Jesmyn Ward’s Mississippi Memoir
Had Jesmyn Ward been raised elsewhere than DeLisle, Mississippi, she might still have written a memoir infused with dread. A writer’s temperament, contrary to popularized beliefs, is only partially shaped by environment, and much of what she deems crucial or he decides is stylistically purposeful lies hidden in genetic histories. But Ward was raised on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast in a family whose genetic profile is New World ---African, European, and indigenous. In twentieth-century Mississippi (and rest of the South), such a profile can only be Black or White, because Southerners pretend to be ignorant of nuances of mental color and world authorities on skin colour. Thus, in Men We Reap (2013), Ward writes a story capable of inducing pre-future catharsis. Her bite-the-bullet prose and brutally honest presentation of self precludes any consolation of tears. Neither complicit guilt nor deceptive hope results from reading Men We Reap. What one does gain is a cold, sub-zero perspective on what life offers a certain class of African Americans in the South and what it withholds from them. Ward writes well. Her gift is the agony of dread, the best anodyne for the contemporary human condition.
Ward’s memoir brings a crucial difference to the writing of Mississippi life history and the writing about the deaths of young Black males, because it seems her sensibility is more at home in the superhighway of rap than on the dusty roads of the blues. In Men We Reap one does not find the defiance of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, the womanist testimonials of Anne Moody’s classic Coming of Age in Mississippi and Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s From the Mississippi Delta, the sweetness and light of Clifton Taulbert’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, or the photograph-inspired quest for resolution in Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Ward does incorporate some recognizable blues strategies in her writing, but they are a far cry from the negotiations with reality to be heard in the voice of Koko Taylor or in the blues poems of Sterling D. Plumpp. Ward is brave enough to endow her writing with the amorality of Nature itself.
Ward prepares her readers well for a season in dread in the “Prologue.” She is very clear about her objective:
My hope is that learning something about our lives and the lives of the people in my community will mean that when I get to the heart, when my marches forward through the past and backward from the present meet in the middle with my brother’s death, 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” (8).
Readers learn what she has learned, and they are stronger for this education in writing.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
March 4, 2014