Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, 21st Century American literature and US decline

The young of DeLisle are hunted: this is the frightening message of Jesmyn Ward’s new memoir, Men We Reaped. Ward’s book is essential reading for anybody who wants to get to grips with the new America that is emerging in the twenty-first century, one whose predatory, survival of the fittest environment seems to have lost its redemptive gloss in the age of the so-called war on terror and the mass incarceration of its citizens. Ward’s memoir tells the story of the victims of the hollowed out security state, abandoned to the logic of the market, systemic racism and a nation whose inexorable decline is signalled by the fact that it has lost its vision of the future.

In the first few pages we are told that DeLisle, a small town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, was named ‘Wolf Town’ by early settlers. ‘When people ask about my hometown, I tell them it was called after a wolf before it was partially tamed and settled. I want to impart something of its wild roots, its early savagery’. Ward’s subsequent book is a journey into the heart of this savagery, a world of shrinking opportunities and soul-destroying poverty. It tells the story of five young black men nurtured and stalked by the wolf – DeLisle is an ambivalent place, loving as well as crushing – who died between 2000 and 2004. These are Ward’s friends, her cousin, and, at the book’s heart, her brother. The memoir is her attempt to make sense of the enormity of her loss, to pay tribute to the hunted and begin the search for the ‘thing’ – or, as the book suggests, the ‘nothing’ – that is out there, waiting.

The structure of the book peels back various layers of contemporary history to reveal something of why these young men, as Ward put it to me in an interview, had ‘slipped through the cracks’, why they ‘had really pessimistic, fatalistic ideas about what their lives would consist of, and about their futures.’ And, ultimately, why their fatalism was horrifyingly prophetic: why they were allowed to die.

American literary endeavours that have wanted to highlight a nation that has lost its way is no new thing: this literary landscape is full of prophetic voices – ‘jeremiads’ as they have come to be known in American studies – that have wanted to illustrate the gap between the American dream and the American reality. African American voices have played a very particular role in this project, so often positioned as whistleblowers in relation to the national myth. Witnesses not to a unique experiment in freedom, as the United States was imagined by its founders, but rather to the consequences of slavery, imperialism, state-sponsored terrorism, enduring racialized poverty.

And yet this narrative in the twentieth century has not been bereft of a redemptive horizon. The idea of ‘America’, the dream of a meritocratic society where the conditions of your birth need not determine your destiny, sustains the prophetic economy of the jeremiad, even in the work of a writer like Toni Morrison who has been so instrumental in reminding contemporary America of the horrors of slavery and its afterlife. Jesmyn Ward’s book signals a new departure in this context, whereby hopes for redemption give way to a theme for a less idealistic, more pragmatic age: survival. ‘We are savage’, the closing lines of the book read.

This is the age of government roll-back and privatization, a neoliberal age that invests in short-term gains for the very few at the expense of a future for all. As Angela Davis told a crowd at Tulane University in New Orleans in November, this is the age of the prison-industrial complex that warehouses human beings: ‘today, there are more black men in prison, and under the direct control of a criminal justice agency, than there were enslaved in this country in 1850.’ The hunted eyes of the young men Ward follows are the products of this miserable system: they have no vision of the future. ‘This isn’t some exceptional thing that is only happening to us’, Ward explains, ‘this is happening to communities around the United States.’

These disturbing visions of what some have named the ‘living dead’ are arguably a new apparition in twenty-first century US narrative: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012), to take just two examples, are similarly populated by these broken human beings that suggest that the nation’s ghosts have finally caught up with it. These materialized ghosts point to the end of the so-called ‘American Century’ – that moment of post-war optimism which briefly envisaged rising living standards for all – and the terminus of the dream of endless progress. They tell of the decline of a nation that, in contrast to Old Europe, has long defined itself by the future.

Ward’s book represents a new trend in US writing which suggests that the triumphal American moment is now over. African American voices and bodies still carry the burden of this realism, but Ward’s text strongly resists the long-held idea, one still floating in the age of Obama, that they might also be the nation’s redemption. This potentially complex idea was frequently expressed by Martin Luther King, and too easily adopted by white liberals as a salve to their consciences.

Men We Reaped offers no such consolation. It tells the story of a very particular place and community, of crushing racism and poverty. But those lucky enough to remain untouched by such pressures should not kid ourselves: we should all feel hunted by the thing that stalks the young of DeLisle.


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