In a previous post back in November, I mentioned my fondness for history, international relations, comparative religion and memoirs. Reading this kind of material has prompted me to look for explanations into why things happen. Therefore, as part of my quest, in 2016 I see myself reading stuff that could be philosophical, metaphysical, theological and scientific. After reading Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped it’s become apparent if I wanna gain a deeper understanding of why things are the way the are, I better read more memoirs.
If anyone should be asking probing questions then it’s Jesmyn Ward. Over a period of just five years, five young men she’d grown up with in rural Mississippi all died. Just like Ward, all five were African-American, with one of them her brother. All five lived impoverished lives, or at the very best were barely scrapping by. All five died long before their time, victims of homicide, accident, drug overdose and suicide. Their deaths left a gaping hole in Ward’s soul, prompting her to ask why such things could happen. Her quest served as the inspiration for her well-received 2013 memoir The Men We Reaped. Even though the book generated a ton of praise (Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness included it in her 2014 year-end list of favorite nonfiction) for whatever reason, Ward’s memoir never made it to my reading list. So, because of praise it received, I could not resist grabbing a copy from my public library when the opportunity presented itself. After finishing it a few days ago, I’m happy to report Men We Reaped is worthy of that praise.
According to Ward, ultimately those men died because the odds were stacked against them. Their underfunded public school system in rural Mississippi cared little about them, probably preferring they drop out rather than complete their studies. A lack of living wage jobs would leave them few if any options for meaningful employment, causing some to turn to illegal drugs both as a means of personal escape as well as source of revenue. Long before these young man could achieve a sense of maturity, their lives were stripped of meaning and their chances of survival shrank as the years went by.
If you’re looking to read a great follow-up book to The Men We Reaped, I have three suggestions that immediately come to mind. I’d start with Isabel Wilkerson’s multiple award-winning 2010 book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. From there, Alex Koltowtiz’s modern nonfiction classic There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America is as powerful today as when it was published back in 1991. Lastly, Wes Moore’s 2010 memoir The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates also makes a great follow-up read.