I have been thinking this week about the importance of stories, how important it is to tell our stories but most of all how important it is to hear them, to listen; to listen and not judge. I have been thinking about this for a number of reasons, not least of which has been the Grenfell Tower disaster which should, though it won’t, cast into doubt all those stories that have been spun over the past few years in Britain about the lazy debauchery of the poor, those people who suck down the State’s resources while sitting on their bums and watching TV, or so those stories would have us believe. And perhaps that story, powerful as it has been, has taken a well-deserved hit this week because I feel that it’s about time we wondered why so many people remain in poverty whilst we build multi-million pound yachts for a handful of people to toy around with. I wonder whether the stories are all off-kilter when we’re led to believe that it’s right to spend billions of pounds on a missile defence system to ‘keep people safe’ when public authorities could not see their way to spend a meagre £5,000 on non-combustible cladding for a building that housed 500+ people, or £200,000 for a sprinkler system which would, if not have prevented the fire, created a sufficiently safe clearway for people to escape.
I have been thinking about the difficulty of reading slowly, because my appetite and desire naturally funnels my reading in a particular direction – which is inevitably white and intellectual or, to be less complimentary, middle class – and there’s nothing really wrong with that, but I already know that story and I, too, know one story of what it is to be working class, to not have the mantle of economic security wrapped around you, or the benefit of parents with good educations (though education, too, is a perpetuator of poverty as long as it continues to value only one kind over all the many others) to smooth your way through the system. And I could write that story, but it’s inevitably going to turn into something white and middle class like all those stories before, and I wonder why it is that we never hear the words of some segments of society except through the lens of another, and I begin to wonder what all of this reading is for if it does not deliver as wide a range of stories as possible so that if nothing else we can see the politicised stories for what they are.
Men We Reaped is a book which has attracted me with its fascinating title every time I’ve seen it on the Manchester Central Library shelves, and after reading Notes from No Man’s Land last week I figured it was the right time to take it from the shelf. I’m extremely glad I did. Men We Reaped is a memoir, a memorial, a song, a lament; it is Jesmyn Ward’s attempt to make sense of the lives and deaths of five young, Black men who she knew and loved from her childhood in Mississippi. One of the young men, the first to die, was her brother Joshua – Josh – at the age of nineteen. Ward interleaves the stories of these five young men – Rog, Demond, C.J., Ronald and Josh – with stories of growing up Black in Mississippi, the life she led, the disappointments and the griefs, the pleasures, the happenings in her community, the pressures upon people whose lives are considered by so many to be worthless and for whom this narrative continues to roll on a loop. She presents life in the South of the USA for what it is – a struggle in which being young and poor and Black and without hope is a daily aspect of life, as she describes when writing about the death of C.J.:
“But even after dropping out, he never got a legitimate job, perhaps dissuaded by the experiences of the young men in the neighbourhood, most of whom worked until they were fired or quit because minimum wage came too slowly and disappeared too quickly. They sold dope between jobs until they could find more work as a convenience store clerk or a janitor or a landscaper. This was like walking into a storm surge: a cycle of futility. Maybe he looked at those who still lived and those who’d died, and didn’t see much difference between the two; pinioned beneath poverty and history and racism, we were all dying inside. Maybe in his low moments, when he was coming down off the coke, he saw no American dream, no fairy-tale ending, no hope.”
I suspect there are many who will associate with the difficulties of being young and poor, but for so many of us the mantle of Whiteness wraps us in a privilege so comforting we don’t even see it. Slowly, and without rancour or judgement, Ward brings that mantle to light. Yet what she describes isn’t all poverty and racism, lives spent grifting and hustling to earn a buck, whether honest or dishonest. The power in Ward’s story is how she brings the lives of those boys and the lives of the families surrounding those boys to vivid and extraordinary life. She shows their kindnesses, their uncertainties, their vulnerabilities, their joys and their conflicts. What she presents is a picture not vastly different from my own childhood, except that I am White and live in the North-West of England and had the good fortune of a nuclear family though my Dad worked away a lot of the time, but like Ward I spent my childhood out in the open country, I spent my days with a nose in a book either escaping or studying as a means of escaping, and my family was a big, messy, wonderful and horrible thing that I both adored and ran from, not wanting to be trapped by the sense of inferiority that came from being Working Class. Yet I was spared the particular attention that comes from being Black in America, the pressure and divisiveness it brings to your life, as Ward explains:
“What I did not understand then was that the same pressures were weighing on us all. My entire community suffered from a lack of trust: we didn’t trust society to provide the basics of a good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system. And even as we distrusted the society around us, the culture that cornered us and told us we were perpetually less, we distrusted each other. We did not trust our fathers to raise us, to provide for us. Because we trusted nothing, we endeavoured to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless. Some of us turned sour from the pressure, let it erode our sense of self until we hated what we saw, without and within. And to blunt it all, some of us turned to drugs.”
Men We Reaped is an extraordinary story, it is the kind of story that seeps gradually into your bones and for a while it is possible not to notice what Ward is really saying, which is that racism remains a fundamental assault on human dignity which we should not tolerate and that if her brother, C.J. Demond, Ronald and Rog hadn’t lived under the spectre of it perhaps they, too, would be alive today, living fulfilling lives. She elucidates, through her own experiences, how telling people that they’re worthless, treating them like they’re worthless, the constant pressure of both direct and indirect slurs on some feature of an existence which simply cannot be changed eventually leads them to believe they must be worthless and, perhaps, as a result they take a path in life which is self-destructive, which is a way of negating the voice in your head that’s telling you that you must be worthless, because otherwise why would life be this way? None of the boys were murdered, they lost their lives through accident, drugs and suicide. Yet there is a corner of Ward’s mind which has to ask whether those deaths were preventable, and by the end of the book this reader was wondering the same thing too.
Whilst Men We Reaped is a sad, emotive and difficult read at times, it is also extremely beautiful. There is a great deal of warmth in Ward’s writing, and there are moments of pure lyrical beauty in the way she speaks of her home, her family, her friends, the things they did. Like here, when she talks about the last time she rode out with Josh:
“He drove away from the beach and back up through Pass Christian, through the bayou, past St. Stephen’s, and up into the country, away from all the houses, all the lights, so we rode alone under the black bowl of the sky, the stars’ fire so cold, so far away. Here, a dark horse and a white horse fed on grass at the side of the road, and when we passed them, they were dim and ghostly, hardly there. Vines grew over the limbs of trees and over the power lines, hung down into the street lamps, so the leaves of the vines gleamed like Christmas lights. The wind pushed our chests with a firm hand into the seats of the car. We rode like we could drive far and long enough to outrun our story, what Ghostface said: To all the families that went through the struggle. But in the end, we could not.”
Of course there is melancholy too, and an anger which burns deep and unspoken but can’t help but filter through, but at its essence this is a wonderful story of one woman whose life was touched by five young, messy and imperfect lives; living in messy, imperfect times and making a beautiful song of it anyway.