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Jesmyn Ward

(Photo by Tony Cook)

In 2000, novelist Jesmyn Ward’s only brother, Joshua, was driving home from his job as a parking valet at a Mississippi Gulf coast casino when he was struck by a drunken driver and died. Two years later, a boy whom Ward had once supervised at a summer camp killed himself. In 2004, her younger sister’s boyfriend burned to death in a car accident; another friend was shot to death, and a third suffered a fatal heart attack after snorting cocaine and downing Lortabs. All of them were poor young black men living in and around DeLisle, Mississippi, the tight-knit community where Ward grew up, calling everyone a cousin or a friend.

DeLisle, fictionalized as Bois Sauvage in her stunning National Book Award-winning second novel, Salvage the Bones, reappears in its wild, watery bayou reality in Men We Reaped, a gripping memoir of those five deaths. Ward tries to make sense of why so many boys died and how the consequences of racism tainted every tragedy, especially the one she felt most achingly, the loss of her beloved brother. Even an accident in rural Mississippi isn’t without racial overtones: the white drunken driver was never charged with vehicular manslaughter and was released after serving two years on a lesser charge. He never paid Ward’s mother a dime in court-awarded restitution either.

Injustice is only the most overt symptom of racism that African-Americans must live with in slavery’s old Southern domain, which Ward writes about with formidable insight. The great value of her provocative, troubling memoir is in exploring the psychological impact that racism makes on the individual, spreading a stain of self-doubt and self-hatred that, combined with lack of opportunities, abets black people in collectively destroying themselves. Drugs and violence, the disintegration of families and a range of other social problems are traced back to this common afflicted root.

In Men We Reaped, Ward grapples with the self-condemnation: “We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered.”

Recounting her family history between the stories of the boys’ deaths, Ward, despite her feelings of self-loathing, emerges as an exception in her beleaguered community. Uncommonly bright, she receives a private school education paid for by the family who employs her mother as a housekeeper. She attends Stanford and wins numerous prizes at the University of Michigan, where she studies creative writing. Every chance she gets, she returns to the heat and woods of coastal Mississippi that she evokes with so much love and regret in Men We Reaped.

ArtsATL recently spoke with Jesmyn Ward by telephone while she was in Seattle for an appearance. She will give a reading, open to the public, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, October 17, at the Woodruff Library at Emory University.

ArtsATL: In your prologue, you write that telling this story of your brother’s death and the deaths of the four other young men you knew is the hardest thing you’ve ever done. By telling it, you say, “Hopefully, I’ll understand why my brother died while I live, and why I’ve been saddled with this rotten fucking story.” During the writing process, you’ve said, your writer friends would read early drafts and ask questions, pushing you deeper into your feelings and into painful experiences to try to figure out what things meant. What was the most important discovery you made?

Jesmyn Ward: I just became aware of how much history lives in the present. I had to write the book in order to understand how much it bears down on our everyday lives. That was the most important thing I realized, but the book was full of revelations for me. I realized we get the message all the time that black people, in particular young black men — like Trayvon Martin — are worth less. I had to write the book in order to realize how prevalent that message is. Before I wrote the book, I don’t think I was clear about the messages I was getting when I was in middle school, when I was in high school, and even when I was younger. Messages from my family dynamic, from the outside world that “you’re worth less,” again. I had to write about myself as a child and as a young adult to see that clearly.

ArtsATL: The community you describe is broken in many ways. Taking and dealing drugs is common. Your friend Ronald commits suicide, and you say drugs “lit his darkness.” Out drinking with friends, you wonder if your grandparents’ generation consumed moonshine the way yours does beer, weed and pills, staring at each other glassy-eyed and “hoping for a sea change.” What if no sea change comes from the outside? What if the entrenched racism recedes only very slowly? What can black people do for themselves?

Ward: We already push against the pressures that we encounter in the larger world. We attempt to counteract that message that our children get all the time through love and through our familial and our community relationships. From when I was a young child, six years old, I remember my mother telling me — and these were the exact words she used — “You’re going to go to college, little girl. You’re going to go to college, little girl. You’re going to go to college, little girl.”

My mom had a high school education. Her mother had only a seventh-grade education. Some of her siblings didn’t even graduate from high school, and yet that’s the expectation that she set for me. And I don’t think my mom was the only single mom, the only poor black woman, who did that for her children. That effort exists in the black community.

It’s complicated. At the same time, we really do engage in this self-destructive behavior. What’s problematic for me is that in the conversation we’ve had so far about this, the impetus for change always rests with those in the black community. In this country there’s the myth that the playing field is level and it’s all about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. If you don’t, it’s your fault. You’ve done something wrong — all the fault’s with you. What really made me angry, and something I wanted to talk about through this book, is that this is not the case. The playing field is not level. We all don’t have the same opportunities to succeed. Some of us work very, very hard to try to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and it just doesn’t work.

My mom worked insanely hard, and yet she was still struggling to raise four kids. She was making less than 10 dollars an hour for many years of her life. And it doesn’t mean that she was lazy or directionless or had no purpose. Her choices were limited and constrained. I wanted people to realize when they read the book that there are systems in place that continuously undervalue black people and make it hard for them to take part in the American dream.

Men We Reaped Jesmyn WardArtsATL: The schools in your community are indifferent and neglectful toward black students, you say. Some of the boys you write about, including your brother, drop out of high school. What responsibility do parents and the home culture bear in this?

Ward: Part of the reason I was able to go to college and take advantage of opportunities I did was because I was in the kind of high school where everyone in the graduating class went to college — that’s what was expected. During my high school years, from ninth grade on, there was a system in place for this to happen. There was a counselor who made sure everyone in our class took all of the standardized tests each year so that by senior year, when students were applying for college, everything was taken care of. He would walk you through that process.

My mom could say, “Oh, you’re going to go to college,” but practically, how much help could she give me? If I had questions on what the application process was like, or where I should apply to school, or how I should go about applying for financial aid and what that paperwork should look like — if I needed anything from her, she couldn’t help me. It was my school that stepped in and filled the gaps.

There wasn’t any scholarship money for my brother to go to school, so he went to the public school. It was easier for a kid like him to just fall through the cracks. The kids who had the kind of attention that I had in my private school were like the top five percent of the class in public school. Maybe 10 students out of the graduating class were given that kind of encouragement. I saw that when my two sisters were in high school. My youngest sister is very smart. She’s very good at math. Yet she was coming to me for advice and coaching, because those resources weren’t available at her school. I was lucky I had those opportunities available to me, and I saw how much harder it was for my brother and sisters.

It wasn’t like my mom wasn’t upset when my brother made the decision to drop out of school. She was really angry about it, but she saw the way he was flailing — and I don’t know why, because my brother was a smart kid — he was sinking. He kept taking the same classes over and over again. He just wasn’t advancing. He might have had some sort of learning disability that he was never tested for. I think she saw that and thought, okay, education is not going to be the key for this child. But it wasn’t just okay for her for him to drop out. She pushed him to take GED classes and enroll in Job Corps. My mom was out working in the real world. She knew that if he wasn’t going to get a good education, because he wasn’t gifted as a student, then at least he needed a trade if he wanted to have any hope of being able to support a family.

ArtsATL: The breakup of your family devastated you as a child. Most of your friends and cousins also grew up in single-parent families, largely unsupervised because their mothers were out working. You say your own father lacked “moral discipline,” frequently cheated on your mother, and went on to have six more children with four different women. Do you see a way around the breakdown of the family so children can thrive?

Ward: I was trying to look beyond what I felt about the dissolution of my parents’ marriage and my father’s leaving and really look at him as a writer [does], at his actions and reactions. At the heart of it I saw that he was constantly denied. My dad was in love with possibility and the illusion of freedom. If you put it in really plain terms, he just wanted to be a small-business owner. He wanted his own kung fu school. He wanted to work for himself, doing something that he loved. Because his resources were so limited, because was a black man in the South, at the time when my family was breaking up, he couldn’t get the kind of lucrative factory jobs he’d been able to support an entire family on in the past. All the factories were closing, and they were leaving. What was left were service positions that didn’t require any kind of skill set, didn’t have good benefits — jobs he couldn’t support a family on.

Even if he’d come from an intact family, even if that were a model for him and something he wanted to be a part of, it was impossible for him to provide and to stay. It was hard for him — I know I’m apologizing for him, but it’s the only way I can understand the choices he made — I feel it was hard for him to sit with that failure. That he couldn’t even support his family. That he couldn’t support his family well enough that we didn’t have to move back into my grandmother’s house and stay with eight other people. That must have been really difficult for him. So then, of course, the easiest thing for him to do is to leave. Then he doesn’t have to live with that disappointment. Then there are other possibilities out there for him. Because he’s not trapped by his responsibilities, he can try to do all those things he always wanted to do.

The issue of personal choice is important in all this. But when I was writing about each of the people in my book, it was clear to me that it wasn’t just about personal choice. There are other factors that influence your personal choices and limit your choices…. I wanted to make that clear. I felt like my dad was denied a sense of human dignity. It was hard for him to claim that or to feel that he had any ability to determine his own fate or to access any kind of power. When I looked at what he did to our family, I felt it was natural for him to let all his frustrations at being thwarted build up and turn inward toward his family in a really destructive way.

ArtsATL: You’ve moved back to the town you grew up in, despite the racism and enduring social problems, and in Men We Reaped you tell a friend that you write “books about home. About the hood.” Do you see yourself as a chronicler of that place and those people?

Ward: In my next novel I want to return to Mississippi. I want to write about poorer black people, but also white Mississippians. Right now I’m very invested in writing about Mississippi, about the South, about the kinds of people that are there, although in the future I’d like to take a break.

Books really saved me when I was a kid. I loved books where the protagonists were girls and they were fighting against something greater than them. I read so many books like that when I was seven, eight, nine, ten. So I would like to write a kid’s book where the protagonist is a girl facing something larger than herself. I know what it did for me, to encounter all these girls in literature and see something of myself in them.

ArtsATL: Do you think of yourself as a bridge between the educated white world that might be your readership and the poor black community you come from?

Ward: I do. It’s one of the reasons I’m writing about the place that I come from. I feel like we haven’t been a part of the national conversation that is sometimes about us. We deserve to speak.

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