Men We Reaped: A Memoir

By Jesmyn Ward

Bloomsbury | 2013 | 256 pages | $26.00

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League<

By Jeff Hobbs

Scribner | 2014 | 406 pages | $27.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

Early Death

Recently I read two books about an American truth—the early deaths of African American men.  One book, Men We Reap, was written by National Book Award author Jesmyn Ward; the other book called The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League was written by Jeff Hobbs.

The books both delve deeply into this horrific phenomenon, but their approaches couldn’t be more different.  Whereas Ward writes about the early death of five African American men whom she grew up with, including her brother, Hobbs writes about the African American roommate he had at Yale for four years.

Both books try to avoid stereotyping and sociological explanations.  Both are careful to assert that there are no reasons, no answers, and the deaths are horrible, perplexing, and heart wrenching, yet because Ward writes from the “inside” rather than the “outside” her book begins with more advantages.

Ward’s book is by no means perfect, and perhaps being an insider has disadvantages as well, but because she grew up with these boys, because she writes about brother/blood, she never has to apologize.  She does not have to write carefully as does Hobbs, whose book has an underlying note of Maybe I’m not the one who should write this, but that’s the subtext of Hobbs’ carefully detailed story.  But I get ahead of myself.

In Men We Reaped, Ward writes about her own experiences, intertwining them with the lives of the men who die; this is one of the strengths of the book.  Ward, who grew up in poverty in rural Mississippi, was one of the few children in her circle to “escape” one of the poorest counties in the countries—she goes to Stanford for college and then to Michigan for graduate school

Yet the pull of Mississippi is always with her (the broad trees, the sky itself, her family) and she surprisingly returns to the place that kills so many of her male acquaintances, friends, and family.  She reacts to these untimely deaths with horror and insight and yet she is a part of their lives, as she parties with these boys/men in the heavy nights of summer:

“Some of my relatives on my mother’s side and my father’s, have abused crack, on and off, for years.  I can’t fault them for it, Charine always says when we talk about it, that’s just the high they like.  Fuck it.  It helps them cope.  And then:  They’re grown.  I understand her now, but I did not understand her point in the summer of 2004.  Did not see the way liquor had been my drug for years.  Was not connecting the relief I felt when I drank with the drugs others were using, or even thinking that it could be the same for my relatives, the same for my siblings, or the same for Rog.  I knew that I lived in a place where hope and a sense of possibility were as ephemeral as morning fog, but I did not see the despair at the heart of our drug use.” 

This is in the chapter about the death of Roger Eric Daniels III who dies of a drug overdose at age 23.  She also writes about the untimely death of Demond Cook, Charles Joseph Martin, and Joshua Adam Dedeaux, her brother.  All of them died unexpectedly, early, and violently.

Unlike dying by a gun or an overdose, Ward’s brother dies because of a hit and run accident.  In this case, he is driving home from work on a summer night after his shift as a valet.  (The white drunk driver pays little for killing her brother.)  The death of her brother seems especially without explanation to Ward and remains horrific, a raw wound, all these years later.

Because Ward writes from the inner rather than the outsider perspective, what she says is stated in a matter-of-fact way; for example, her father has ten children with four different women.  This might seem like “statistical evidence” about the “disintegration” of the black family, but because Ward relays this information with no bitterness, but rather factually, the reader also takes this at face value.  (But sometimes I would wonder How can you stand a father who could leave you and have so many different women?).  But because of Ward’s stance, the men in the story are not characters, but come across as real flesh-and-blood men

If Ward displays any bitterness in the book, it’s towards the white people who have assisted her.  Wards’ mother’s employer (her mother works as a maid) sees talent in Ward and pays for her tuition to a prestigious private middle and high school.  Ward seems almost angry about this gift (and as a reader I could and could not understand this).  Sometimes I wished Ward would have talked more about her experiences—her life at Stanford and her experiences in Michigan, but this is the inherent problem with the memoir form.  What the reader is interested in is not always the story that the writer wants to give.

And Mississippi itself is a beautiful foil to this story; perhaps Mississippi is the character Ward loves the most and she admirably describes her untainted love.  Mississippi is the whole and entire everything for her, as is her beloved brother.

Like Ward, Robert Peace of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, gets the benefit of a full scholarship from a white man (in this case the benefactor hears Robert give a speech and gives him a blank check to go anywhere—he chooses Yale).  At Yale, Robert ends up having Dobbs, as a roommate, a rich kid (his father is a doctor) who will end up writing about him after he dies.  So the project of the book itself is complicated—will the friend of Peace who writes the book end up prospering from his friend’s death?  Can a white guy who has no clue about his friend’s early experiences write a book with the degree of insight needed?  The answer is yes and no

Yes, because Dobbs approaches these “problems” with a commendable forthrightness, and no because from his outsider perspective he never seems to grasp what makes his friend tick.

   And in general Peace is an enigma—a boy with a brilliant mind, yet a guy who can be lazy; a boy who readily accepts help, but then seems gutted by the help he receives.  Because Dobbs wants to find the “truth” of the story and unravel the mystery of why a promising young black man ends up murdered in a friend’s house, he starts at the beginning…  and I mean the very beginning.

I assumed that the book would start with Robert Peace’s Yale experiences when the author knew him and back-track from there, but instead the book begins with the first day of Robert Peace’s life:

 “Why is the air not on?” Jackie Peace asked from the back of the car.
“It wears the engine,” her mother, Francis, replied from the driver’s seat.  “You can’t bear it for four blocks?”
“He just feels hot to me, real hot.”  And then, when her mother chuckled: “What’s funny?”

“You’re a brand-new mama and that’s why you have no idea.”

“Idea of what now?”

“Babies are strong.  They can handle just about anything.”

Robert DeShaun Peace, the baby in question, lay sleepy-eyed and pawing in Jackie’s arms.  He was a day and a half old, eight pounds, ten ounces…”

   I was a bit taken aback, I suppose, because starting there seemed journalistic to be sure, but also a bit disingenuous.  Because I knew that the author was friends with Peace, I expected the book to start in an entirely different place, perhaps a Yale dorm room.  I can understand why Dobbs chose to begin the way he did—he wanted us to have an accurate account from the beginning, but how accurate could this ever be?

Dobbs interviewed acquaintances, friends, and lovers of Robert Peace, but he especially seemed to rely on the words of Peace’s mother, Jackie.  Jackie comes across in the book as a no-nonsense, hard-working, rarely smiling, almost frightening woman.  Is this really how she is, or is this Dobbs’ impression of her? 

Dobbs relates the early life of Robert Peace with remarkable detail.  He describes Jackie meeting Peace’s father (they never marry because Jackie is distrustful of marriage in general).  And he describes the city of Newark where Peace grew up. Dobbs mentions that Peace was called “the professor” in day care because he is so smart and he describes his early education (in private schools—a strain for his mother who works in the cafeteria of a hospital). 

One of the most tragic aspects of Peace’s life involves his father who gets accused of murder when Peace is a young boy.  From then until Peace’s death, his father remains behind bars (except for a brief respite lasting a couple of months).  In spite of his father’s incarceration, Peace’s father remains a huge figure of influence for Peace. Like his son, the father is known for his almost perfect memory as well as his curiosity; together they work diligently on Peace’s homework.  One feels that under different circumstances, the father would have become what Peace becomes—or at least he would have received a college education.

Drugs and drug dealing are an integral part of Newark.  The choices you make as a young man lead you to being a part of the drug dealers, in competition with the drug dealers, or above the drug dealers.  No choices are good.  Through his private school years, Peace is seen as a role model—a brilliant student who is also a gifted athlete on the water polo team, but he also parties with his friends and teammates.  In fact the relationship he has between four close friends is a touching part of the book.  But drugs become even more important at Yale.

At Yale, Peace becomes a dealer for the rich kids who surround him.  He carefully pockets the money he makes and imagines a future.  He becomes a molecular biophysics and biochemistry major.  When he gets confronted by a faculty member who suspects he is dealing, Peace downplays the situation, and there are no consequences.  Perhaps Peace’s own laissez-faire attitude towards drugs is his downfall. 

Back from Yale and struggling with what to do next, he gets more and more involved with drug dealing (at the same time he teaches at the private school where he went and then he eventually gets a job as luggage handler at an airport).  This “fall” from Yale graduate to lowly baggage handler is wistfully told my Dobbs.

But I think the answer to why Peace may have wanted to be a baggage handler might be tied deeper with Peace’s psychology.  Peace always said that the happiest he had ever been was on a trip to Rio de Janeiro.  As a baggage handler he was allotted free tickets to all over the world—and travel he did, returning to Rio de Janeiro and also visiting Croatia and many other places.

Perhaps being able to escape was essential to Peace.  Perhaps he did not want to become a professor or work in a lab (no matter the accolades and awards).  And yet he must have felt pressure between his desire and what was expected of him—the GREAT HOPE from Newark, who surely couldn’t WASTE HIS LIFE AWAY.

As I write this, I feel rueful.  I look at the pictures in the book and see a smiling guy, a happy boy turned into a handsome man.  I, too, think What happened?  I think of the four-hundred people who came to the funeral, the unusual mix of working-class people from Newark, as well as the “elite,” the professors and students from Yale.

It is true that Rob touched many.  I go to the comments on about the book (there are many).  Here’s the gist: You didn’t know Rob.  You can’t tell his story!!! and This is one of the most moving books I’ve ever read.  I’m glad Jeff Dobbs wrote this story.

And I’m glad that Jesmyn Ward wrote her story.  Between the two books, we have the deaths of six African American men.  We have attempts at an explanation for this phenomenon.  But we don’t have any answers.  Sadly, there are no answers.

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