2020 Reading List: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

This book was a pick for our office book club, and coincidentally it fits in with Black History Month. Not intentional, I swear, but a nice little nod to an important societal recognition.

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones, was likely placed on our list because it received so many awards and accolades and made it’s mark on lists like Oprah’s Book Club. With a resume like that, it’s bound to be good, right?

This book is about a young couple, Celestial and Roy, married just over a year, who are about to figure out their next steps together (job? babies?) when Roy is caught in the wrong place at the wrong time – or as they say in the book – wrong place, wrong race. Roy is misidentified as the man who assaulted a woman at a hotel they were staying at. Of course he didn’t do it, his alibi is that he was with his wife all night, but apparently that’s not enough. Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Celestial is left on the outside to figure out how to go on with her husband in jail. She turns to her childhood friend, Andre, and as the years go on, her marriage breaks down and her bond with Andre is strengthened. But Roy gets out of jail early and expects to return to his wife and his life.

After reading this book, at first I thought that it wasn’t very universal. The title would have you believe that the story could be some kind of representation of marriages everywhere, some relatable universal theme. But I thought that the disintegration of a marriage because of wrongful incarceration did not seem very universal.

However, I reflected a bit more and I take back my initial statement. Maybe most marriages don’t end because your husband is accused of a crime he didn’t commit. But in the end the book isn’t really about that. It might actually be asking and exploring some deeper questions.

Like, what makes a marriage? Is it love alone? Time together versus time apart? Weathering the same hard things together? Celestial and Roy didn’t seem particularly destined to be together, from their recollections of how they met. They didn’t hit it off right away, they came from different backgrounds, had different family situations, different experiences. Theirs was a marriage of love, but it took some time for that love to take hold. And even then, it seems that maybe they didn’t spend enough time getting to know each other. Roy had secrets, Celestial was very independent, they didn’t always agree on everything.

When Roy was sent to prison, they  had only been married for a year. Was that enough time to weather the storm? Was that enough time for their bond to hold and their commitment to last? If they’d had more time together before this incident, would their marriage have ended the same way or would they have had more experiences and memories and years of love to draw on and bring forth when the years of incarceration stretched on? I believe that they may have done a bit better if they had been married longer, but in the end, a prison sentence of 12 years is a long time. I believe that a big part of any marriage is choosing to be with someone every day through any experience that comes along, good and bad. You weather the storms together. You experience joy and love together. Marriages can’t work if you’re apart.

Roy and Celestial’s parents didn’t agree with her decision to move on and to be with Andre. I got the feeling that they understood how hard her situation was, but that they expected her to stick it out and stand by him, as his wife. They expected that marriage equals commitment, forever. Can that truly work? Can you make a marriage work, even through a five or 12 year absence, if you just stay committed to it and ignore everything and everyone else? To my above statement, I don’t think that’s possible. Commitment is important if the person you’re with is by your side. But there’s more to marriage than stating that you’re husband and wife.

I had some other thoughts about this book, the more in-your-face issue of wrongful incarceration and the breakdown of the justice system. I don’t claim to be any expert or even very educated in the matter of criminal justice, but I have a few opinions. I’ve watched some TV shows, I’ve read some news articles, I’ve listened to some podcasts. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I personally don’t trust the justice system. It would seem to be set up to be fair, honest and representative. But anything, any system, that relies of the subjectivity of human beings, their experiences and their memories, is bound to fail in moments when it matters most. Memories are unreliable. What someone says is “truth” is just their interpretation and perspective of an event. Unless something is recorded on video, it’s impossible to discern actual truth from all angles, and even video can leave context just outside of the frame. Human beings are biased. We draw conclusions and make assumptions and form stereotypes because it is literally in our species’ best interest for survival. Our brains cannot physically process all of the information in the world around us every moment of every day. So our brains fill in the gaps.

The woman who said, without a doubt, that it was Roy who broke into her hotel room and assaulted her, was simply filling in gaps. There are moments of that night that stood out to her more than others and she needed to fill in the pieces. She connected some dots in her memory and in her “truth” and the result was that a man’s life was changed forever. How can we trust a system that allows this to happen? But what better system do we have?

It’s infuriating to think that there are circumstances and biases and stereotypes that also allow for evidence to be overlooked and for corroborating accounts to be ignored and for i’s not to be dotted and t’s not to be crossed, simply because it’s easier or faster or cheaper. Roy and Celestial are black. They were in a motel, not a fancy resort. They were in the small-town south where prejudice is alive and well. The system drew conclusions, filled in their own gaps, and failed them as human beings.

All it took was being in the wrong place, the wrong race, and their lives were ruined.

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