2011 National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward visited our Providence campus as this academic year's final Cultural Life Series speaker. Ward's latest work, “The Men We Reaped,” and the effort it took to put together such a personal piece of work, were the focus of her lecture.
Ward began her talk by reading the prologue of “The Men We Reaped,” a memoir she decided to write after losing 5 important men in her life, including her only brother, to violent deaths over the course of 5 years. “This list of names silenced me," Ward explained. "This silence was the sound of accumulated grief.”
And Ward remained silent for quite some time. Always an avid reader, she slowly began to realize that instead of merely using literature to escape, she could use this medium as a way to share the stories of her community, and hopefully bring to light some of the experiences she felt she had not been exposed to or aware of while attending a predominantly white, Episcopalian private school in Mississippi.
“I never learned about black history in school,” Ward said. “We didn't learn about civil rights efforts, or black historical figures. I didn't read Malcolm X's biography until my senior year of high school when my father gave me a copy. I didn't read Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'Letter From a Birmingham Jail' until I was 26 years old and working on my thesis. I had to piece together black history for myself.”
While she may not have felt like her formal education was telling her the whole story, Ward' s family openly shared stories of the racism they experienced growing up. From getting chased out of parks to hiding in trunks when going to visit family members, Ward didn't want to add to these family stories that had been passed down over decades, but eventually she came to a realization: “This is the modern south and I must reckon with it.”
The modern south that Ward grew up in is one she saw through the veil of depression. Her sister had her first child at 13. Her brother was killed in a hit and run accident by an intoxicated white male driver that wasn't charged with vehicular manslaughter, but with leaving the scene of a crime. Many women of her mother's generation struggle with addiction. Many of the men sell drugs.
Writing “The Men We Reaped“ demanded blood and tears, Ward told the audience. It made her sit with her grief and write through the pain, but she believes the end product is a work that will become a part of the bigger conversation about racism.
“Writers must inhabit the real world, and inject it into their writing,“ Ward said. “We are here and this is what life is like for us. I have to believe that speaking will bring change, otherwise I would remain silent.“