“Georgia, this is a love letter. Everything I do is a love letter addressed to you.”
There are a few books that can be best described as books you cannot put down once you start reading. Sure enough, An American Marriage fits the description. Similarly, every now and then, a book comes along that adds to the richness of the black literary canon. Tayari Jones gifts us with one of them enclosed within 300 pages of storytelling.
Celestial, Roy Jr., The Davenports, The Hamiltons.
Celestial, Roy, Andre.
Celestial, Small Roy, Andre, Olive, Big Roy, The Davenports, Walter, Carlos, Evie, Davina, Uncle Banks, Sylvia.
This is the web of love captured in Tayari Jones’ book. The “An” in the title speaks to a lot of things. For one, the modesty of the author in choosing ‘an’ instead of ‘the’, for no wise black storyteller is frivolous enough to claim sole ownership in constructing this ancient rite. Additionally, the oxymoron in the singularity it suggests for what we eventually see are really marriages of different forms and conceptions. Romantic and filial. Formal and informal. Indeed, Jones offers us a love letter in 300 pages. She makes legible what Nikki Giovanni meant when she said “ Black Love is Black Wealth.” It is not a fairytale. It is not dreamy eyed. But rather, it is the sole inheritance passed down in our DNA from one generation to another.
So how do you begin to write about black love? Jones seems to believe that the answer is really anywhere, as she traces out a narrative of black love that can be picked up at any point, from any angle and with any character. She centers a love that goes beyond a Eurocentric conception of love confined within the nuclear unit opting instead for a more familiar web of interconnected unions- of romance, familial duty, friendship bonds- more common within black communities.
As is the unfortunate truth of being black in America, one cannot talk of black love without speaking of black pain. Pain inflicted both within the community and by the larger soceity. This tale revolves around one particular source of pain that is a direct product of white supremacy. Jones weaves a narrative around the tragedy that is “Black Scare”, a frequent sensalization of ‘innocent’ white women being raped by hyper-sexualized black men. Here we see the beginning of the undoing of a black family. A family that isn’t given a chance to begin. A family ruined from the start simply by daring to dream-of mobility, of progeny, of security- while being black.
So I ask again, how does one write about black love?
“These years have been rough on her. I am sure. But you know they have been rougher on me.”
There is Roy Jr.. A small town boy, Olive, Roy Sr. and eventually Walter’s son, Morehouse graduate, turned into a big-time corporate executive cum husband convicted for a crime he did not commit turned into an exonerated man without a wife. An all too familiar tale.
“He didn’t do anything but be a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Then there is Celestial. An artist, lover, daughter, friend turned into a convict’s wife turned into an ex-wife and now lover. She who was born to belong to others eventually chooses to belong to herself.
“Ours was a love story, the kind that’s not supposed to happen to black girls anymore.”
The love triangle ends with Andre, the boy next door, best friend and best man turned into the other man.
This love story is not about who is guilty and who is not. Neither is it about happily ever afters. Instead, it is about tragedy. It is about knowing when to love and when to let go. It is about knowing when to fight and when to take the punches in stride. It is about what one does with the rocks that life throws at you. It is about the kind of marriage that lasts for more than 30 years and that which lasts for 1. It is about the love of a mother for her son. The love of a man for a woman. The love of black families for their black children. It’s about all forms of imperfect love within the black community.
So how then do we begin to recognize black love?
For some, it can be isolating. A black man believing that to love is to be strong and provide only for his strength and sense of provision to be taken away unjustly leaving him with nothing. Making him nothing. A nobody.
“The judge paused and demanded that Roy bear this news on his feet. He stood again and cried, not like a baby’s, but in the way that only a grown man can cry, from the bottom of his feet up through his torso and finally through his mouth. When a man wails like that you know it’s all the tears that he was never allowed to shed, from Little League disappointment to teenage heartbreak l, all the way to whatever injured his spirit just last year.”
It can also be futile. Daring to create a union of two within a country that is hostile. Trying to build a family when each brick you lay down breaks down with all the blows it is forced to take.
“But this is what loss has taught me of love. Our house isn’t simply empty, it has been emptied. Love makes a place in your life, it makes a place for itself in your bed. Invisibly, it makes a place in your body, rerouting all your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it’s gone, nothing is whole again.”
But it is also healing for there are only things love can do: open one up, tear down walls, create new visions of living, build something a new.
“The third time I wasn’t down on my knees – neither literally or metaphorically. I presented my modest token and asked her to share my life. I apologized for my transgressions. I laid myself low. I didn’t involve her father and I didn’t ask her best friend to help me make the scene right. I took her hand, telling her the truth of my soul. She answered with a nod. It wasn’t this hooting and hollering and jumping down you see on TV. None of this proposing via billboard or halftime at the Rose Bowl. Marriage is between two people. There is no studio audience.”
How does this particular story end? Who wins in the end? No one in particular because black love is not about winning or even thriving. In the same vein, this book is not about its ending but the journey it requires of all its characters to get to that particular ending. There is sacrifice, strife, new beginnings, old reconciliations, familial ties that can’t be broken and a black man reminding all of us that “I too I’m a man”. All in all, the book reminds all of us that black love is the antidote we use to survive living in this imperialist world whereby each day our faith in each other’s love and devotion is a testament to black resilience.
Unlike many people, I personally hate that this is the narrative we have to hold on to. I, within the myopia of my post-racial generation, want a carefree, consuming kind of love. I desire the selfish kind that’s simply between my lover and I, ridden of any ancestral struggles. I don’t want to think about the one’s that came before us or the one’s that will come after. I don’t want to heal someone or need to be protected. However, I have the foresight to differentiate between a dream and reality. The question that remains for me is whether I want to wake up but as Tayari Jones seems to postulate, my awakening is simply but a matter of time.
Love and Light!