In four years, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men dear to her–lost to drugs, accidents, and suicide. Their deaths were unconnected, on the surface of things–but their lives were connected, by identity and place, and as Jesmyn dealt with their losses, one after another, she came to a realization at once obvious and staggering.

Cat Lil Bean and Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

This is a powerful, vulnerable book about the harsh reality of race in America, how black men and women are inherently disadvantaged and often forced to turn to drugs or alcoholism to continue living, for however short of a time. Ward unflinchingly examines her own life and the men she has lost over the years; most importantly, she examine what their loss means to her and her community in Mississippi as well as for young Black men and women in the U.S.

In real life, I looked at my father and mother and understood dimly that it was harder to be a girl, that boys had it easier.

Men We Reaped, p. 88

Ward examines the dangers of drug use, selling or consumption, and the dangers of existing in close proximity to those who use, buy, or sell. In many ways Ward’s story is familiar: an absent father who is trying to find himself, a mother who is trapped in the unending routine household labor out of necessity, cousins with bright futures who are failed by America, a brother stuck living within the unforgiving confines of toxic masculinity. But Ward’s story is also essential in that it speaks the truth of growing up poor in rural Mississippi. Ward describes the dangers, yes, but she also describes how hard it was to leave her community, and how she always strived to find a way back to home.

In a story punctuated by loss, Ward faithfully honors each man’s death: Roger Eric Daniels III, Demond Cook, Charles Joseph Martin, Ronald Wayne Lizana, and Joshua Adam Dedeaux. This book is painful to read. It is raw, it is heartbreaking, and it is important. The reader is asked again and again to bear witness to the accidents described herein, and to shoulder the same burden Ward carries–to keep the names of these five young men in your heart. To remember them, for as long as you can, and to remember them happy in addition to remembering them in their final moments.

At just over 250 pages, it took me several days to work my way through this short memoir, as the weight of the content forced me to pause and consider the impact of racism numerous times, yet the read was much worth it. Every page of this book dispels stereotypes and illuminates the truth. Essential reading for anyone looking to expand their mind.

PUBLICATION DEETS: Bloomsbury, September 17, 2013, 251 pages

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