On paper, we’re A Different World: Where Are They Now? Whitley and Dwayne all grown up. But Celestial and me are something Hollywood never imagined.
Put a few people together in one room and ask them what—besides a predominantly black cast—makes a movie “black.” It’s subjective, perhaps a little reductive, but it isn’t too hard to list a few characteristics: an oldies-but-goodies soundtrack, some dancing (choreographed or a soul train line), a few flashbacks to back-in-the-day, Loretta Devine. Weaving all of these things together, usually, is a narrator who bridges the gap between the reality of the viewer and that of the film’s protagonists. Such intimate narration serves as the difference between observing a family through a window and sitting with them on their front stoop.
These traits translate differently into literary land, of course. Reading about someone listening to old-school hip-hop isn’t the same as feeling the bass through a set of speakers. But as soon as Roy Othaniel Hamilton starts explaining the difference between being a “country boy” and a “farm boy” in the opening pages of An American Marriage, Tayari Jones’s fourth novel, something special happens. You’re being welcomed in, unofficially, and suddenly it feels like you’re sitting in Georgia on Roy’s porch, listening to him tell it like it is—or how it was, really, before an unexpected occurrence changed everything.
This is to say, not quite subtly, that An American Marriage is filled to the brim with black characters. Roy and the novel’s two other twenty-something protagonists—his wife Celestial and their buddy Andre—are all alumni of historically black colleges. But before we can make any assumptions about the fact that their degrees are from the more expensive of the HBCUs, or that Roy had a comfortable childhood with little want for anything, he sets the record straight about where he and Celestial fall in their middle to upper-middle class bracket. “We’re not your garden-variety bourgeois Atlanta Negroes where the husband goes to bed with his laptop under his pillow and the wife dreams about her blue-box jewelry,” Roy promises us. “I was young, hungry, and on the come-up. Celestial was an artist, intense, and gorgeous. We were like Love Jones, but grown.”
You don’t need to have seen the movie to understand that Roy and Celestial weren’t rolling in money. Nevertheless, they were comfortable enough to have everything to lose when a woman in a motel they’re staying in is raped, and she wrongfully names Roy as her attacker. In the blink of an eye, everything that the couple has taken for granted—their lifestyle, their financial stability, and each other—is abruptly endangered. And suddenly, Celestial and Roy’s story becomes exactly what Hollywood might have imagined.
Of course, it’s just not what they imagined for themselves. “It turns out I watch too much television,” Celestial tells the reader, as she recalls how she felt in the courtroom after she’d unconvincingly corroborated her husband’s alibi. “I was expecting a scientist to come and testify about DNA. I was looking for a pair of good-looking detectives to burst into the courtroom at the last minute, whispering something urgent to the prosecutor… I fully believed that I would leave the courtroom with my husband beside me. Safe in our home, we would tell people how no black man is really safe in America.”
But don’t be fooled by Celestial’s hopes. She may have never been called the n-word to her face, but Roy’s ten-year prison sentence is by no means her first Come-to-Jesus moment. At age eight, her father, a firm believer that “accident of birth is the number one predictor of happiness,” once took her to a public hospital in Atlanta to see how poor sick black people were treated. Her mother had objected to this supposedly cultural field trip. “Don’t treat her like she stole something,” she’d scolded him. “This is how progress works. You have it better than your daddy and I have it better than mine.”
Their disagreement over their responsibilities as privileged black Americans called to my mind the Ghanaian notion of “sankofa.” Translated roughly as “go back to the past and bring forward that which is useful,” sankofa is a value that many black families, including my own, have passed down from generation to generation. But is it useful to the present, always having one foot planted in the past? Is it “progress” if we’re still looking backward?
It’s hard to say. Before Roy’s arrest, he considers how he and Celestial might raise their hypothetical child. “I don’t want Roy III sitting up in the movie theater trying to watch Star Wars or what have you and be thinking about the fact that sitting down eating some popcorn is a right that cost somebody his life. None of that,” he says.
But then? “Or maybe not much of that. We’ll have to get the recipe right.”
This obligation to acknowledge and honor the past extends just as much, if not more, to Celestial’s marriage. Before Roy’s incarceration, Celestial was aware that she had what many black women, in both 2017 and 1967, have been told they’re unlikely to have: love, and black love at that. But the nostalgic glow of this kind of “vintage romance made scarce after Dr. King, along with Negro-owned dress shops, drugstores, and cafeterias” only shines so brightly in the 21st century, and it certainly isn’t enough to save Celestial from feeling like she has become yet another statistic. “[Prison guards] treat you like you’re coming to visit your pimp,” she writes to imprisoned Roy. “Every single one of them smiles with a little smirk like you should know better. Like you’re a delusional victim… They treat you like you’re an idiot because it’s clear you could do better if you weren’t such a fucking fool.”
But who has it worse? Celestial, who must decide between waiting for Roy and moving on with her life? Or Roy, who knows that the headstrong and independent Celestial isn’t the type of woman who waits—but he still wishes she would?
Fortunately for Roy, his lawyer is able to get him out in five years. But any amount of time in prison is too long, and when he meets an old acquaintance who is ready and willing to grant him his first sexual encounter in five years, it becomes excruciatingly clear just how long of a time it was:
Looking down at her outline in the dark, I felt myself wanting to explain again. But I could never tell her that I didn’t want to fuck her like a man who just got out of jail. I wanted to do it like a man who was home visiting his family. I wanted to do it like a local boy made good. I wanted to fuck like I had money still, like I had a nice office, Italian shoes, and a steel watch. How can you explain to a woman that you want to fuck her like a human being?
Roy will never be able to live fully in the present; he will always be spiritually and psychologically bound to the time he spent in jail—because “‘Even if you go in innocent,’ he tells Celestial, ‘you don’t come out that way.’”
We’ve seen this truth onscreen too, from Ava DuVernay’s 13th, a devastating documentary about the biases of the criminal justice system, to Showtime’s The Night Of, a miniseries drama about a Pakistani-American who is charged with murder. Both touch upon how flawed the criminal justice system is for the guilty and the innocent, the black and the brown. Contrary to Hollywood norms, though, is the fact that An American Marriage does not focus on prison reform. Nor does it spend much time on racial profiling or rape. Rather, Jones examines the countless ways in which “marriage” can be turned, twisted, and redefined. Her agenda is personal, not political, and with each shift in point-of-view from Roy to Celestial and eventually to Andre—the person initially responsible for the couple’s fusion, and now, potentially its fission—we’re more invested in their well-being. We’re itching to know if Roy and Celestial’s marriage can survive something so dreadful, and we’re dying to know which will triumph: love, or scruples.
Reading An American Marriage feels a lot like easing into a terrycloth bathrobe with the words “I’m rooting for everybody black” stitched on the back. Except this is hard to do, and not because there aren’t enough fleshed-out black characters to root for. They’re so thoroughly detailed, in fact, that their personalities—realistic and nuanced and therefore, pretty frustrating—make it sometimes difficult to root for everybody, or anybody. Sometimes you’ll just want to scream at them instead. An ax is wielded; a foot-chase ensues; more than a couple of skeletons come out of the closet. It’s rife with all of the romantic and familial drama of any movie, but the real joy is that it boasts the character exposition and contemplation that a two-hour film can’t, all while maintaining the endearing trappings of good old-fashioned black cinema: powerful flashbacks, earnest narrators, and spot-on black culture references.
And yet: An American Marriage is not, by any means, for black audiences alone. At the end of the day, Celestial, Roy, and Andre are three flawed human beings trying to navigate their way through life and love and everything in between, just like many of us. They’re Everyfolks, and they’re the kind we should read more often.
Don’t miss a special Rumpus signed book giveaway from Tayari Jones, available through February 28! Details here.