Men We Reaped

MenWeReaped.jpg“From 2000 to 2004, five Black young men I grew up with died, all violently, in seemingly unrelated deaths. The first was my brother, Joshua, in October 2000. The second was Ronald in December 2002. The third was C.J. in January 2004. The fourth was Demond in February 2004. The last was Roger in June 2004. That’s a brutal list, in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time. To say this is difficult is understatement; telling this story is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. 

My hope is that learning something about our lives and the lives of the people in my community will mean that….I’ll understand a bit better why this epidemic happened, about how the history of racism and economic inequality and lapsed public and personal responsibility festered and turned sour and spread here. Hopefully, I’ll understand why my brother died while I live, and why I’ve been saddled with this rotten fucking story.”   Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward

Our country is going through something.

Last night, Eminem caused the latest sensation when he debuted “The Storm” on the BET Awards.

All of this makes novelist and memoirist Jesmyn Ward more timely than ever, and she has indeed been in the news a lot lately. This week it was announced that she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. Her most recent novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing is on the short list for the 2017 National Book Award for fiction. The winner will be announced November 15. (Her first novel, Salvage the Bones, won the National Book Award in 2011.)

I just finished reading her beautiful and heartbreaking memoir, Men We Reaped, about the deaths of five young black men in her community. One of them was her 19-year-old brother, Joshua, another was her cousin.

This was an emotionally difficult read, and Ward has spoken of how it was nearly impossible for her to write. Like Salvage the Bones, her memoir opened my eyes to a part of America and a culture that I’m a stranger to. Ward has a powerful connection to her people and her home in rural Mississippi where she still lives, and she’s eloquent when it comes to expressing hard-won insights about both.

She chose an unusual and I think clever structure for her memoir: Moving forward in time from childhood to adulthood, she tells of growing up poor in DeLisle, Mississippi and paints vivid portraits of her nuclear and extended families and community. Ward weaves into this narrative another narrative that moves backward in time, recounting the lives and deaths of five young Black men, beginning with the most recent death and ending with her brother’s death. This chronology builds to an intense climax, and the two narrative strands illuminate and complement each other.

I found Ward’s depictions of her father and mother to be especially psychologically astute, filled with ambiguities and complexities. She blends her disappointment in their failings with love, compassion, and understanding. It’s apparent that she’s done the hard emotional work of coming to terms with her reality, so as the reader I trust her perspective – it has the ring of truth and authenticity. This kind of understanding must be gained before the writing even begins. Insight deepens with the writing, and each successive draft.

I appreciate that Ward is able to show how a person, and a people, can be brainwashed (see the excerpt below) by their history and culture into believing they are worthless. This sabotages lives; sometimes it’s just not possible for people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Men We Reaped breaks down barriers by allowing us to see the world through another’s eyes.

Sing, Unburied, SingIf you enjoy memoir, Men We Reaped is a good one. If you want to sample the National Book Award short list for fiction, Ward’s novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, would be a great choice. I hope to get to it soon.

 

“We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. 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. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”

********

“I thought being unwanted and abandoned and persecuted was the legacy of the poor southern Black woman. But as an adult, I see my mother’s legacy anew. I see how all the burdens she bore, the burdens of her history and identity and of our country’s history and identity, enabled her to manifest her greatest gifts. My mother had the courage to look at four hungry children and find a way to fill them….And my mother’s example teaches me other things: This is how a transplanted people survived a holocaust and slavery. This is how Black people in the South organized to vote under the shadow of terrorism and the noose. This is how human beings sleep and wake and fight and survive.”

Have you read any of Jesmyn Ward’s books? Comments?

Salvage the Bones

SalvagetheBones“I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”    Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

Last week, as Hurricane Harvey had its way with Houston, I wrote about an excellent work of investigative journalism that came out of Hurricane Katrina: Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital,

This week, as Hurricane Irma gathered strength, I finally got around to reading Jesmyn Ward’s fine novel about Hurricane Katrina, Salvage the Bones.

Jesmyn grew up with her family in rural Mississippi trailer parks. Her father had been a gang member; he eventually abandoned the family, but not before the pit bull he was raising attacked Jesmyn, sending her to the hospital.

In 2005, Jesmyn’s family survived Hurricane Katrina. They had to evacuate her grandmother’s house, wade through chest deep water, and wait out the storm in their cars as flood waters swirled around them. Jesmyn was moved to write a novel about the hurricane, in part, because people seemed to forget about Katrina’s devastation long before the land and the people were healed. As a writer, she also must have been compelled to translate this life-threatening and life-changing episode into art.

Salvage the Bones is about an African American family and their rural community of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, where most of the residents are poor, much like the place where Jesmyn grew up. It’s written from the viewpoint of 15-year-old Esch, who has just discovered she is pregnant. She has three brothers and a hard-drinking father; one of her brothers is raising pit bulls for fighting. China, the pit bull mama, is just as much a character as the people in this novel, as well as a symbol of strength, power, and vengeance.

In the opening pages, I felt a stranger to this family, whose experiences and culture are so foreign to mine even though we live in the same country. By the end, I’d fallen in love with Esch and her family. I even had a grudging respect for China the pit bull, which says something about the power of Ward’s writing – I’ve always disliked and feared pit bulls. I couldn’t help but be awed by Jesmyn West’s fiction. Her writing is outstanding – fierce, evocative, and gritty.  Jesmyn has said that she strives for a “narrative ruthlessness.” Salvage won the National Book Award in 2011.

I plan to read Jesmyn’s memoir next. Men We Reaped is about the deaths of Jesmyn’s brother and four other young black men she knew due to car accidents, drugs, and suicide. And she’s just published another novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing.

You can listen to an interview with Jesmyn Ward on NPR at this link.

Have you read any books by Jesmyn Ward? What about the literature of natural disasters – any books to recommend?

The Underground Railroad

the-underground-railroad“She never got Royal to tell her about the men and women who made the underground railroad. The ones who excavated a million tons of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her. Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them. The station masters and conductors and sympathizers. Who are you after you finish something this magnificent – in constructing it you have also journeyed through it, to the other side. On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light. The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your sweat and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart. – Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Continuing my post-election reading and holiday gift suggestions, I just finished The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which won this year’s National Book Award and many say is destined to become an American classic.

The Underground Railroad was an Oprah Book Club selection. In fact, Oprah Winfrey was so excited about the novel that she persuaded the publisher to release it over a month early so she could feature it as her next book club choice.

As Oprah says, there is “no better book for our times,” given the Black Lives Matter movement and our divisive political landscape.

Cora is a young, orphaned slave whose entire life has been spent on a Georgia plantation. She decides to run and is hunted by Ridgeway, a slave catcher, as she makes her way north.

At first blush, The Underground Railroad reads like historical fiction, but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Cora is caught in a dystopia with many dimensions, depending on which state she happens to be in. The underground railroad is a literal tunnel built beneath the ground with secret way stations. Each state that Cora passes through embodies a unique, nightmarish vision of slavery in America.

Colson Whitehead has said that he had the idea for this novel some sixteen years ago, but didn’t feel he had the chops as a writer to pull it off until his mid forties.

I think The Underground Railroad is a masterpiece but, scanning the reviews on Goodreads, I noticed that, while most readers gave it five stars, others were lukewarm or disappointed. A common complaint was that Cora is one-dimensional; readers had a hard time feeling an emotional connection with Cora and some of the other characters.

For me, this wasn’t a problem, maybe because I view the characters as mythic, and so my expectations were different. In her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani says the novel is “almost hallucinatory,” and that is what I felt, too. Rather than at an emotional distance, I was trapped along with the desperate characters in The Underground Railroad and the people trying to help them. I have a much greater appreciation for the intergenerational strength and resilience of blacks in America and the enormous risks taken by abolitionists and later by activists in the civil rights movement.

Nonetheless, I can see how this novel may not appeal to some readers. I would say it’s well worth picking up: at the very least, you’ll be reading the novel everyone is talking about.

“Cora ran her hand along the wall of the tunnel, the ridges and pockets. Her fingers danced over valleys, rivers, the peaks of mountains, the contours of a new nation hidden beneath the old. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.”

I’m not fond of the network morning shows, but here is a quick introduction to Colson Whitehead and his novel:

Have you read The Underground Railroad? What did you think?

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me

 

“We should seek not a world where the black race and white race live in harmony but a world in which black and white have no real political meaning.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me, winner of the National Book Award, is written as a letter by Ta-Nehisi Coates to his 15-year-old son.

“You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.”

I read this book together with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle, a coming of age memoir about growing up black in West Baltimore, and the two are excellent read back to back. If you want to see what Ta-Nehisi Coates is all about, I recommend reading the memoir first, so you’ll have background about Coates’ childhood and family, and then follow up with Between the World and Me so you have some context.

Fair warning, though, I found neither book an easy read emotionally, and you may not either if you are a white American. (Or, as Coates would say, if you think you are white. Coates believes race is a falsehood.)

“Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable reality of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.”

There is plenty of uncomfortable truth in these two books, and Coates does not mince words. Between the World and Me, especially, is meant to awaken America from its false Dream.

I grew up in a somewhat racially diverse town outside of Cleveland and attended public school alongside African Americans, but there was de facto segregation, with blacks in their own neighborhood not far from where I lived. In retrospect, and especially after having read Coates, I see how absolutely separate and different our lives actually were.

When I began reading The Beautiful Struggle, I found myself baffled by the words and phrases Coates used and many of his cultural references. I was reading a different language, the language of urban black America. The language is perhaps deliberately exaggerated in the first pages, and not decoded, maybe to act as a kind of culture shock or wake-up call to the reader.

A senior writer at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in one of the toughest, most marginalized and deprived communities in America. His father was a Black Panther who later became a librarian; his employment at the Howard University library enabled his children to attend school there tuition free.

I’m not going to summarize too much about the books, because I can’t do justice to Coates’ eloquent, powerful prose as he describes how the African American body has been violated through slavery, segregation, incarceration, and death at the hands of our criminal justice system. His words are sometimes hard to take, and both books are unfailingly hard to put down. I was especially struck by these aspects:

  • How very terrifying it is to be pulled over or questioned by a police officer if you are black in America. I think the only thing more powerful than Coates’ words are the videos we’ve seen of incidents gone wrong these past few years. I respect the bravery of police officers doing incredibly challenging work, but I’ve also been following the news in Cleveland, where I grew up, and how the police department there has been investigated by the US Department of Justice. My son attends the U. of Cincinnati, where this past year an unarmed black man was killed by a campus security officer for no apparent reason. (The officer has been charged with murder.) When the video went viral, I was chilled by what I saw, frightened for my son and anyone who might be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • Coates recounts the first time he visited Paris, France. Growing up in West Baltimore, he could never have imagined such a gracious and beautiful place or that he would ever go there. It was moving to read Coates’ description of how easy it was for him to walk the streets of Paris, how differently he was treated, and how for the first time he wasn’t afraid.
  • Coates concludes that the fate of all of us is in the hands of those with power who think they are white – he believes many, though not all, African Americans are still too disenfranchised to change the system. But he fears that we as a country will reap what we’ve sown; that our hunger for power has also meant the abuse and destruction of the earth. He fears that in the end the earth will prevail, likely at great cost to humanity.

Here is one more quote from Between the World and Me, an example of his powerful use of language that some may see as divisive or offensive:

“The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies—the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects—are the product of democratic will. And so to challenge the police is to challenge the American people who send them into the ghettos armed with the same self-generated fears that compelled the people who think they are white to flee the cities and into the Dream. The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.”

(And from “Whitey” Tim Kreider, read this. I happened to discover this link on my Facebook page the day I wrote this post.)

Have you read Between the World and Me or The Beautiful Struggle? What do you think of the final quote above? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

 

 

The Beautiful Struggle

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