In the final chapters of Jesmyn Ward’s new memoir, “Men We Reaped,” she writes of one of the last times she saw her brother, Joshua, who died in 2000. They drive along the outskirts of DeLisle, Miss., where they grew up together, listening to Ghostface Killah’s “All That I Got Is You.”
“This reminds me of us,” Joshua tells her, singing along to the lyrics that celebrate the rapper’s impoverished childhood, the importance of family, his mother’s love. In the song, Ghostface warns his listeners never to forget the past:
“Because see, that’s the child I was
What made me the man I am today
See cause if you forget where you come from
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You’re never gonna make it where you’re goin’,
Because you lost the reality of yourself
So take one stroll through your mind …
And you’ll see a whole universe all over again.”
Thirteen years later, Ward decides to take that stroll.
Now 36, Ward, who won a National Book Award in 2011 for her novel, “Salvage the Bones,” returns to the Gulf Coast with a memoir so honest and raw it sometimes takes your breath away.
Steeped in the imagery of battle, “Men We Reaped” centers around five young men — her brother, cousin and three friends — who died within a four-year period, victims of a perfect storm Ward calls, variously, “a plague,” “this epidemic” and “a great darkness bearing down on our lives that no one acknowledges.”
One kills himself, another is shot. One dies when his car collides with a train, another of a heart attack. Ward’s brother is hit and killed by a drunk driver who never pays a penny of the fine his sentence stipulates, who serves three out of only five years.
To make sense of these tragedies, Ward looks for answers in the history of her town, her community, and her family. Beginning with “the distant past” when her great-grandparents first settled in DeLisle, she alternates between a chronological account of her life and portraits of the five men, starting with the most recent death, in 2004, and working backward to her brother’s.
The autobiographical sections reveal a family tradition of frustrated hopes that repeats like a curse. As Ward sifts through the effects of her father’s infidelity and reckless financial habits, the resentment and sorrow he sowed before finally leaving his wife to raise the children on her own, we begin to see the collateral damage that will follow.
The profiles bring her brother and friends to life again, recalling boys whose easy, big-brotherly humor and “laugh first, cry later” philosophy offered respite from Ward’s stressful home life. She introduces them with gentle affection, first as children, then as teens at the height of their charm and athleticism, and finally as men coping with racism and limited options. We see the environmental and cultural pressures that force them to drop out of school, the prized factory and casino jobs that never last long enough in a depressed economy. We watch them fall in love, learn what drugs they pretend not to do, which songs they love, and how, like Tupac, they talk a lot about change.
Her own portrait brings to mind the troubled young teen from “Salvage the Bones.” Ward portrays herself as an angry, rancorous child who struggled with low self-esteem, much of it the reflection of her father’s disinterest. As she gets older, self-hatred gradually erodes her confidence, and alcoholism begins to shore up what little remained. Though her mother’s steady work as a maid enables Ward to attend private school and to pursue college, she burns with guilt and shame and grief that her brother did not have those opportunities.
Joshua, sent to live with her father at age 14, was offered “lesser models and lesser choices.” He and the other young men in their town learned all too well what “it meant to be a Black man in the South … unsteady work, one dead-end job after another, institutions that systematically undervalue him as a worker, a citizen, a human being.” Selling drugs was de rigueur in the hood and for some, using was inevitable. A promising future was not part of the picture.
Like many survivors, Ward’s mission is to remember the dead, to remind readers that her “ghosts were once people.” Hers is not a forgiving book. There are no comforting answers here for why some perished and some remain, no facile attempt to make sense of the lost. It must be enough, she says, to insist their lives mattered, to break the silence.
In the acknowledgements, Ward thanks her mother “for making a way out of no way every day.” No less of an accomplishment is this elegy to the fallen and her fierce, brave account of a young woman who finally leaves the battlefield and makes her way back home.