In my world, which is populated by people obsessed with race, statistics about black men and boys are ubiquitous. Study after study lays out how few graduate from high school, how many wind up in prison, how few are employed, how many are killed by the police. I can find a number for nearly any aspect of a black man’s life. That number will be far higher or far lower than that of other groups, and never in a good way. Occasionally, the statistics are pulled out after a dramatic death, as with the executions of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia and Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn. For a few weeks, the public conversation focuses on black men, but in ways as fraught with racist stereotyping of the subjects as it is with condemnation of the actions that ended their lives.
What we miss in either case—statistics or specific incident—is the sense of relentless frequency with which people in black communities experience the loss of their young men. In less than four years, Jesmyn Ward’s poor, African American coastal Mississippi community lost five of theirs. Her subsequent struggle to understand why she’s “been saddled with this rotten fucking story” led her to write the memoir Men We Reaped, the follow-up to her 2011 National Book Award–winning novel, Salvage the Bones. The title of her new book, her first memoir, comes from a Harriet Tubman quotation about gathering up dead black soldiers following a Civil War battle. The book is short, told in everyday language, but it is not a particularly quick read, given the absorption and time required to process such a deep emotional plunge into questions of race, gender, geography, and poverty.
Ward follows a long legacy of black writers who have told stories of the trials of black life in America. To the extent that we think any of the troubles plaguing black men can be resolved, the numbers and types of people who care enough to do something have to expand dramatically. This book makes an invaluable contribution to that effort, even as it speculates on causes far more than it prescribes solutions. In the life stories of her brother and four of her friends, we see striving, talent, humor, warmth. These elements contrast sharply with the despair, self-medication, anger, and resignation that also characterize their lives.
Ward’s central question is: “Are we doing this to ourselves, or is someone else responsible?”
Ward tells the stories backward, starting with the last and ending with the first, and intersperses her own family history between chapters on each man. In each case, Ward details individual actions and hints at systemic problems that made early death more likely. Roger, for example, died when a mix of cocaine and Lortab caused his heart to seize. Demond, the rare schoolmate who had two employed parents, was shot in his yard by an unknown assailant. C. J. drove into a train at a railroad crossing without warning signals. Ronald committed suicide with a gun. The lack of decent, stable jobs forms a consistent theme, as do the patterns of neglect among those in positions of power.
The death stories and Ward’s family history come together at the end, where she focuses on the passing of her brother, Joshua Dedeaux. The reader knows, of course, that he will die. The suspense comes from wondering how it will happen, as well as if he will “cause” his own death and if the manner of his dying will reflect well or poorly on his character.
After Roger dies, a cousin says, “They picking us off, one by one.” Ward wonders who constitutes “they”: “Rog had died by his own hand, by his own heart; were they us? Or was there a larger story that I was missing as all these deaths accumulated, as those I loved died?” Ward’s central question is: “Are we doing this to ourselves, or is someone else responsible?”
The context for these individual allocations of guilt or innocence is, of course, to be found in institutions and their rules. The mechanisms of the system, though they so profoundly shape our lives, are invisible to most people. The educational, health care, housing, employment, and criminal justice systems all neglected Ward’s community, but they are opaque, hinting at a complexity that does not lend itself to emotional narrative. Ward keeps this book focused on that narrative by touching lightly on systems, mostly with a sparing use of statistics and mostly at the end. She notes that African Americans receive care for mental health issues at less than half the rate of their white peers. There is a passing reference to Reagan’s policies, which “undercut whatever shaky economic footing the poor had, and depressed the listless Southern economy.” She refers to what is now known in political circles as the school-to-prison pipeline in writing about C. J., who did poorly in school and was treated with benign neglect by his teachers and administrators:
Years later, that benign neglect would turn malignant and would involve illegal strip searches of middle schoolers accused of drug dealing, typing these same students as troublemakers, laying a thick paper trail of imagined or real discipline offenses, and once the paper trail grew thick enough, kicking out the students who endangered the blue-ribbon rating with lackluster grades and test scores.
White privilege and black disadvantage loom over these lives like specters. In each story, we look for a white culprit, an unequivocal assertion of privilege. But we only find it once, in Joshua’s death at the hands of a white drunk driver with a long history of violations. He crashed into Joshua’s car but was subsequently charged only with leaving the scene of a crime and not with vehicular manslaughter.
Ward does a terrific job of looking at the women who are left behind by dead or otherwise absent men. She sensitively explores her parents’ relationship, for example, which ended with her father abandoning his wife for a teenage lover after a long history of cheating. She writes of her parents: “He saw a world of possibility outside the confines of the family and he could not resist the romance of that … my mother understood that she had to forget the meaning of possibility … understood that her vistas were the walls of her home, her children’s bony backs, their open mouths.”
These realities create crippling divisions among the men and women of Ward’s community. The women carry a heavy burden, engaged with men who are absent in so many ways. The men, meanwhile, continually chase a freedom to which they feel entitled, “a sense of power that being a Black man in the South denied them.” Ward writes, “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 … we distrusted each other. We did not trust our fathers to raise us, to provide for us. Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless.”
Ward’s mother cleaned houses and Ward herself got lucky when one employer offered to pay her tuition to the same private school his own kids attended. Suffering as the only black girl from sixth grade to senior year, Ward experiences “blatant, overt, individualized racism,” such as when white boys stand by her locker and joke about lynching.
Joshua faced a different kind of racism, one that relied on unconscious bias, enshrined in the rules that govern what teachers and administrators do with poor black boys with mediocre grades and a meandering learning style. “Both my brother and I were coming up against something larger than us,” Ward writes, “And both of us were failing.”
Racial bias takes many forms that appear to be race neutral, and cannot be resolved with changes in individual thinking or
In today’s United States, the blatant racism Ward experienced in school with white privileged teens is often—though not always—recognized, outlawed, and condemned. But the systemic kind that Joshua experienced in his segregated existence is much harder for people to understand if they don’t live it daily, and sometimes hard to grasp even if they do. The system contains both overt and covert forms of racial discrimination that abandon whole communities. Those systems are shaped by forms of collective decision-making, such as voting, through which Americans can choose a course of public action. Yet these choices are so often based on profound ignorance about, and often downright hostility toward, the communities that suffer the consequences of systemic racism. This is what I spend my days explaining to people who claim to abhor racism but don’t want to talk about rules and policies.
As the leader of the national organization Race Forward, I spend my days helping people figure out a path to racial justice. I often speak to groups of students, service providers, advocates, and public officials who have great intentions, who want to close racial gaps, but who are reluctant to focus explicitly on the racial impact of institutional policy and practice. I spend many days explaining that racial bias takes many forms that appear to be race neutral, and cannot be resolved with changes in individual thinking or behavior alone. That understanding can be profoundly unsettling, given the size of the systemic change required and the lack of power most people feel to implement such change.
Battling the hopelessness that can accompany this type of legal and political critique is not easy. Ward presents a diagnosis, not a prescription for change. But prescriptions have been in development all over the country for about a decade, during which prominent philanthropists and politicians, most of them white, along with dozens of non-profit organizations, have taken up the “problem” of black men. Whether or not these efforts recognize institutionalized racism makes an enormous difference. In New York City, for example, Mayor Bloomberg started the $127 million Young Men’s Initiative in 2011 to provide services to young black and Latino men. At the very same time, Bloomberg defended the devastating stop-and-frisk policy so strongly that he pledged to appeal a federal court ruling that had ordered the NYPD to stop.
Other efforts are more grounded, and some are even promising, especially the ones that seek to help individuals. Those I’ve worked with directly, including George Soros’s Open Society Foundation and The California Endowment, have funded multimillion-dollar efforts to improve the infrastructure of support services to address educational, health and other needs. In Dallas, Texas, for example, the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy is a magnet school in the public school system that teaches innovative curricula (e.g., languages such as Spanish, Mandarin, and Latin) to generate stereotype-busting educational outcomes for black boys. Recently, President Obama announced a new White House initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, which builds on these kinds of local initiatives.
Some of these efforts have real potential and have started to pay off in structural change. Organizing networks nationwide have taken up policy campaigns to change school discipline policies, drug sentencing laws, and health care access for men of color. The Department of Justice recently released new guidelines to prevent racial bias in school discipline. But the scope of the systemic change project is beyond huge, because most policies that harm black men do not target them explicitly, making it possible for most Americans to ignore their racist impact. Stand Your Ground laws that enable vigilantes, often white men, to shoot black men simply because they “feel threatened” are a perfect example.
Men We Reaped is so intensely inward-facing—focused on the poor, black, coastal Mississippi community in which Ward grew up and still lives—that reading it felt voyeuristic. “This was not meant for me,” I thought. Yet the task of creating the conditions under which black men can free themselves en masse is impossible without steadfast allies. To generate a base committed to unearthing the causes of racial inequity and pursuing systemic solutions, we have to step away from the mind-numbing statistics and into real stories. Men We Reaped is an honorable, moving contribution to that end.