An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

This book was amazing in the most heartrending way – if that is even possible. You know those books (or movies) that pull you in and have you going through a spiral of emotions? Yeah…this is one of them. I was frustrated, angry, sad, defeated, but most of all I found myself empathizing with the complexities of the lives of each character, and the way in which the title “An American Marriage” ironically represents the historical black family. 

This novel tells a story of a black successful man that is falsely convicted of raping a woman, and how one wrongful conviction irreparably causes damage in marriage, family dynamics, and one’s life. One of the focal points is the toll it takes on a newlywed couple who has yet to experience what true commitment is. There were various themes in this book; respectability politics in terms of articulating a positive black identity, race and class, wrongful convictions and how that affects black families, and love and marriage. 

Respectability Politics in terms of Black Identity

Although the formation of respectability politics in terms of manners and morality was for the sole purpose of black people finding a way to be seen as full citizens in the United States, it is harmful in so many ways. One, it doesn’t guarantee that our white counterparts will see us as we see ourselves, and prevent us from racist rhetoric. Two, it is reinforcing the belief that to be “respectable”, we have to concede to mainstream societal values. I understand the purpose of this strategy and I believe we all have adopted politics of respectability in one way or another, but this novel just confirms that even if we’re doing it as a form of survival and resistance – to a certain degree, there is no guarantee. 

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

Wrongful Convictions and Rape

This was a tough one for me because of how real it felt, but I love how Tayari Jones developed this storyline. It felt real for me because of the number of black men wrongfully convicted, experiencing excessive punishment and especially the very real narrative of lynching’s that frequently took place during Reconstruction on account of “black men raping white women”. In so many ways, Jones is speaking to the modern lynching’s that take on various forms. Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd…and the list goes on. These are the traumatic experiences that exist in our imagination but has decades worth of reality.  

Not sure if this was intentionally done, however the title and the content of the book reminds me of what marriage was like during chattel slavery. Although slaves had no right and their marriages were illegal, they fought to create families to achieve some form of autonomy in an oppressive system. However, masters had the ability to tear apart black families through slave sales. Similarly, in the novel, the dominant race demonstrates their ability to destroy black families through the sometimes permanent effects of mass incarceration.