The title of Jesmyn Ward’s wistful memoir about growing up in Mississippi and the men who shaped and defined that live derives from come from one of the quotes attributed to Harriet Tubman. Tubman was talking about the pain of losing the men so reaped, and Men We Reaped is about women reaping the painful loss of men still battling the scars of left behind by the abomination that is slavery. Long after the actual chains of bondage were broken by the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil War and a long-delayed constitutional amendment suturing the open wound of slavery, the scars still lingered. Men We Reaped offers a devastating portrait of the ways in which provincial thinking and attitudes can infect a provincial landscape in ways not always attributed to the infestation of racial hatred.
Ward takes the reader into the history of the tiny hamlet of DeLisle, Mississippi ties the strong emotional bond she can still feel toward it directly to the sense of family such communities instilled as means of mere survival for many poor black people from Reconstruction onward. Generations of families might have grown up and lived out entire lives without ever traveling more than ten miles away from communities like DeLisle and the result was the development of bond tying geography to family.
The somewhat sickening surprise at feeling homesick for a place where racist attitudes were worn out in the open by the whites who capable of making blacks feel inferior and afraid on a daily basis becomes the controlling metaphor of the memoir. The scars of slavery leave a permanent imprint upon the life and identity of every member of that community and is manifested in ways both violently obvious and depressingly subtle. West writes of losing her own brother in a senseless act of drunk driving in which the tragedy is compounded by the inappropriate justice meted out to the person responsible: a mere two years. The cumulative effect of slavery leading to pervasive racist attitudes contribute to losing other young men to the anesthetizing appeal of narcotics or, conversely, the economic lure of trafficking in drugs.
The women of DeLisle are economically coerced into menial positions such as cleaning the homes of the wealthy white families on the other side of the tracks. When offers that can’t be refused to drop out of the sky like the rare comet, slavery’s stranglehold legacy remains in wait. One of those rich white people becomes the author’s own benefactor, paying for her to become the only black student at an exclusive private school. Debts must always be paid, however, and the price for this opportunity is five years of persistent harassment on the basis of nothing other than the color of her skin.
Men We Reaped cemented Ward’s reputation as a writer of tremendous insight and sensitivity and was on the short list of nominees in the autobiography category for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award.