What happens when a couple, married for only 18 months, is ripped apart by wrongful conviction? How does their love survive the trauma, separation and isolation of mass incarceration? In her new novel, An American Marriage, author Tayari Jones weaves a love story that masterfully tackles these questions and leaves readers breathlessly turning every page.
Jones thrusts us into the world of Celestial and Roy, the young couple at the center of An American Marriage. Celestial is a talented artist hailing from Atlanta and Roy is a businessman with roots in Louisiana. Their journey through the long and arduous ordeal of incarceration and exoneration illuminates the day to day lives of the millions of Americans who are incarcerated and the millions of women and families whose lives are forever changed by the incarceration of a loved one. Jones beautifully illustrates the ways our criminal justice system—infected with racial bias—affects not just individuals but their loved ones, faithful friends, extended families and larger communities.
Oprah Winfrey, who recently selected An American Marriage as her newest Book Club Pick, says: “The novel redefines the traditional American love story. . . and places it inside a world that a lot of people don’t know about but impacts all of us in really big ways.”
And Oprah is right! With over 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, accounting for a fourth of the entire world’s incarcerated population, mass incarceration truly affects every American. And all too often, those who have been harmed the most by mass incarceration also shoulder the heaviest burden and pay the highest cost due to shame and social stigma. Jones storytelling skills opens up a new path for connection to and empathy for those most directly tied up in the system.
“It’s different for women. They treat you like you’re coming to visit your pimp. Every single one of them smiles with a little smirk like you should know better. Like you’re a delusional victim. If you try to fix yourself up and look respectable, it’s worse in a way. They treat you like you’re an idiot because its clear you could do better if you weren’t such a … fool.” Celestial, An American Marriage
Jones researched wrongful convictions and mass incarceration at Harvard University in 2011 to get the facts and figures she needed to tackle the important issue. The Spelman graduate and Rutgers University professor was astounded by what she learned.
Wrongful convictions—especially of black men—are commonplace in our justice system. Innocent black people are three times more likely than innocent white people to be wrongfully convicted of sexual assault even when facts and evidence prove their innocence. Sixty-two percent of the 354 people exonerated by DNA in the United States are black men. And 70% of DNA cases involved eyewitness misidentification, an issue in the case of the book’s main protagonist Roy.
These wrongful convictions are compounded by the daily disparate treatment that black men can’t escape. They are stopped, arrested, charged and sentenced by a system that research shows consistently penalizes them for the color of their skin.
“Six or twelve,” he sometimes said when he was depressed, which wasn’t all the time but often enough that I recognized a blue mood when it was settling in. “That’s your fate as a black man. Carried by six or judged by twelve.” Roy, An American Marriage
Jones builds on what is commonly known about wrongful convictions, but she illuminates the impact of incarceration on women. While researching the novel, she recognized that little had been written about women with incarcerated loved ones, although 1 in 4 women in the United States has a loved one in prison. The result is an astounding novel that will leave you on the edge of your seat.
I chatted with Tayari Jones last week at the Brooklyn kickoff to her cross-country book tour. She was radiant and bubbling with excitement. When asked who the ideal reader is for An American Marriage, she told me: “A Spelman woman who works at the Innocence Project!” I loved it and the New York Times agrees; An American Marriage debuted at #2 on the New York Times Best Seller List.
You’ll enjoy this book if you support the Innocence Project’s work and want to dive into a great love story this Black History Month. To learn more about Tayari Jones and An American Marriage, click here.