I had to let this one sit for a couple weeks before I could write about it. It scared me to think I might not do it justice, might not be able to communicate the way this book moved me.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward is a memoir focusing on five young men’s lives and their too-soon ending. Growing up in a poor, Black community in Mississippi, Ward experienced such profound sadness, such crushing obstacles, that I’m not sure how she found the strength to write about it. It hurt to read this book, I can’t imagine what it feels like to live it.
My undergraduate degree focused on inner-city education; how to teach kids that grow up with free government breakfasts and lunches, what it means to try and relate to kids with completely different backgrounds than your own, how to be multicultural. It was an eye-opening curriculum and introduced me to just a small part of what my classroom experiences would be. But like most things, reading about something in a book and actually doing it are vastly different things. What I learned my first year of teaching from kids that didn’t care about their education because they had to worry about staying alive and where they would sleep that night was, at times, too much for me to bear. I left the classroom each night beat up, overwhelmed, and raw.
This book had the same impact. I cried on more than one occasion, cried for these boys (because they were just boys…), their short lives, their missed chances, and their despair. I know this world is unfair, that life is unfair, but we stacked so many odds against them that they didn’t stand a chance.
Men We Reaped needs to be in our conversations as we train teachers, as we educate Black kids, as we raise boys in hopes of making them men. Men We Reaped stirred something in me that I can’t shake, keeps coming back to me as I go to sleep at night, keeps popping into my head as I play with my children.
Ward is a careful and powerful writer. What feels natural and real, also feels meticulous and fine-tuned. In addition to the stories she told, she taught me about writing. What I want my writing to be. How description can make you see the world differently.
I’m not sure I’ve found the hope in this book yet. It’s there, I know it is, but I’m still sorting through the stories, the lives, the impact. I know I’ll find it though, find the hope to make something, somewhere better. It’s what the book demands.
DISCLOSURE: AFFILIATE LINKS USED.