Miami is seldom defined as a classic city of the South.
Our multiracial, multicultural character denies the South’s enduring legacy of entrenched racism, one might argue.
Yet, when Mississippi-born and raised Jesmyn Ward unearths in the memoir Men We Reaped the stories of her younger brother Joshua, her cousin C.J, and three friends — all black young men who died too young, one after the other — when she forces us to look beyond geographies and get to know intimately their reduced lives, we see Miami’s dead, too.
We see the young black men dying in our streets at a rate so alarming — almost daily — their fate should move people to action. Instead, the repetitive, mounting toll dulls us. It becomes habit to ignore the cycle of poverty and alienation that led to their starring roles in the nightly news.
But listen to what Ward, a National Book Award-winning author who will speak Monday night in Miami at Books & Books, has to say. She’s one of the voices rising to create awareness about the inequities.
“The death of black men.... It’s happening in the entire country and I wanted to talk about it because I felt we didn’t want to talk about it,” Ward tells me.
With heartbreaking honesty and a microscopic, front-row view, Ward dissects the lives of her family and friends in rural DeLisle — and her own. What she finds transcends geography and the racial divide she so affectingly shows us.
It’s at the funeral of friend Roger, who died of a heart attack while using cocaine, that a friend tells Ward as the hearse is leaving, “They picking us off.” Her comment begins Ward’s search for who and what is “they?”
The answer is more complicated than a few sentences can explain. But Joshua DuBois comes close in his own assessment, The Fight for Black Men: “There are more African-Americans on probation, parole, or in prison today than were slaves in 1850. It is not a crisis of crime. It is a crisis of people being left behind.”
The young men in Ward’s life were not blameless, but they didn’t deserve to die, and many of us will argue, didn’t deserve the fates they were born into: poverty; broken families; lack of opportunities to break that cycle; a history of racial discrimination; and a culture stacked against them.
“We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing,” Ward, 36, writes. “We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”
Once acknowledged, however, the truths Ward discovered — the same “crisis of people being left behind” DuBois speaks of — is hard to dismiss. Creating opportunities for young black men to beat the odds is not only one community’s struggle.
The men Ward reaped in seemingly faraway rural Mississippi are the same men we reap in Miami.
We can’t afford to look the other way in the comfort of our cosmopolitanism.