It was the death of her 19-year-old brother at the hands of a drunken driver that inspired Jesmyn West to become a writer. Unfortunately, that spur was not the only tragic loss of a young black man from her Mississippi hometown that affected her life. In this insightful, beautifully written memoir, she pays poignant tribute to five "men we reaped." The first nonfiction work by the 2011 National Book Award winner.
Men We Reaped: A Memoirby Jesmyn Ward
"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/i>/b>
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In this stirring and clear-eyed memoir, the 2011 National Book Award winner contends with the deaths of five young men dear to her, and the still great risk of being a black man in the rural South.
"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.?? -Harriet Tubman
In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men in her life-to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Jesmyn ask the question: Why? And as she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth-and it took her breath away. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships. Jesmyn says the answer was so obvious she felt stupid for not seeing it. But it nagged at her until she knew she had to write about her community, to write their stories and her own.
Jesmyn grew up in poverty in rural Mississippi. She writes powerfully about the pressures this brings, on the men who can do no right and the women who stand in for family in a society where the men are often absent. She bravely tells her story, revisiting the agonizing losses of her only brother and her friends. As the sole member of her family to leave home and pursue higher education, she writes about this parallel American universe with the objectivity distance provides and the intimacy of utter familiarity. A brutal world rendered beautifully, Jesmyn Ward's memoir will sit comfortably alongside Edwidge Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying, Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life, and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
National Book Award-winning novelist Ward (Salvage the Bones) recently mourned the death of five young men in four years. Accidents, drugs, or suicide claimed her brother, a cousin, and three friends. Her moving memoir details her relationships with the dead men and associates their deaths with the dismal existence experienced by many Southern black men. She explores how a history of racism, economic inequality, and lapsed personal responsibility continues to fester within portions of this population. As Ward details her loss and her family's life in Louisiana and Mississippi, she tries to understand why her brother died and digs deep within her heart and mind to discover why this is her story to tell. Through Ward's narrative, readers come to know her own struggles as the only black female in a private high school and as a budding writer finding her place in the world. VERDICT Ward's candid account is full of sadness and hope that takes readers out of their comfort zone and proves that education and hard work are the way up for the young and downtrodden. [See Prepub Alert, 3/11/13.]—Joyce Sparrow, Kenneth City, FL
"[Ward] chronicles our American story in language that is raw, beautiful and dangerous… [Her] singular voice and her full embrace of her anger and sorrow set this work apart from those that have trodden similar ground." —The New York Times Book Review
"Heart-wrenching… A brilliant book about beauty and death… at once a coming-of-age story and a kind of mourning song… filled [with] intimate and familial moments, each described with the passion and precision of the polished novelist Ward has become… Ward is one of those rare writers who’s traveled across America’s deepening class rift with her sense of truth intact." —Los Angeles Times
"A memoir that is as searing as her fiction, as poignant and as timely... in a country that is supposed to be post racial but still seems hell-bent on the epidemic destruction of young black men." —Edwidge Danticat, The Progressive
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Meet the Author
Jesmyn Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan and has been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and a Grisham Visiting Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama. She is the author of the novels Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones, for which she won the 2011 National Book Award, and was a finalist for the NYPL Young Lions Literary Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, as well as a nominee for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
Jesmyn Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won five Hopwood awards for essays, drama, and fiction. A Stegner Fellow at Stanford, from 2008-2010, she has been named the 2010-11 Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. Her debut novel, Where the Line Bleeds, was an Essence Magazine Book Club selection, a Black Caucus of the ALA Honor Award recipient, and a finalist for both the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award.
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Jesmyn Ward writes a powerful story. She tells of the losses (one after another) of relatives and friends. The 5 men she accounts for are all from poverty. Some are drug addicts. She does a fine job describing her loss and theorizing why is wasn't just bad luck that these losses occurred. I applaud Ms. Ward on a stunning memoir that will stick with me for a long time.
Ms. Ward has done an amazing job of eloquently presenting her world, the world in which young people full of potential lose hope and lose their lives because not much has changed in terms of the way that African American, and specifically poor African American men and women are treated in the South. Immersive, powerful, gripping, and highly recommended. Ms. Ward, I HEAR YOU. Amazing. Leave your cynicism behind and allow the power of this work to speak to you.
I read Jesmyn Ward's first book and enjoyed it so much I was eager to read this one. Was I ever disappointed. I did not even make it through the first chapter. Maybe at a later date I will decide to open it back up and try to finish it but as for right now, I do not think so.
She very vividly presents her community. But as someone who lives in MS and works in an alternative school where young black men are the majority of our students, I question her analysis that the deaths of the 3 black young men (I haven't finished the entire book yet) are primarily the result of the racist environment they inhabit. Children learn what they live and it's next to impossible to replace that learning with something else when they are older. In our program we find that if students get clean and sober, most of the other obstacles they face become manageable. In MS if you do some type of forced intervention with these very troubled young men, you're racist with no regard for their culture and if you don't try to intervene you're part of a racist system that just doesn't care about them.
Ward does a wonderful job telling the story of a place I have seen but don't understand. In her memoir she mentions an old friend telling her how glad she is that Ward is giving voice to this community. Like Ward's old friend, I appreciate that someone can tell the story of this complicated community so well.
This story started okay and tried to make me think. In the end was just the same complaining that gives blacks a poor name. I can identify with the author, but I do not feel this was a good book. It's sad and tragic, not entertaining or even interesting.