Jesmyn Ward’s The Men We Reaped is a tragic personal account of how racism and oppression intersected in the untimely death of five men she held dear. I believe the most immediate cause of these tragedies were addictions (four of the five boys chronicled are addicts and come from broken homes with no strong adult black male figure). But the addictions of Ward’s friends and father are only symptoms of a large-scale, pervasive oppression of African Americans males since the dawn of U.S. history. The New York Times article Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys states "black boys are disadvantaged to 99 per cent of white boys in America. They are more likely to be disciplined in school, detained by police, and stereotyped as scary, intimidating, and violent."" In Bryan Stevenson's powerful Ted Talk "We Need to Talk About an Injustice," he states that the prison population has increased by two million people in forty years, which has led to despair in black communities since one out of three black men aged 18-30 is in jail or prison.
Issues of economic and judicial racism are seen in the life of Ward's brother Joshua.
Joshua was perhaps the most compelling figure in the memoir because he held the paradox of boyhood innocence while dealing crack cocaine in order to pay bills (he worked legitimate jobs as much as he could, which speaks to racial inequality in terms of job opportunity and income in this country).
When Joshua is killed by a white drunk driver, the perpetrator barely receives a slap on the wrist. Ward paints a clear picture that in courtrooms--like most rooms--a white man’s life is unjustly worth more than a black man’s.
Bryan Stevenson states “we have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent.” In the case of Joshua, it is clear that a rich, guilty white man was treated better by the justice system than Joshua's family, who deserved justice in the sentencing of his perpetrator. Grief and anger over an unjust sentencing flow from Ward's pen when she writes "by the numbers, by all the official records, here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing.”
How can we battle the systemic oppression of black men in America?
For one, we can stop talking about how we live in a post-racist society. People see color. Racism is real.
We can learn about historical trauma--a topic I will write about in a later entry--and where our prejudices of black men come from. Uprooting Racism by Paul Kivel is an invaluable resource in this regard.
White people talking about white privilege--unearned assets simply because of the hue of our skin--can bring clarity and sobriety. Stevenson states “ultimately, you judge the character of a society, not by how they treat their rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated."
Since boys benefit more than girls from same-sex adult mentors (as illustrated in the NY Times article above), it is important to connect positive male figures to every community. Moonlight, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture, centers on a young boy whose only male role model was a drug dealer.
The same drug dealer who sold his mother crack cocaine.
We can do better. We are the United States.
We put a man on the moon. We can do anything. We can provide male role models when research says male role models are a driving tool for change. As a social work intern who counsels fifteen non-white boys a week, I directly see that my presence as an adult male with values is an unquantifiable asset in their lives.
Young black boys need to know they are worth more than being murdered or ending up in prison. If we can create more positive adult black male role models in afflicted communities, black boys will respond positively and progress can be made. Would Joshua still be alive if his father was addiction-free, dedicated and loyal to the family, available and present, and capable of connecting and relating to his children and the community?
Racism is everywhere, all the time. It is sometimes as obvious as the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville 2017, but it also occurs constantly in countless subtle, insidious microaggressions.
Racism is a major public health problem precisely because it is ignored, downplayed, or unacknowledged by a majority of Americans. My hope is that in some small way, I can shed light on the hidden, dark, scary parts of our individual and collective stories so that we can heal and become better than we were before.
I hope that I can do my part to move the national needle toward this goal: never again will a bereft sister write that "by the numbers, by all the official records, here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power," a black man's life is worth nothing.