An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones
Barely over a year into their marriage, Celestial and Roy, a rising Atlanta couple, visit his parents in rural Louisiana. Knowing his mother’s discomfort with his choice of a city girl, independent and artistic and ambitious, he opts to lodge with Celestial at a motel not the house. Which proves fateful: he is accused of raping another guest, and we watch the well-greased skids as an African American man is in quick succession accused, tried, convicted, sentenced, and incarcerated, with little concern for due process, legal subtleties, or opportunity to assert his innocence.
This novel is told in first person, in the voices of Celestial, Roy, and Andre, Celestial’s childhood friend and confidante, who introduced her and Roy.
Through an exchange of letters we watch the couple’s relationship devolve. Celestial’s prosperous family gladly foots the bill for appeals, but her visits dwindle as her business, hand-sewing fabric doll-babies, takes off. Roy supported her dream before his own was derailed, but the incongruity between her life and his becomes an intolerable burden. Celestial writes:
“At your mother’s funeral, your father showed what the connection is between husband and wife. If he could have, he would have gone into the grave instead of her. But they lived under one roof for more than thirty years. In some ways they grew together and grew up together, and had she not died, they would have grown old together. That’s what a marriage is. What we have here isn’t a marriage. A marriage is more than your heart, it’s your life. And we are not sharing ours.
I blame it on time, not on you or me. If we put a penny in a jar for each day we have been married, and we took a penny away every day we’ve been apart, the jar would have been depleted a long time ago... The last three times I have visited, we said almost nothing to each other. You can’t bear to hear about my days and I can’t bear to hear about yours.”
Her friend Andre claims more ground based on their lifelong kinship, and Celestial finally stops waiting for the end of her husband’s twelve-year sentence. These young men are careful in how they treat each other - both want Celestial, but both respect her career, her choices, her needs. And they respect each other, which doesn’t make it any easier when they finally face off as rivals.
These characters remind us of what “civilized” means: having a highly-developed society and culture; polite, urbane, refined. In our current climate of polarization and intolerance, such characters might seem quaint - yet it is their conviction that civility is essential that makes their dilemma so striking. It would be easy to put a gun in the hand of Roy, maybe Andre as well, but Jones has greater range than to settle for the predictable solution. She dives deep into her characters’ love and anger and loneliness, and doesn’t let anyone off the hook as their desires collide.
She offers us different versions of marriage: Roy’s mother, pregnant at 16 and abandoned by the baby’s father, meets Roy Hamilton who not only marries her and adopts the boy but loves him as a son, honoring him with his own name, fathering no other children who might displace his love for the boy. Celestial’s mother divorced, and her second match was for love. Andre’s father left his mother, marrying another woman and raising children with her - at which point Celestial’s father positioned himself as a father to Andre.
These families disapprove of the affection they observe blooming between Celestial and Andre - “Aren’t you still married?” - but in Roy’s absence, she discovers in her oldest friend a deep understanding she cannot push away. Jones doesn’t take sides - she gives as much weight to Roy Sr. and Celestial’s parents as to Celestial and Andre. All their convictions are heartfelt, and utterly at odds. Someone has to lose.
Here’s a sample of how she puts it:
Gloria [Celestial’s mother] said, “I raised her to know her own mind.”
My father [said], “What is all this stuff about love and her own mind?... What did Roy do to deserve any of this? He didn’t do anything but be a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Though this is a story about marriage, it is also inescapably a story about what it is to be black in America. Roy’s college degree and rosy future mean nothing in prison - he is reduced to a man without agency. And it’s clear that if this can happen to him, it can happen to any man of color. When white people complain about the term ‘white privilege’, it is without experience comparable to a black man’s that demonstrates what that really means: the ground of assumption that one is dangerous, even criminal, regardless of one’s circumstances. ‘White privilege’ means one is not automatically at risk of suspicion or arrest or death for wearing a hoodie, browsing in a store, driving a car, renting an AirBnB ... anything you might do in the course of your life. I recently watched a YouTube video called “Birdwatching While Black,” a droll but not funny guide about how to avoid getting arrested or shot while in the field identifying birds, if you happen to be black.
Thank you, Tayari Jones, for making a world real, for plumbing the hearts of people who mean each other no harm, but who in the end lack the choice.