growing up as the oldest child of a charming, faithless father and an overworked, dour mother.

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