Living in an arguably post-truth world, we are constantly asked to question what is real and what is fake. Whose version of events are true? And whose are presented to us as a form of propaganda?
The narrative of An American Marriage brought all of these questions to the front of my mind while I was reading it. Told from the viewpoint of three different characters: Roy, Celestial and Andre, the disparity between their versions of events was very interesting to see.
Accused of a crime at the beginning of the book, Roy is forced to go to prison. We hear that Roy was innocent, both from his viewpoint and from Celestial’s, and yet the legal system found that he was guilty. Immediately we believe both characters, because the relationship presented to us is one of absolute trust to begin with. We are told intimacies about their lives that generate a strong bond between this couple and the reader, and we feel sympathy towards Roy as we do not believe that he is capable of such a crime.
The concept of race is largely at play here. Roy is accused predominantly because he is black, and the fact that he is found guilty also is largely influenced by that. He lives in a world where those with power continually oppress him, and his sentence is proof of this.
At the crux of this matter is how Roy changes upon entering prison. His relationship with Celestial begins to disintegrate, as he seems to be emotionally manipulative with her. We see a different side to Roy: we see his desperation and the neglect that comes from Celestial because of this. And upon being released from prison, due to a wrong accusation, Roy is filled with rage and anger. After finding out that Celestial is with her oldest friend Andre, Roy loses his composure. A scene near the end of the book shows an altercation between Roy and Andre where Roy seems to have lost everything about himself that Celestial once loved. He is fighting for his wife back, and yet upon winning her he seems to be trying to pressure her to have sex with him. I certainly felt uncomfortable in this chapter, and this man who I had been supporting for the whole book seemed a changed man.
But we have to remember what this country had done to Roy. We have to remember the injustice that dominated his life: to be wrongly accused is to have valuable time from your life taken away from you. To sit in prison knowing that you did not commit an act and wondering what your wife is doing must be torturous. His actions here are a product of this.
But no matter what situation you are in, violence against your wife is not excusable. And this is why the narrative technique is important. When Roy tells his perception of this story, we hear a very different version. We see that Roy does not in fact want to pressure Celestial to have sex with him, and when he knows that she is reluctant he stops this situation from happening. Roy is not a bad man, Roy is a man who has lived his life at the mercy of the state because he was black. Even his violence with Andre culminates in violence against himself, as he is trying to torture his own body and not anybody else’s. It is when we get a different view of a situation, that of Roy’s, that we realise how our perceptions of situations are largely influenced by who is telling them. To listen to Roy’s version of events is to realise that he is not intent on hurting either Andre or Celestial, he has once again been misrepresented.
The perception of truth in society is always hard to negotiate. Upon being deemed guilty it was seen as the truth that he raped a girl. But we have to think about why this was so readily accepted. Why did the court rule this? Why did many in society find this easy to believe? When you are already oppressed and society is prejudice towards you then it is easy to scape goat people such as Roy.
In the current climate, it is so important to talk about racial issues and to listen to the voices of those who are being oppressed. If oppression is protested against, talked about, openly written about, then discrimination can start to disintegrate. If we listen to the voices of those who are suffering from prejudice then we can work together to stop it from occurring. The end to discrimination and the strive for human rights starts, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, in the “world of the individual person”. When one person is falsely accused like Roy, then it sets a precedent for others to be treated in this way; when one person discriminates, it soon ends up as mass discrimination.
Tayari Jones showed how the world is currently stacked against people like Roy, she showed how this can utterly ruin lives. It is now up to us to protest against such discrimination, and to make sure that those who are being racially oppressed have their voices heard. With many in the world being in situations that resonate with Roy’s, where their race is an obstacle to living a happy and fulfilled life, I would recommend this book as a way to open up a well-needed debate about racial politics.
Words and photo by Sophie Wilson