Men We Reaped is Jesmyn Ward’s account of the economic realities of poverty-stricken rural Mississippi during her childhood. Ward reveals that young black men in DeLisle, bereft of equal economic and educational opportunities, lost their lives to substance abuse, violence, and suicide. Ward’s memoir paints a picture of an unequal and parallel American society. The central theme revolves around blackness and the historical struggles of black men and women in the American South. This paper analyzes the pattern of race relations existing in the U.S. as presented in Ward’s autobiography. It also discusses the ways of improving race relations in contemporary America.
Race Relations in the US
Ward’s experiences in her DeLisle hometown illustrate the poor historical race relations in America. DeLisle is riddled with the deaths of African-American men, including Ward’s blood brother, Joshua, a victim of a fatal accident caused by an intoxicated white driver (Ward 141). The autobiography centers on Joshua’s premature demise and the deaths of four other youthful black men aged below 31 years. In my view, the author cites the statistics to construct social realism about the economic and social realities in the South. Ritzer defines social realism as an on-going “process of individual construction of the structural realities” (p. 43).
The public is accustomed to the violent deaths of youthful black males in the hands of law enforcers. In my view, Ward’s use of statistics and incisive details of the impact of the deaths of family members serves to challenge this apathy.
Violence and racial discrimination characterize race relations in DeLisle. Ward writes, “Men’s bodies litter my family history”, referring to the premature deaths of Joshua and his friends with the courts providing no recourse. In particular, she directs her fury at the judicial system for handing down a mere two-year sentence to her brother’s killer. Here, in my view, Ward discredits the courts for handing soft sentences to white offenders. In this view, families of black victims cannot receive justice from the biased courts.
Ward highlights the challenges of living in a unitary American universe devoid of racial integration. She brings to the fore the concept of double consciousness among black Americans. Ritzer defines double consciousness as the “duality of being both black and American” (p. 67). This duality stems from the harsh economic and social realities facing the black population.
The causes of deaths of African-American men in the autobiography, including accidents, substance abuse, and violence, are common in poor neighborhoods. Ward narrates how a young man called C.J. developed the habit of trafficking drugs near an ancient oak tree (Ward 78). Ward reckons that she did not know how C.J. disliked “sitting on that tree” and desired a better life, but “did not know how to get it” (Ward 78). This statement shows that black men lacked opportunities to improve their life situation, and therefore, resorted to crime and drug abuse.
The collective conscience is evident among the black population in the South. It refers to the beliefs common to a social group (Ritzer 51). In the autobiography, many men, due to lack of income-generating opportunities, engaged in alcohol or drug abuse. Others became drug traffickers while some traveled to far places to seek for a better life. In contrast, the women, including Ward’s mother, were employed as domestic workers in white homes.
Ward characterizes the collective conscience of Black women as “working, dour, and full of worry” and that of black men as “resentful, angry, and wanting life to be everything” (89). The African-Americans also exhibited solidarity during the tragedy or death of a relative. Ward characterized them as “poor and working-class, but proud” (90). Therefore, in my view, victimization and discrimination from whites strengthened unity and identity among African-Americans.
Ward adopts a postmodernist approach in her memoir about the economic realities of the South. A postmodern text goes beyond common representations of a social phenomenon by examining its various aspects (Torres par. 11). Ward is not nostalgic about DeLisle; rather, she presents her childhood experiences in the rural South. She uses her parents, siblings, and the African-American community to illustrate how economic inequality and racial discrimination shaped life in the South. In my view, this approach serves to illuminate on Ward’s position concerning race relations. I also think that she focuses on African-American manhood to illustrate the issue of social class in America and its downsides.
Improving Race Relations
Fostering good racial relations is important to promote integration in the era of globalization. According to Howling, learning one’s family and ethnic history can enhance racial integration (par. 3). Elders can teach the younger generation about the past practices and progress made in racial integration to dispel prejudice. Ward dispassionately recounts the discrimination practiced in the South that stifled the economic prospects of ambitious black men.
I believe that through economic integration, race relations can be strengthened. Equal opportunities for all will eradicate poverty among blacks, and thus, foster positive race relations in the country. In the autobiography, race relations deteriorated because of the economic marginalization of blacks, subjecting them to poverty and crime. Therefore, to improve relations, policymakers should eliminate race-based preferences.
Another approach entails teaching black youth good morals. Cokley notes that there is a perception that youthful black men are prone to crime and violence (par. 5). In my view, the recent fatal shootings of unarmed black men underscore the unfavorable public perception of black youths. Teaching black youth good morals can help them refrain from substance abuse, crime, and violence. Churches and community organizations can take up this role. Also, the involvement of law enforcement will help eliminate the mistrust between police and the black community. Community policing can also help ease existing tensions and promote collaborative efforts to root out crime and drug abuse from black neighborhoods.
Americans must also admit that racism impedes racial integration in the country. Standing up against racial injustice meted on black victims can promote unity and integration (Cokley par. 9). Also, African-Americans should avoid interpreting any unjust action by law enforcement as being prompted by racial prejudice. The judicial system should prosecute such offenders to avoid fuelling racial animosity. In Men We Reaped, Joshua becomes a victim of a road accident caused by a white man (Ward 71).
The court system awards the offender a two-year sentence, which Ward feels is lenient and unfair. The court system should fairly prosecute offenders, whether white or black, to attract public confidence. Ensuring fair treatment of all citizens and equal access to opportunities and entrenching moral responsibility among blacks will foster good racial relations in the country.
Cokley, Kevin 2015, Texas Perspectives: Improving Race Relations in an Era of Police Brutality. Web.
Howling, Will 2015, How Would You Improve Race Relations In America?. Web.
Ritzer, George. Essentials of Sociology. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2014. Print.
Torres, Richard 2013, In ‘Reaped,’ 5 Lives That Are Far More Than Just Statistics. Web.
Ward, Jesmyn. Men We Reaped. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2013. Print.