113th Annual Conference - Portland, Oregon
Friday, November 6 - Sunday, November 8, 2015

Women Left Behind in Men We Reaped

Natalia Barcy, California State University East Bay

This essay will focus on the female experience in Men We Reaped.  Ward demonstrates how women’s perception of reality is constructed by social and political surroundings. Through her quest to find answers about men, she finds answers about herself. Ward suggests a new sense of identity as a Black woman.

Proposal: 

This essay will focus on the female experience in Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. Using Marxist-feminist theorists Nancy Hartsock and Deborah Madsen, I explore how Ward and her mother's perception of reality is constructed by social and political surroundings. The story itself, however, is focused on the deaths of five black men. Her purpose is to find answers that connected the deaths of these friends, one her own brother, and she does so with clarity.  There is no room for reader analysis: the question of “who are they,” the “they” whom is responsible for these deaths is answered with institutionalized racism. In the process of finding this answer, she dramatizes gender distinctions with the history of her family’s oppression. While she doesn't describe specific events in detail, the portraits of her ancestors reveal sex crimes committed by during the slave era. The defamation of the female body is suggested through the white skin of her great great grandfather and the light skin and blonde hair of her brother.  Doing this predisposes the reader to recall class relationships— White control, master to slave— and connect them with her story in the 21st century. Ward’s experience demonstrates the feminist issue of “double consciousness” by her confessions of internalized racism. With supporting texts from feminist author bell hooks, I describe Ward’s feelings as the racial “other.” I also explore the negative effects of these emotions as she progresses in her education and must confront blatant racism in an all white private school.

The work of social theorist Patricia Collins illuminates the experience of Ward and her mother as they struggle under the weight of race and gender oppression. I examine the progressions of Black art and the ways in which the author incorporates such criteria into this memoir.  This reveals a pattern which, juxtaposed to slave history, illuminates Black women’s roles in the African American community.  I posit their actions and thoughts stem from not only being Black and female, but from their impoverished condition as well. The role of marriage and domestic work and its effect on women’s social status are part of this condition. This analysis enables insight on the mother’s actions. She accepts money from her white employers, stays with an unfaithful man, and gives him multiple chances before finally leaving. After Ward’s mother finalizes the separation with her husband, she seems defeated. Through a Black feminist lens, I describe how that defeat enables her to be viewed as strong, independent Black woman. Although at first Ward suffers the same fate as her mother, her story, which is told from a distant perspective, is an act of empowerment: revealing the truths of her family’s condition is meant to illuminate the “inhumanly strong” essence of women, even in times of deplorable hardship.  Through the deaths and desertions of men, Ward’s Men We Reaped reveals the strengths of the women they left behind.  The narrative of the memoir suggests a new sense of identity for Ward as a Black woman.