Facing an ‘Epidemic’ of Death, Jesmyn Ward Writes Memoir of Loss, Larger Forces

September 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the space of four years, writer Jesmyn Ward endured the loss of five friends and family members -- all black men from rural Mississippi. In her new memoir, "Men We Reaped," she sets out to understand why. Ward talks to Jeffrey Brown about some of the institutional forces, coupled with personal choices, behind their deaths.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a tale of lives on the margin.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Five young men dead within the space of four years. They died of different causes, accidents, drugs, and suicide. They had in common being black, male, from rural Mississippi and friends or relatives of Jesmyn Ward, author of a new memoir titled “Men We Reaped.” Ward’s previous book, the novel “Salvage the Bones,” won the 2011 National Book Award.

And welcome to you.

JESMYN WARD, “Men We Reaped”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN:  You write early here of being afraid of ghosts as a child and then later realizing that — quote — “My ghosts were once people.”

You were driven to write this by the collective loss of friends and relatives.


You know, the first was my brother, and then another was my cousin. And then the other three were friends of mine that were all part of the small community that I’m from in rural Mississippi.

JEFFREY BROWN:  And what was it — what were you after in trying to look at all of them together, what had happened?

JESMYN WARD: Well, you know, I mean, while it was happening, I mean, I was just — I was bewildered and didn’t know how to deal with grief upon grief upon grief.

And so, you know, years later, sort of after it happened, I decided to revisit — revisit their deaths, right, and try to figure out why an epidemic like that would have occurred in the kind of place that I’m from.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Well, speaking of place, because the place is almost a character here, right, DeLisle, Mississippi, on the Gulf Coast, tell us about that.

JESMYN WARD: It is a small town. Population, I don’t know the exact count, but it’s probably somewhere in like the low — maybe 1,000, maybe a little bit above that.

It’s a small town where mostly everyone is related. My family on both sides, my mother and father’s side, have lived in that town for generations. And, you know, the part of the community where I live at is mostly black, mostly working-class. You know, and it’s — mainly, it’s very quiet.

So, you know, it’s not the kind of place that people, I think, associate with epidemics of young black men dying in all these unexpected and often violent ways. And so I wanted to examine that, because it was so out of the ordinary — or it seemed out of the ordinary.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Well, you use that word epidemic. I just want to read a passage that you — you say you wanted to 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.

There is a lot in that sentence, right?


JEFFREY BROWN:  There’s class issues. There’s race issues. And there’s what you refer to as personal responsibility.


JEFFREY BROWN:  They’re all tied up here?

JESMYN WARD: I think so.

I mean, after — you know, I spent — you know, I spent many years thinking about the book, and then around three actual years sort of working on the book, writing it, and then revising it, and sending it out to readers. And at the end of that process, I really felt like — like all of those things came together in that moment and made those deaths possible, you know, and made — really made the kind of culture where that could happen, and then know one would talk about it, made that possible, because they did — all — my friends, my brother, they all died.

And then it seemed like no one — you know, it wasn’t — it wasn’t problematic for anyone. And that really bothered me.

JEFFREY BROWN:  But they died in different ways, as we said. Right?



JEFFREY BROWN:  So a car accident, a drug overdose, suicide, and yet somehow you’re seeing it all tied together, both through institutional causes and, as you say, personal choices in some sense.

JESMYN WARD: Mm-hmm, yes, because I think that these larger issues, like the history of racism or like the history of like economic inequality in the South, I think that those — or just in general, the culture of the South that tells young black people all the time that they’re worth less, just that they’re worth less, right?

And so I think that all of those things, you know, bear down in the present and really sort of limit the vision and also the choices that these young men feel that they have in their lives, and I think lead to situations like this where — you know, where either they make bad choices or they don’t make the best choices, and then sometimes through a combination of bad luck and those choices, it leads to, you know, deaths.

JEFFREY BROWN:  And you yourself though, interestingly enough, I mean, you escaped. You went to a private school paid for by the people your mother worked for.


JEFFREY BROWN:  You got — went to Stanford, University of Michigan, became a writer, but you have gone back.


JEFFREY BROWN:  So you have — you escaped, but didn’t.

JESMYN WARD: Yes. I chose to return.

I mean, it was important for me to go out into the larger world and see what was there. But then I feel a real sense of commitment to the place that I’m from and to the people of my community, because that’s who I write about in my fiction and in my nonfiction.

And, so, it was important for me to return there because that is my center, and then not just because that’s the place that I write about, but also because that’s my family. I have a very large extended family. Like I said, most people in the town are related to each other. So, there is a real sense of community and belonging there that I missed and that I wanted to have again.

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right, we’re going to continue this conversation online. I will invite our viewers to watch later on.

But, for now, Jesmyn Ward, “Men We Reaped,” thanks so much.

JESMYN WARD: Thank you.