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October 24, 2014

Book Notes - Jesmyn Ward "Men We Reaped"

Men We Reaped

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Jesmyn Ward's memoir Men We Reaped, an eloquent exploration of race and poverty in America, stuns in every possible way, and is one of the finest works of nonfiction I have read in years.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Ward, author of Salvage the Bones (2011), lovingly profiles each of those she lost, including a brother, a cousin, and close friends, and their tragic ends as she weaves her family history and details her own difficulties of breaking away from home and the desperate need to do so. This is beautifully written homage, with a pathos and understanding that come from being a part of the culture described."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Jesmyn Ward's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir Men We Reaped:

I've been building this playlist from October 3, 2000. That's fourteen years of moving the playlist from computer to computer, fourteen years of realizing that the death of Black young people is so common in America that it was easy for me to find Southern hip hop songs, dirges really, that bemoan grief and the loss of loved ones. It's been fourteen years of realizing that there were so many rap and R&B elegies that I would need to curate the damn thing. Most of the songs on this list were released sometime in the late 90's or between 2000-2010, when I was living through those years of my life that would be fodder for Men We Reaped.

One of the reasons I think that these songs are so arresting to me is because in each song, the words we are getting are honest and vulnerable. We don't get this vulnerability, this sense of openness and raw expression of pain, often. I think this is one of the reasons Drake is so popular right now; he emotes, and the audience wants that. We've had enough of swagger, of show, of pyrotechnics. Those things have their own pleasure, yes, but human beings need more. Here are men, Southern Black men mostly, contradicting everything they've been taught about what it means to be a man in this country, contradicting the modern mythos of hip hop, and they're sharing their feelings. It's intimate. It's deeply affecting. While listening to the songs of the men who for a moment are our griots, we feel a little less alone.

These are the songs we listened to when we didn't have words for what we were living through: these are the songs that gave words to our grief when we couldn't do so. These are the songs we still listen to when we particularly long for our dead, the ones we turn up loud when we're riding or parked down at the graveyard so the dead can listen with us and know that we love them, know that we too are wondering at the senselessness of it all.

"All I Got Is You": Ghostface Killah
This is the last song I remember my brother playing with me on the last ride that I took with him in the Cutlass he died in. Sometimes I think my brother played this song for me because Ghostface was saying the things he wanted to say about our family to me, but my brother didn't have the words for them. I cry every damn time I listen to this fucker.

"One Night": Z-Ro ft. Trae
These rappers are out of Houston, Texas, and while I don't love them the way some people in my hood do, I have to admit that I love this song. Some people hate the Luther Vandross sample, but I like the way it's been screwed up, the way Luther's voice has been speeded up, high pitched and tender. And this is the song that makes me imagine a video, a video with all us survivors in our memorial shirts out in the neighborhood, under the pine trees, celebrating, mourning. There are so many names spit here, one after another, of those dead: that speaks to me.

"Time After Time": Trae ft. Dallas
More from Houston rappers. This song is for DJ Screw, and the respect and love Trae feels for DJ Screw is personal and real here. I think what resonates most with me in this song is that wistfulness, that sentiment I hear in "One Night," too: the bereaved's wish to spend one more night with the one who's gone.

"Live We Live": Project Pat
This is the song the boys were listening to on the morning after CJ died. They were listening to it on repeat while they sat in that running car that was going nowhere, all staring stone-faced forward, all crying. Charine crawled into the car with them and I stood outside, hating the beauty of the song. Hating it because I couldn't sing that song, couldn't say life was beautiful. Even in that moment, I understood the horrible irony here.

"Live in the Sky": TI ft. Jamie Foxx
I think the sentiment I most appreciate about this song is TI's anger. People who live with grief are robbed of that, not allowed to feel anger at losing someone they love. But TI expresses it here, and when he says it, I feel it.

"True Soldier": Lil Boosie
We love Lil Boosie on the Gulf Coast. This song is about losing those you love, but it's also about survival. It makes me feel tough, scrappy. It makes me want to be loud and testify for those who are gone, for those who can't, because for better and worse, I'm still here.

"My Brother": Fiend
Fiend was one of Master P's artists on the No Limit Record label. I've always loved this song: it's one of those songs I imagine my brother singing to me. It's a love song to siblings, to family, to loyalty. This is the one I like to play the loudest when I visit my brother's grave.

"One Day You're Here, Then You're Gone": UGK
The OG song about grieving. The way this beat comes swinging down, soulful and slow, the stellar performances Bun B and Pimp C give on this, makes me want to ride and listen until my tank goes dry. This song was out when my brother was alive, and it was one of the songs he loved to beat down the block.

"Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer": Stevie Wonder
Just heartbreaking. The grief in Stevie's voice is so raw. I discovered this song when I watched Poetic Justice for the first time, and I return to it, again and again.

"Miss You": Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
This is the one. One night around five years after my brother died, Charine and I kidnapped Aldon and Hilton and filled my gas tank and blasted this on repeat for at least four hours as we rode further and further up in the country, down those isolated country roads, on the same crooked paths I rode on with my brother, and all of us cried. I know this song is about a man singing about a woman, but I don't feel that. All I hear is longing and loss and love and yearning so keen and clear it makes me cry every time because I know it. Lord, how I know it.

Jesmyn Ward and Men We Reaped links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Boston Globe review
Chicago Tribune review
Dallas Morning News review
Financial Times review
Guardian review
Los Angeles Times review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Times review
NPR Books review
Washington Post review

Biographile interview with the author
Cleveland Plain Dealer interview with the author
Flavorwire interview with the author
Fresh Air interview with the author
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists