I am so tired of waiting,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?
8.6 million people re-tweeted that line from a poem by Langston Hughes last night after the grand jury in St.Louis did not charge the police officer in Ferguson who shot and killed an unarmed black man last summer. The world seems so unfair. Is there no justice? Will black men continue to be gunned down in the streets of our country?
These are all questions that Jesmyn Ward asked in her most recent book, Men We Reaped:A Memoir. She said, “Demond’s family history wasn’t so different from my own, did that mean we were living the same story over and over again, down through the generations? That the young and Black had always been dying, until all that was left were children and the few old, as in war?”
I just finished reading Men We Reaped yesterday; the same day the grand jury in St. Louis announced their non-conviction. As I watched the riots in Ferguson and the peaceful protests across the country on television last night, I felt only despair. Like the words by Langston Hughes, I am so tired of waiting. Demond (in the quote above) could be Michael Brown or any one of countless numbers of unarmed black men killed by authorities.
As a White woman from Mississippi, I felt guilt and shame as I read this painful memoir by Ward, just like the shame I felt hearing the grand jury decision last night. The Men We Reaped was a difficult book to read, not because of dense or confusing writing, but because of the sad, sad story this young woman was compelled to tell. Jesmyn Ward is the National Book Award winning author of Salvage the Bones, one of my favorite books. That novel tells the fictional story of a south Mississippi family living in abject poverty during Hurricane Katrina. Men We Reaped is not fiction as Ward pays tribute to five young men, including her brother, who died within four years in her south Mississippi hometown of Delisle. These beloved young men’s deaths were all separate incidents and had different causes, yet the history of poverty and racism in her hometown compelled Ward to look at why they died and see a connection. “Death spreads, eating away at the root of our community like a fungus.”
In her last chapter, Ward shares some of the statistics about “what it means to be Black and poor in the South.” Thirty five percent of Black Mississippians live below poverty level, compared with 11 percent of Whites. And one of every 12 Black Mississippi men in his 20s is an inmate in the Mississippi prison system. And poverty, lack of education, and poor social support contribute to as many deaths as heart attack, stroke, and lung cancer in the United States. All these statistics don’t tell the story as well as Ward’s very honest tribute to each of these young black men in her community that died between 2000 and 2004. I read the last chapter in tears as Ward said, “By the number, by all the official records, here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing.”
Ward describes the despair she felt for years after the death of her brother by a drunk driver was followed by the deaths of four other good friends in her home town. The drunk driver who killed Ward’s beloved younger brother received no DUI, no manslaughter charge, only a conviction for leaving the scene of an accident. He never paid restitution and only served three years in jail. Is this fair? How long must we wait?
I can only imagine how emotionally demanding it must have been for Ward to write this book. I heard her speak in Houston a couple of years ago and she talked about this book being one she had to write. She said this book was the most difficult thing she had ever written. She is brave and honest in depicting her life and the lives of her family and the people in her community.
Ward writes: “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.”
Everyone should read Men We Reaped. Unless we try to understand the world these young black men inhabit and acknowledge their darkness, we will all keep waiting for Langston Hughes’ beautiful and kind world. I am praying for Ferguson this morning and for the mothers who lose their children too young and for courageous writers like Jesmyn Ward who shine the light in the darkness.
Also published in my book blog, http://wordsplusideas.blogspot.com