Throwing Shade

Jesmyn Ward is a hometown hero. Why doesn't everyone know her name?

Jesmyn Ward, a Mississippi native and two-time winner of the National Book Award, near where she grew up in DeLisle, Miss., May 15, 2013. Soon travelers in the Magnolia State will be able to visit places where authors like Ward, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Richard Ford lived and wrote as part of the newly named Mississippi Writers Trail.
Jesmyn Ward, a Mississippi native and two-time winner of the National Book Award, near where she grew up in DeLisle, Miss., May 15, 2013. Soon travelers in the Magnolia State will be able to visit places where authors like Ward, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Richard Ford lived and wrote as part of the newly named Mississippi Writers Trail. The New York Times file

Jesmyn Ward is kind of a big deal.

Well, she’s actually more than a big deal.

And she lives in my backyard.

And still, I mention her all the time, and people have no idea who she is or why I’m so obsessed with her.

And that’s frustrating. Even infuriating at times.

Jesmyn, an author from DeLisle, is the only woman to win the National Book Award Twice. She also won a “genius grant” for her writing, which in my opinion, are works of art.

Most recently, she was named one of the 100 most influential people of 2018 by Time.

“Jesmyn Ward’s writing is brutal and moving, tragic and beautiful,” wrote Lee Daniels, “Empire” co-creator.

Jesmyn’s writings about the realities for black men in the South were similar to how Daniels feels about where he grew up in Philadelphia.

“Jesmyn captures the African-American experience with authenticity and nuance,” he wrote. “She is a modern-day William Faulkner, painting tapestries of an America that has not been heard.”

But Jesmyn’s message in her work is loud and clear. And her voice can’t be silenced.

Mississippi author Jesmyn Ward, of DeLisle, Miss., talks about her brother,Joshua, who died when he was hit by a drunk driver, as an inspiration for her writing. This interview was first published September 13, 2013.

Bustle says Jesmyn is an author you must read if you haven’t already picked up one of her books.

I think you should start with her memoir, Men We Reaped, where Jesmyn essentially tells her story through the lives of five black men on the Mississippi Coast, one of them being her own brother, who died too soon.

Her journey through life made me think about my own family and how I grew up in Kiln, just a 10-minute drive from DeLisle, the place where Jesmyn still calls home.

“Ms. Ward could be speaking about all of them when she writes of one, ‘He wanted more for himself, but he didn’t know how to get it,’” Dwight Garner wrote in a New York Times book review.

Her work is polarizing and makes you confront your own beliefs about race, class and privilege in the Deep South.

And her commencement speech to graduates at Tulane University in New Orleans had me in tears.

Once again, South Mississippi, Jesmyn makes you confront your upbringing, your privilege and your feelings about your neighbors. It cuts a knife through your morals, forcing you to empathize with the people who live down the street but have an entirely different experience living in Mississippi.

When she left for Stanford, Ward said she “didn’t understand that my mother and father had given me an outrageous gift, because I didn’t have to choose between eating and education.”

“I was the child of cleaning women and bootleggers, factory workers and landscapers,” she told Tulane graduates. Her mother scrubbed floors and toilets, and her grandmother stood on assembly lines for 10 hour shifts, doing quality control on Pepto Bismol bottles.

They told her every day, she said, like a prayer: “You will go to college.”

Jesmyn thought going away to university “would be key to escape being poor, black and Southern,” she said.

She was wrong. And she confronted that in her speech and her life choices.

If you have 20 minutes, watch this speech and show it to your children, to your mothers, to your sisters and your friends.

Don’t wait two days for Amazon Prime — go to Pass Christian Books and get copies of Jesmyn’s work.

We have a hometown hero who lives just up the road. Know her, scream her name loud, and help make sure her voice is never silenced.

Justin Mitchell; 228-604-0705, @JustinMitchell_
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