In my final year of teaching composition at the University of New Orleans in 1998, I had a young black man for a student, Jamal, about 22 or 23 years old. He was handsome, quiet, studious, and gifted as a writer–so gifted that I went out of my way to encourage him to develop his skills. One day, I suggested to him that he should do what he could to leave his home and set out on his own. He took no offense at the suggestion; he knew I meant well; but he looked at me earnestly and said in his soft voice, “It’s not easy to leave.”
I did not understand at first what he was trying to say with those simple words, but I knew he was trying to imply much more than his words said. He wasn’t trying to tell me that it was impossible to leave; that it could never be done; he was trying to tell me that there was a cost to leaving, a cost he was not yet ready to pay. I even got the uncomfortable sense that the cost might involve the risk of his very life.
I still don’t quite understand all the factors that would have made the cost of leaving home too high for Jamal, but I understand many of them far better now for having read Jesmyn Ward’s searing memoir of contemporary black life in southern Mississippi, Men We Reaped (2011).
Sociologists have been studying the lives of impoverished African-Americans for well over a century. Sometimes the studies have been as careful and as helpful as W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk; sometimes they’ve been as condescending and as incendiary as Charles Murray’s 1980s essay in the National Review, “What’s So Bad About Being Poor?” and his later books, Losing Ground and The Bell Curve–works that, for all their intellectual acuity, smack of a man who’s never met an African-American below the poverty line in his life and would be scared to death if he did.
The people Ward writes about in Men We Reaped–the people Murray thought he was writing about–are the real deal: they are her mother, her father, her brother and sisters, and the neighborhood boys and girls she knew growing up. All of them together are the embodiment of all the fragmented African-American families white Americans have ever head about: the astoundingly-hard working mother; the serially-unfaithful and perpetually-absent father; the sensitive and talented elder daughter (Ward herself); the hard-to-employ brother; the needy and defenseless younger sisters; the restless, despairing friends. What makes Men We Reaped so fine a book is that each of these people becomes vivid for us. They become more than just a sociological case study. They become personages that we can envision as the flesh-and-blood human beings they actually were before many of them died so untimely. Most important of all, Men We Reaped shows why even the condescending, arrogantly-expressed goal of African-American life in Murray’s imagination, a life “threadbare, but tolerable” is impossible for many blacks to reach.
It is impossible because the jobs that would provide the economic stability which allows any of us to hope and to plan are not there. Where did the jobs go? In a cruel and ironic twist, they went overseas to factories and workers in Mexico when Democratic policies raised the corporate tax rate on businesses to 35%, a shift of wealth that the politicians said would ultimately help the poor but didn’t; they went to women in the 1990s, many of them single and childless, rather than to the men (and women) who could have used those jobs to support full families. Again, the thinking was that putting more women into the job force was a good thing; it corrected, so they said, past injustice toward all those women who were categorically denied jobs in the 1950s and 60s because of their femaleness. But this second shift did nothing to help men who needed work in Gulfport, Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana in 1999, one of whom was I.
Yes, I found myself floating through the pages of Ward’s memoir like a ghost, following her and her sisters Nerissa and Charine and brother Joshua like a shadow; for the years she recalls growing up in DeLisle, Mississippi and shuttling between Gulfport and New Orleans were often my years in those places, as well. I came to the end of my six-year contract for teaching at the University of New Orleans in the spring of 1998. I wanted to stay, but the English department at UNO did not wish to retain me as an Instructor. I found work for one semester at SUNO–Southern University of New Orleans, almost literally down the road from where I was living. In retrospect, I am shocked that Ward, who was also looking for work at that time and desperately wanted to stay close to home, didn’t get the job ahead of me.
Both of us experienced during that time what, for both of us, is the primary impediment to the lives we wanted to live: a terrible sense of Otherness, imposed upon us by those around us. For me, the effects of this Otherness were palpable but benign. When I got to SUNO, I taught both night classes and day ones. The first question I asked was entirely practical: “When do we get paid?” My supervisor said, “Oh, around the 15th.” I was immediately uneasy. “You mean that date is not certain?” I asked. She laughed. “We’ll pay you then, for sure, if we can.” I was stunned. I had never held a job–in academia or otherwise–in which the date of my paycheck couldn’t be guaranteed. Things were extraordinarily loose at SUNO. I was promised a Saturday class to teach, but only if a minimum number of students showed up on the first day to make the section. They didn’t. In my previous classes in Texas and in Illinois, enrollment figures were known well before the first day of class; if there weren’t enough students, the sections were cancelled in advance. This is the way it is done everywhere, except in Louisiana. I regarded such a cavalier approach to wages and work as unprofessional. At first, though, I thought maybe I was just being a stick-in-the-mud; but a friend of mine, the brother of my best friend, had taken a similar job teaching at Grambling the same semester I taught at SUNO. He reported to me and complained about the same unprofessional ways of academic life that I did. It wasn’t our imaginations. The two of us soldiered on because we needed the work, and I actually enjoyed my students. They were pleasant, hard-working adults. Yet, I never smiled outside of class, and I knew that I didn’t. My supervisor even took me to task for it. I don’t blame her; but how could I be happy when working conditions there were so poor? I was to her, and to others on the staff, an Other, someone who didn’t really understand the way things worked around here. Indeed, I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until after I left SUNO that I came to realize that Louisiana’s economy was just as segregated as its social life had once been. There was one economy for Tulane and UNO and quite another for SUNO, Grambling, Xavier, and the rest.
For Ward, however, the imposition of Otherness was permanent and deeply scarring. She traces the roots of Otherness in the book all the way back to slavery and the Civil War, to the multitudes of black families that were broken up by slave masters. For her, this explains the tragedy of the perpetually-absent, rootless father in black life; but, if I may say so, she need not have gone back quite so far. The real source of the disintegrated African-American family may be found in the Jim Crow laws imposed upon the black South long after Reconstruction. Enraged white Southerners, denied the right to keep blacks as slaves, determined by such laws to keep blacks as separated from whites as possible, and as far down upon the economic scale as they could be pushed. If we wish to find the source of Otherness in American life, we will find it somewhere in the period of 1880 to 1940. The Second World War began to destroy the white-imposed idea of Otherness somewhat, but its complete destruction has not happened yet. It still persists in Louisiana and Mississippi today.
By Otherness, neither Ward nor I am talking about the revulsion one might feel as she encounters a beggar on the street or some crippled soul on the subway. We are talking about those who instantly, automatically, categorically refuse to acknowledge the existence of another as a fully-human human being. Such people give us instead what the disabled writer Christopher Nolan in his autobiography Under The Eye Of The Clock calls “the notional No”–the unthinking, immediate rejection of our hearts, our minds, and our flesh. The absolute denial of our personhood–a decision made as casually as one might throw away a piece of paper, yet a decision that is made day after day, a choice as easy and as inevitable as the choice to breathe–is what forms the sense of Otherness. We are not alone as a country in having it; Britain had it long before America did, and though they’ve had only the same amount of time we have had to correct the damage Otherness can cause as a society, they have made far longer strides in that direction. For us, the consequences of Otherness as directed toward our targets are extraordinary feelings of unworthiness and self-loathing; a sense that no one, black or white can be trusted as a friend, a confidant, a kinsman, or a provider. Ward makes all of these ideas clear in a long passage that sounds like it might just as well have emerged out of the 1950s or 60s and had been written by the James Baldwin of The Fire Next Time, the Richard Wright of Black Boy, or the Malcolm X of the Autobiography:
“What I did not understand then was that the same pressures were weighing on us all. My entire community suffered from a lack of trust: we didn’t trust society to provide us with the basics of a good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system. And even as we distrusted the society around us, the culture that cornered us and told us we were perpetually less, we distrusted each other. We did not trust our fathers to raise us, to provide for us. Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless. Some of us turned sour from the pressure, let it erode our sense of self until we hated what we saw, without and within. And to blunt it all, some of us turned to drugs.”
The year was 2002.
Some of the people Ward knew and loved dealt crack cocaine on the side, and sometimes used it themselves. She herself turned heavily to alcohol as she grew up. No one of all the men or women she knew in her world used these drugs because they were depraved or hopelessly evil. They used them as Sonny used them in Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues”: to try not to suffer. They used them to foster a sense of togetherness, because the basic human relationships that you and I create through our schooling, our jobs, and our social lives–the relationships that develop us as full human beings who can feel in the first place–were denied to them repeatedly in the most fundamental ways. The denial could be as formal as the rejection of a job application, or as casual and ugly as a white girl’s request that Ward help her to put “some nigger braids” in her hair.
Yet, through it all, Ward never wanted to leave Mississippi. All through her scholarship years at Stanford and all through her job-seeking years in New York City, she returned to DeLisle and to Gulfport and to New Orleans as urgently as a salmon returns to spawn. She could not leave because despite its darkness and despair, these places, this coast, was home to her, and the lives she celebrates and mourns in Men We Reaped were her men, men she loved and would not abandon.
Many years ago, Martin Luther King published a collection of essays under the title Why We Can’t Wait–a tag line from his extraordinary “Letter From Birmingham Jail” written in 1963. In both the book and the letter, King lays out the case for why African-Americans can no longer wait for their civil rights. The need for them was too great; the urgency to grant equality and restore civility in society was too insistent. Now, six decades later, Ward rephrases the same issues King dealt with, and in just as passionate and personal a way. It is not just that blacks can’t wait any more for their rights–they can’t; it is also that they cannot leave where they are to attain them. They cannot uproot themselves from the places where they were born, the places from which they draw their strength. If they are to overcome the terrible weight of crime, poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness which is the daily plight of so many of them and if those of us who are not so afflicted are to help them, the work must be done HERE, wherever here is, on home soil, wherever that soil may be. The immigrant may have come to this country from Asia, from Europe, from Latin America, but the black man and woman, slave and free, were here from the founding of the country. They identified with Africa in the 1960s and 70s because they were denied identification with the country of their birth in ways that often can only be described as appalling, but without many of those same people the country as we know it would not exist. To expect them to “go where the jobs are,” given the discrimination they have endured for years, is completely unrealistic. They, as much as any other group, still have the right to make lives for themselves in the places that they love, to sew something else in the soil that gave them birth besides pain and suffering and death.
[PS–From Thursday morning’s 10-22-15 Houston Chronicle: Houston Texans’ free safety Rahim Moore gave a talk yesterday to students at Sharpstown High School, a talk filled with personal references to an absentee father, an incarcerated brother, and many other elements that echo or duplicate the world that Ward writes about in Men We Reaped.
I link to the article also because I graduated from Sharpstown High School in 1976. It’s on the southwest side of town, and in those days it was a swanky, well-appointed place to go to school. Now, Moore says, “It’s in the ‘hood,” and its principal fears the influence of “thugs.”
Jesus. What have we done?]