A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward
Reading is life-changing, or it can be if you go to it with the idea that you might learn something new. Another caveat, go to reading with the idea that you are going to take the new and line it up with the old. This is where wisdom and discernment come in. You can learn useful things from people you may not agree with otherwise. Or people who live a different life than you have. I confess that many of those people who have influenced me the greatest in my life are those most different from me. I think I have said enough for the moment. Have at it!
If you are like me, and someone mentioned the city of Pass Christian, Mississippi, you might recognize it as Robin Robert’s (from Good Morning America) hometown, or as one of those small towns devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Now I know it also as Jesmyn Ward’s hometown, and all preconceptions I had about Pass Christian, also known as The Pass have been turned upside down.
I came across Ward’s book Men We Reaped: A Memoir , published in 2013, on a list of the fifty best memoirs of the last 50 years. As a teacher of memoir writing, and then finding it one of the few books on that list of best memoirs in my local library, it called to me. I must warn you this is not an easy read. It is full of language (not nice), drug and alcohol use. It also give the reader a real (gritty) look at life from the perspective of southern Black families, especially those in small towns in the Deep South.
Ward shows you her life, having been born to a mother now single (because her father left the family for another woman) who worked hard as a maid to rich white people, among other things, to give her four children a better life. But children don’t understand that while they are going through it. Not the motivation for such work.
Those children only feel the otherness, as Ward did, shouted by color but also by more than color, the consequences of color. For Black people born in too many small towns in the south, it was the hopelessness of change for themselves, the impossibility of finding any job outside of the service industry, of finding a job with a future, and the devastation as they watch people they love die out of time.
Added to the challenges of Ward’s life, something we might see as a privilege or blessing, she was channeled into a private school Episcopal, her way paid by the white family her mother worked for because they saw the potential in this small Black girl. There she was completely other, the only Black student in her class. And another class difference made it a place of persecution and loneliness.
Five young men died out of time in Ward’s young life. She takes you on the journey that built their closeness, that chronicles their desire for more and inability to safely get it, the part that drugs played, and their untimely deaths. And you suffer with her as she tries to make sense of it all.
It is easy for those of us at a distance from that culture, that southern small-town Black culture to condemn those who live in it, for staying there, for escaping into drugs and alcohol, for not taking advantage of education. After all, if you work hard enough, you can do better. Easy words to think and to say, but are they true?
How strong is the pull of blood, of family? How true is it that anyone can get an education if they try hard enough? And what does it mean to do it, to even try to escape, when no one around you thinks it can happen? Or when there is no one who believes you can do it? Who will show you the way or help you on it, when no one around you thinks escape is possible?
I am White. I am privileged by my whiteness, in ways I did not really understand. Right here, I want to acknowledge that there are many Black families who are highly educated and very successful in every way. I must also acknowledge that there are White families, mixed race families, families of other ethnicities who can relate to or fit in Ward’s story.
But that’s not the point I want to make. I just don’t think we should read this book and go from its pages unchanged. For a few minutes, I think it might help this whole world, if we entered the suffering of others before we judge them. At least that is what I am thinking this morning as I close the pages for one last time before I take the book…back to my library.
Note: I capitalized the words white and black because they were capitalized in Ward’s book.
Writers: I encourage you to read this book as a writing student. What can you learn about composing a story? What rules do you think can be broken in writing? Why do you think this book was written? What do you think the writer accomplished in this book? And I do encourage you to read the book, not just the review, before you discuss it.