Sunday, November 30, 2014

Words that Bind

Over Thanksgiving break, I finished the book Men We Reaped, a memoir by Jesmym Ward.  Over a span of several years, from 2000 to 2004, five men Ward knew, including her brother, died.  The chapters of the book follow the deaths of all five men, in reverse chronological order, and retrace the steps of Ward's life growing up in southern Mississippi.  The two timelines converge on the death of Ward's brother in 2000.  Her brother Joshua's death was the first of the five.  The memoir is about five individuals, and the grief that follows in the wake of each death, and the book is about systemic racism and poverty that is endemic to African Americans in southern Mississippi and that harnesses the men in Ward's life on a path toward death.

Men We Reaped was the second book by Ward that I have read in the past three years.  I finished Salvage the Bones in September of 2012.  I finished the book on a plane between Columbus, Ohio and Chicago.  While I read Salvage the Bones, I struggled to make a connection.  But on the plane, as I read the final scenes, which climax as Hurricane Katrina blasts the Mississippi coast, I lost my breath and started to cry.

It takes me about two months to read a book.  That means, I've probably read 13 other books since September of 2012.  No other book has stayed with me like Salvage the Bones.

Men We Reaped had a similar impact.  From page one, I enjoyed the book, but not the same way other readers     did.  On Twitter, I read about a woman who didn't put the book down after starting on page one, reading the entire book in 12 hours.  I put the book down every night. For me, the book followed the typical two month pattern. Eventually, the book bowled me over, and left an impression I can't shake.  The impression is particularly deep because of what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri, and the failure of the Grand Jury to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, the unarmed African American teenager.

For me, the book transformed on page 187, when Ward, an underclassmen at a high school where she is one of barely a handful of black students, stands up to a group of male upperclassmen.  Out of earshot, the boys had made a joke about lynching black people.  Ward, though she didn't hear what they said, knows they are laughing at her.
       "What did you say," she asks them.
       One of the boys laughed, saying, "you know what we do to your kind."
       "No I don't," Ward said.
       The group laughed at her.
       At this point, Ward knows about what they are joking.  But she says to them, "You ain't going to do shit to me."
       The demeanor within the group of boys changed.  They stopped laughing.  They changed their posses, folding their arms, positioning themselves defensively.  Ward, hiding fear, said, "you ain't going to do nothing."
      Moments later the group of boys moved on down the hall.

As a person with dwarfism, my experience is different from that of a poor African American girl going to school with mostly white people who are wealthy and racist.  But as a person who has faced bigotry, I can relate to the experience of facing a hostile crowd and staring it down, picking one person in the crowd and focusing on that person, daring that person to translate their verbal assault into physical action.

Ward spoke at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago on
November 1. 
I know my experience as a dwarf is different from that of an African American because I've never been hurt because of my physical difference the way so many people have been hurt and killed because of the color of their skin.  Perhaps, I feel confident that I never will be hurt, and that is why I can sometimes challenge those who verbally assault me.  I am sure many other people can't do that.  They probably would be physically hurt.  Ward knew she was risking her safety.

Though our experiences may be different, after page 187 in Men Who Reaped, I felt connected to Ward in a small way.  Because of that, Ward has become my favorite writer.  Though I am devastated for her because of all that she has lost, I am grateful for what she has been able to share.