Two-time National Book Award-winning author Jesmyn Ward presented the Mark J. Bebie ’70 Memorial Lecture on Wednesday, Feb. 6. She spoke to students at the Upper School assembly about how her life experience has influenced her works, including "Salvage the Bones" (2011) and "Sing, Unburied, Sing" (2017).
“My family was poor and black in the south, where children should be seen and not heard,” Ward began. At childhood gatherings at her grandmother’s house, she said, “I heard stories.” She shared some of these stories with students: of her great-grandfather starting a school for the underserved black children, of her grandmother hiding under blankets in the car’s trunk for safety, of her mother integrating the local elementary school in the 1960s.
Ward spoke about the collision of these family stories, the “blood dread” of their heavy history, with her own experience growing up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Attending an affluent, primarily white private high school on scholarship, she faced overt racism and “read book after book about scrappy girls” to escape. “This voice that says you are worth less is the voice I internalized,” she said.
While writing her college application essays, she realized that “telling our stories was a way to assert our humanity,” and “discovered that creative writing could express something ineffable about who I was…I wouldn’t use literature to escape my life. I would use literature to explore my life.”
She began the exploration in “Where the Line Bleeds” (2008). “In my debut novel, I retreated to the condolence of my imagination,” she said. “I loved my characters too much to let them fall. Instead I hugged them close and pulled my authorial punches.” The book was met with critical feedback, primarily that the young, black protagonists didn’t suffer enough.
The same year, her family survived Hurricane Katrina. Ward recounted floating in floodwater, getting separated from her family, and being denied shelter alongside her pregnant sister. “Life does not spare us,” she realized, “if I’m going to honor my family and community with my words, I have to be honest…I had to commit to writing the hard things.” She brought this commitment to life in “Salvage the Bones,” and again in "Sing, Unburied, Sing," both winners of the National Book Award.
Closing her remarks, she talked about the realities of being poor and black in America today, of generational poverty and systemic racism, and her hope to give voice to those often silenced. She spoke of the necessity of hope and its presence in her work, noting that hope is necessary to move forward. “This is what you do. You salvage the bones of your life. You tell your story. You survive.”
Ward then fielded questions from students, including how she heals when taking in all the tragic, violent news about anti-black violence, how she stayed focused on education while being racially bullied in high school, and how she balances harsh realities with hopeful content.
Upper School English teacher Emily Chu commented that “students were RAPT in St. Nick’s—silent in that way that you know kids are really into what’s being said because they feel it and know it’s important. She did a really amazing job of thinking about how the individual experience is linked to and affected by systemic inequalities, like education and healthcare.”
During her visit, Ward met with students from the English classes American Cultural Studies and The South, and held an extended Q&A following her assembly lecture. She answered questions about the limits of authorship and writing beyond your own experience, representation in media, and why she moved back to her hometown of De Lisle, MI. In the evening, she gave a similar lecture to the larger Lakeside community. A recording of the lecture is available here.