by Sereena Henderson
Mississippi Today Social Media Coordinator
Take exit 20 off Interstate 10 or cross three small bridges after leaving the beach town of Pass Christian, and you’ll find yourself in DeLisle.
Chances are, if you weren’t raised on The Coast, the first time you laid eyes on the unusual combination of letters was when you first heard about novelist Jesmyn Ward, who was born and grew up here.
Venture into Jesmyn Ward’s literary world, and you will find yourself engulfed in Bois Sauvage, a fictional town seemingly tainted by the not so uncommon hardships of African-American families.
Inspired by DeLisle, Bois Sauvage is a rural coastal town in Mississippi. In her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds, Ward purposely plants descriptions of the town and surrounding areas, introducing her readers to a rarely depicted world – a world similar, if not identical, to her own.
In Where the Line Bleeds, Ward speaks through one of the book’s main characters, Joshua DeLisle, providing one of the first illustrations of Bois Sauvage:
He knew there shouldn’t be anything special about Bois Sauvage, but there was: he knew every copse of trees, every stray dog, every bend of every half-paved road, every uneven plane of each warped, dilapidated house, every hidden swimming hole. While the other towns of the coast share boundaries and melted into each other so that he could only tell he was leaving one and arriving in the other by some landmark, like a Circle K or a Catholic church, Bois Sauvage dug in small on the back of the bay, isolated. Natural boundaries surrounded it on three sides. To the south, east, and west, a bayou bordered it, the same bayou that the Wolf River emptied into before it pooled into the Bay of Angels and then out to the Gulf of Mexico. There were only two roads that crossed the bayou and led out of Bois Sauvage to St. Catherine, the next town over.
Like Joshua, long-time residents of DeLisle can’t help but to look beyond the gritty facade and zone in on what they feel makes their community special.
“I’ve grown up here all my life,” said DeLisle native David Dedeaux. “This is where I wanted to raise my kids. This is where my grand kids are being raised. It’s a good place to live. Look around you. It’s peaceful. Just like any other community, we have our ups and downs, but there is good here.”
It is also the place where everybody knows everybody and neighbors are family.
“If they lived in Pass Christian, grew up in Pass Christian or are from here (DeLisle), I know them,” said DeLisle resident Alice Dedeaux Bailey. I may not know their name, but if I see a face, I’ll know who they are.”
Ward has even returned to DeLisle to raise her own family. During the South Mississippi Bicentennial Celebration in Gulfport on March 31, 2017, Ward shared a spoken word segment, in which she explained why she returned home.
“I returned to Mississippi because the landscape is beautiful and special, and I am endlessly fascinated by it as I attempt to render it in my writing,” Ward said.
Ward’s appreciation and acknowledgment of Mississippi’s landscape, particularly DeLisle’s, appear vividly in her writing. Bois Sauvage, means “wild wood” in French. Sauvage also plays on words “savage” and “salvage,” which both speak to Ward’s effort to light some of the harsh realities of rural black families, including her own. In a literal sense, the town of DeLisle is known for its wild abundance of kudzu, pine and oak trees.
If anything else in DeLisle is as deeply rooted as the oak trees, it is St. Stephens Catholic Church. Catholic churches are prominent monuments often found at the center of black communities on the coast. In Ward’s Where the Line Bleeds, Ma-mee, the grandmother and guardian of Joshua and his twin brother Christophe, initially feels dissatisfied when finding out her daughter Cille, who was raised in Bois Sauvage, is attending a Baptist church in Atlanta.
She had told Ma-mee she attended services at a Baptist church, which Ma-mee had felt an initial irrational negative reaction to: church to her meant Mass and white robes and purple satin sashes and gold communion cups and wine.
Through the financial, emotional and social struggles of Ward’s characters, their faith is challenged and revealed, especially the faith they invest in their friends and family members to see them through. In real-life-DeLisle, it’s quite the same.
“To me, we’re just all one big happy family,” said DeLisle resident Joan Deadeux. “If I need anything, I could actually just go across the street. She (my neighbor) even had a key to my house. If my kids came home from school and got locked out of the house, they could just go across the street. If something goes on here, she’ll call me at work and tell me.”
Joan describes her “end of the road” as “really nice” and quiet. But she validates Ward’s portrayal of a DeLisle where residents grapple with discrimination, violence and drugs.
“If you go to certain parts, you’ll see that,” said Joan Dedeaux. And when she (Ward) talked about that, she’s talking about guys from here. She lived here, and she knew them.”
In her memoir, Men We Reaped, Ward documents the deaths of five young, black men, including her own brother, who was killed in a hit-and-run car accident.
It is in this book where Ward comes face to face, yet again, with life as a young black girl growing up in a small town in South Mississippi where history repeats itself and opportunity appears as only a flickering light in a world of darkness.
We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.
Like most deceased members of black families in Pass Christian and DeLisle, Ward’s brother is buried in a cemetery that is located on the same stretch of land where young boys and girls spend their time playing basketball, volleyball and baseball, swinging on the swing set, sitting and socializing on the single set of stand-alone bleachers – simply basking in the innocence of their youth before it is stripped away.
“The land that the community park is built on, I recently learned, is designated to be used as burial sites so the graveyard can expand as we die; one day our graves will swallow up our playground,” Ward writes in her memoir Men We Reaped.
Walk the halls of Pass Christian High School, the school where DeLisle Elementary students eventually obtain their diplomas, and sit in an English classroom, and you’ll find a class set of at least one of Ward’s books.
In her books, Ward gives Pass Christian the name St. Catherine. In Where the Line Bleeds, she describes St. Catherine High:
St. Catherine High was a small high school, even with all the students from the town of St. Catherine and its country neighbor, Bois Sauvage. About half the students were white, half were black, and there was a smattering of Vietnamese.
Before assigning Men We Reaped and The Fire This Time to their students, Jennifer Butler and Leslie Leyser immediately considered the unsurprising possibility Ward’s raw depictions and unflinching perspective would not be received well by their students and consequently cause a racial divide. Ultimately, they utilized Ward’s works in an effort to encourage a new level of understanding and acceptance.
“When I first read her forward to this (The Fire This Time), I was like that’s not my perspective at all,” Leyser said. “But it wouldn’t be. As a white female living here, that would not be my perspective at all. When I gave it to my husband to read, he didn’t want to read it. He said, ‘I don’t have that perspective, that didn’t happen to me. I don’t have that story.’ I said, ‘That’s the whole point in reading it.’ You get someone else’s story and somewhere in the middle is the reality of it. I always tell my students, ‘This may not be your story, but you can always learn something from someone else’s.’
Jennifer Butler, who said she always has at least one student each year related to Ward, assigns Men We Reaped as part of a unit analyzing literature that focuses on historical racism.
“(Men We Reaped) is tragic, and it’s sad,” she said. “But half of our population has ran in those circles, and they see it. It’s very real and it’s gritty and it’s dark, and a lot of teachers don’t want to go there. But all of literature isn’t pretty. I ended the year with it last year, and my students said, ‘You should’ve started with this.’”