(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
“An American Marriage”, by Tayari Jones, is a novel true to its title. As a story about two married African-Americans, its first and foremost a love story with universal themes of passion, coming together, break-up, and finally heartache. The novel’s many passages about the joys and sorrows of love are ones to be read for any Valentine’s Day.
But, it’s also a story that could only happen in America – a nation that still struggles with racism. It’s a story with themes of injustice, systemic marginalization of black men, and the suffering of many black women.
In that regard, it’s a book that explores the nuances of romantic love while wrapped around a darker tale of how racism often distorts the love between two African-Americans. It’s both a lovely book and a challenging book – one that will make you think as much as it may make you cry.
Roy and Celestial fall in love. They are both upwardly mobile twenty-something African-Americans with careers and incomes that place them well within the urban, upper middle class.
Roy comes from hard-working, rural Louisiana parents who devoted themselves to providing enlarged opportunities to their son. Roy succeeds, earns a college degree, gets a high paying job and considers himself, at a relatively young age, as up and coming. Celestial comes from wealthy, millionaire parents. Her father invented a food additive later bought by a large corporation. She’s refined and privileged enough to expect opportunities will naturally come her way. She’s not on the up and coming. She was born already arrived.
They are drawn to one another’s ambition and unique status in the black community. In that way, the novel touches on themes of class – he from rural poor, she from city wealth. The book also shines a bright light on how even educated, successful, and well-off blacks are not immune from the injuries of racial stereotypes.
After falling in love, Roy and Celestial get married. After a year of marriage, they are still star-crossed lovers with plans for having children. That is, until they take a weekend trip from Atlanta to visit Roy’s parents in rural Louisiana.
Roy’s mom Olive, perhaps like many devoted mothers of sons, does not think her daughter-in-law is a good enough wife to her son. Because of that family tension – and to support his wife – Roy decides he and Celestial will not stay in his parents’ home during the visit. They’ll instead stay in his hometown’s only motel.
After dinner with Roy’s parents, and back at the motel, the couple have a fight – one that touches on both of their insecurities. Roy reveals, for the first time, a secret about his family past – one that he’d kept from Celestial because it highlighted the wide gulf between their backgrounds. Celestial is wounded he kept such a secret from her for so long. It touches on her fears of what else Roy might be hiding.
Roy leaves the motel room to cool down his anger – promising to be gone only fifteen minutes. He goes to fill up the ice bucket and encounters a white woman needing help. He does a good deed by helping her and returns to his wife.
Once reunited, the two make-up, assure one another of their affection, and make love. They fall blissfully asleep before their nightmare begins.
The motel room door is broken down in the middle of the night by police who grab Roy and drag him into the parking lot. He’s arrested for rape of the white woman he had helped. A vigorous and expensive legal defense is mounted – one paid for by Celestial’s parents. But even in these relatively more enlightened times, in a trial with no physical evidence, a black man charged with raping a white woman in the rural South has little chance. Roy is convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison.
That summarizes the beginning portion of the novel. As I said, the novel deals with multiple themes. But what is remarkable about the book is its intentional effort not to confine itself to being a story about racial injustice. The heart and soul of the book focuses on love and loss. That may seem like a sell-out by the author, herself a black woman, by bringing up issues of race and then failing to fully explore them. However, by examining themes and emotions of love, how they are shared by all people, Jones makes a subtle but bold statement about race and, indeed, humanity.
Love is love no matter who the two people are. The thrill of passion and the joy of being in love are not unique to any race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality. So too is the hurt of being alone, longing for one’s lover, and of not knowing if or when reunion will take place. Such are themes found in many love stories and that are eloquently explored in An American Marriage. The cliche that separation makes the heart grow fonder is true, as the book dwells on during its middle section. But being apart brings not just stronger love, but also despair. To love someone, but not have her or him to share, laugh, play, eat, and sleep with, is a feeling many can understand. That’s the case for couples separated by death, divorce, work, military service, or in this book, imprisonment.
It’s for that reason that An American Marriage is a love story anyone can empathize with and understand. It’s one reason Oprah Winfrey chose it as a featured novel for her famous Book Club. It’s also why it won the National Book Award in 2018 for fiction – along with best fiction book awards from the Los Angeles Times, the NAACP, and the National Women’s Book Club.
For me, what makes the novel so beautiful and inspiring is its implied message about the sameness of love. I intellectually knew that was true, but to read how love is the same for all, even in a context very different from what I’ve experienced, was very moving.
I’m a white man who was married to a white woman for eighteen years, during which time we had two children. I thought I’d fallen in love with my then wife only to slowly realize I’d really fallen into best friendship. During our marriage I was not, and could never be, physically attracted to her – but I was psychologically unable to accept that truth.
The hurt my ex-wife felt when I finally confessed to her I’m gay – and the soon after separation, amicable as it was, nevertheless stung us both. We still bear emotional scars from that – ones that I un-intentionally caused. Except for my wife’s gender, we’d likely still be married. I loved her then and I still love her today. But not in a way that a straight woman longs to be loved.
And a similar kind of wrenching realization is what Celestial gradually feels for Roy. He’s an innocent man suffering at the hands of an intolerant society, but yet he’s not with her and the pain of that separated love becomes something Celestial struggles to overcome.
That kind of loss and struggle to move on is one many people experience. To be in love, to have a confidante, to be connected to a kind and caring person you enjoy being with – is one of life’s great joys. It’s the primary experience and emotion everyone wants in life. It is human to want to love and be loved. It is even more human to mourn the loss of love.
That’s the point of my message series this month – to explore the diversity and yet universality of love’s many couplings. The heights and depths of love are experienced by all variations of people, in many different situations, but the core emotions of it are identical for all. That truth speaks to the reality that love is the one force that animates all humanity and, indeed, all life. Love is what most people believe is the force that defines existence. For Christians, God is love and love is God. The Biblical New Testament explicitly says so. For Jews, the love one has for Yahweh is to honor all that is good and right in life and the universe. For Muslims, Allah is merciful and compassionate to all – and it is our human role to return that love with both worship to Allah and kindness to others.
Spiritually, love is also something of a paradox. This is something most people experience in a relationship and it is another theme found in An American Marriage. Love unites and divides. It gives and it takes. It is both selfless and selfish.
After Roy is sent to prison, the novel describes how he and Celestial deal with the sudden separation and upheaval in their relationship. Love exists between them but it doesn’t. Celestial at first visits Roy as often as she is allowed – once a week. But over time, that subsides and Roy is upset. If she loves him, why would she not want to see him as often as possible?
For Celestial, love for Roy is tied to romantic memories of their togetherness and so she begins to painfully long for him. He’s her beloved husband and yet he cannot do anything a normal husband does – be her companion, her lover, her soul mate. Over time she begins to ponder: why must she also suffer?
Roy feels longing for Celestial and over time that only deepens his love for her. When we miss someone, we often love them all the more.
This sets up a divide between the two that eventually breaks them apart. At first they struggle against the toll that years of separation have taken. But once the thin threads of bonding are torn, it seems almost impossible to knit them together again.
What adds to Roy’s and Celestial’s heartache is how their best friend comes between them. Abe lived in the room next to Roy’s at their college. They were best friends and remained so after college. Abe then celebrated Roy’s marriage to Celestial – as only a friend would. And once married, Abe is not only Roy’s best friend, he becomes Celestial’s too. Once Roy is in prison, Abe dutifully supports both of his friends. But Abe is the caring and tender presence in Celestial’s life at a time when Roy cannot offer the same. A wounded and lonely heart being what it is, Celestial falls in love with Abe. He returns her love all while Roy is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.
I won’t offer further details from the book because they will take away your feelings about the story as it unfolds and ends. Ultimately, the book implicitly asks several questions: Does true love demand undying loyalty? Can one be in love and yet not in love all at the same time? Does love demand forgiveness and sacrifice no matter the circumstances? And, how does one get through the pain of broken love so that life can go forward?
In so many ways, the beauty and joy of love is often found in its tragedy. We all know stories of couples who suffer when their partner dies, is unfaithful, or departs. It seems as if love beckons us to climb its summit peak of passion, only to eventually throw us into the valley of broken hearts. Why must love be so joyous and yet also so painful? The novel seems to ask that question and, at the end, provides an ambiguous answer.
For each wedding I perform, I always introduce my homily by saying that love is love no matter who the two people are. For same sex couples, that message is appreciated. And for opposite sex couples, I hope the phrase is informative. Biology and genetics tell us that the bodies of every human being are nearly identical in make up. We bleed the same. We grow and develop the same. Psychology equally informs us that every person cries, laughs, suffers and exults – also in similar ways. Importantly, we love the same too.
And that’s the tragic but beautiful message of Tayari Jones’ novel An American Marriage. To be in love, to have been in love, to be or have been coupled with someone who adds comfort, care, and passion to one’s life – these are gifts to the heart and soul. It is a wise saying that we are to love as if we’ll never be hurt and, even more, that our call is to love deeply – and be thankful for it no matter how long or short it lasts.
I recommend the book An American Marriage to all of you, as I wish you peace and joy.