“It challenged my own racial biases” – An American Marriage by Tayari Jones #WomensPrize2019

Tayari Jones’ novel, An American Marriage, focuses on a terrible, unjust event that devastates the marriage of a young couple named Roy and Celestial: solidly middle-class, married less than two years, in their late 20s living in Atlanta in the early 2000s. After visiting his parents in Louisiana, they decide to stay in the small town’s only motel. They start rehashing a recent argument about starting a family. As their dispute threatens to boil over, Roy utters their “safe word” that creates a 15-minute cooling-off period. Celestial calls her best friend/neighbour Andre, and Roy storms out to refill the ice bucket where he encounters an older woman who is struggling with her ice bucket because she is recovering from shoulder surgery. He carries her ice back to her room, helps her open her window, jiggles her toilet handle, warns her about the loose doorknob, and checks the time remaining in the cooling off period. Then he returns to their room. 

 A few hours later, the police barge in and arrest Roy for raping the woman with the arm injury. The above action unfolds in its first 30 pages: no spoilers.

Oh, sorry, I forgot a most crucial detail: Roy and Celestial are black.

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones’ fourth novel, clearly distills Roy and Celestial’s  marriage as it is ripped apart by a false accusation and shows how it struggles to incorporate Roy’s new reality, a decade or more behind bars. The novel demonstrates how the reverberations from this false arrest affect their extended families. 

Jones’ rendering of Roy’s situation is compelling. Full disclosure: my white, American mid-west cultural background innoculates me from the treatment he endures. The simple fact of the colour of Roy’s skin is never far from the pages of this book. His skin colour isn’t the entire story, but it shapes and informs every page.  

Jones chooses a jarringly effective narrative strategy to tell parts of her story. She completely excises every single conventional crime/conviction/police element from her novel. Every single one. No courtrooms, intensive police interrogations, or ambitious district attorneys. In America, black men who are accused of serious crimes are convicted. Dramatising the injustice and unfairness is pointless. Those conditions are woven into the fabric of black lives. What is left is an American marriage and how it copes with Roy’s conviction. 

Roy and Celestial’s epistolary relationship dominates the middle section of the book and functions as its backbone. Although Celestial augments her letters by regular visits, the trips become onerous and emotionally devastating; her visits decrease. She is struggling both to build her up-scale doll-making business and carve out a life outside the shadow of Roy in prison. Jones refuses to cast Celestial in the role of dutiful wife who plays the victim and makes pilgrimages every visiting day. Although Celestial’s uncle is working on an appeal, Roy gets impatient and wants answers about the state of their marriage: “But now where are we? I know where you are and I know where I am, but where are WE?” Their relationship atrophies.

One of the most brilliant elements of the novel revolves around the ambiguity of the racial identity of the rape victim. Jones embeds a Rorschach test of racial attitudes and assumptions in one paragraph because it provides absolutely no definitive details about the victim’s race. It challenged my own racial biases. Read the passage for yourself: 

“As I waited, I encountered a woman about [my mother’s] age, heavy, with a kind, dimpled face. Her arm was trussed up in a cloth sling. . . . Being the gentleman my mama raised me to be, I carried her ice back to her room, [where] she had trouble operating the window. . . . I went into the bathroom and played plumber, fixing the toilet that was running like Niagara. Leaving, I warned her that the doorknob was loose, that she should double-check to make sure it was locked when I left. . . . ”

What is the race of the woman who is helped by Roy? I’m convinced that the reader’s assumption about her race is critical to the entire novel. I originally assumed the woman was white. Unconscious racism on my part? Perhaps. Undoubtedly, my response is not completely free of the tired racial trope that black men are sexual threats to white women. I read the description again. The older woman reminds him of his mother. Hmm, maybe she is black. Of course, Roy might not have been reminded of specific racial/black features. More racist bias on my part. Roy performs a number of good deeds for this woman. Is he just a gentleman who feel more comfortable offering such assistance to a black woman? Wouldn’t he be more circumspect about entering the room of a white woman? The more I think about it, the more bewildered I feel. 

Any Cop?: Although I was slightly bothered by some gender aspects that shaped this novel’s denouement, perhaps even this minor complaint is affected by racial attitudes because I don’t know whether it’s fair to separate gender from race. Read this book and ponder whether you and your relationship could weather the situation experienced by this American marriage. And then ponder why so many millions of American families and marriages continue to experience such suffering and hardship.


Chris Oleson

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