Michael Brown, a young black man, was shot in the street in August by a police officer. This week, that police officer, Darren Wilson, was not indicted by a grand jury for his death. Since then, people have protested because they are angry. Because they are sad. Because they are tired. Murder, as many perceive the death of Brown, is horrible. Murder is heart-wrenching and terrible. And black men are murdered all the time.
Murder is the greatest killer of black men under the age of 24. Yet for many white people, the systematic racism behind Brown's death is simply a news event on their televisions. It isn't life, because so much of the rhetoric around this story (and every news story) isn't about life; it's about death.
Jesmyn Ward's Men We Reaped is a story about both. Released in 2013, Men We Reaped is Ward's third book. (Her second, Salvage the Bones, won the National Book Award in 2011.) Though a memoir of Ward's own life, Reaped focuses on the men she has lost. The title is drawn from a Harriet Tubman quote: "We heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped."
On its surface, this is the story of five young men — including her brother — that Ward grew up with, loved, and watched die in a four-year span. But it's so much more than that. Men We Reaped tells the stories of these five young men, as Ward says, "pinioned beneath poverty and history and racism"
The book is not uplifting by any measure. It includes suicide, drug overdoses, a shooting, and a crumbling marriage. It is, above all, the tale of lives that are cut far too short, far too soon. "That's a brutal list," Ward writes, "in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it's a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time."
In her memoir, though, Ward is not silent. She is powerful, strong, and heartbroken. She tells the story of her life — her birth three months early, her private schooling paid for by her mother's employer, her self-loathing and Stanford education — while carefully interweaving comments about what it is to be a young, black woman, who is also poor. She writes, "To an impressionable nine-year-old, trouble for the black men of my family meant police. It was easier and harder to be male; men were given more freedom but threatened with less freedom."
These men had more freedom than the women, but that freedom was a threat because as Ward writes, "By numbers, by all the official records, here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and of economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing."
In that quote, you might see reflected what people chant in Ferguson, in Oakland, in New York City. Black lives matter, these voices cry, because for so long, they have been told that's not true.
As 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.
Ward's beautiful writing adds to the book's devastating poignancy. Her grief shifts from feeling unlucky to the haunting shadow of realization that she's not unlucky — instead, she has been born into a culture of tragedy that is told by society that it is unlucky.
"He wanted more for himself but didn't know how to get it," Ward writes about one of the young men in her life that died. These are words that could ring true for anyone but especially ring true for those mourning the loss of Michael Brown. We humans have a powerful tool for understanding the lives of others: art and, specifically, literature. They help us learn to empathize — and maybe even understand.
And Men We Reaped can do just that. It leaves readers feeling what Ward surely does: we can do better for these young black men, and we should.
Update: a previous version of this article called Men We Reaped, Ward's second novel. It is her third.