An American Marriage

An American Marriage

An American Marriage Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Tayari Jones's An American Marriage. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Tayari Jones

Like the character of Celestial An American Marriage, Tayari Jones received her undergraduate degree from Spelman College, a historically black college or university (HBCU) in Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating, she obtained a Master’s degree in English at the University of Iowa as well as a Masters of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Arizona State University. She taught creative writing at the University of Illinoi and at George Washington University before joining the MFA faculty at Rutgers University Newark. She published three novels before An American Marriage: Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, and Silver Sparrow. An American Marriage was selected as a pick for Oprah’s Book Club in 2018.
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Historical Context of An American Marriage

An American Marriage was published at a moment when concerns over the injustice of mass incarceration were at the forefront of civil rights discussions. Over the past 40 years the U.S. prison population has grown to make up nearly a quarter of the world’s incarcerated people. A disproportionate number of those prisoners are black men, who are six times more likely than white men to be incarcerated. This is largely the result of racial bias in policing, harsher sentencing, and socioeconomic iniquity. The effects of such prejudice is not limited to those individuals placed behind bars but extends to hinder the growth and wellbeing of the families and communities of those incarcerated. Nationwide protests started by contemporary social justice groups like Black Lives Matter have drawn increased attention to the issue of racial disparities in mass incarceration and the ways in which the U.S. prison system contributes to a cycle of poverty and crime within communities of color.

Other Books Related to An American Marriage

Jones’ 2002 debut novel Leaving Atlanta is a coming of age story set during the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-1981, and, like An American Marriage, takes place in the titular city. Her second novel, The Untelling (2005), is also set in Atlanta and tells the story of a character forced to redefine herself in her mid-twenties while reflecting on the members of her family she lost as a child. Like An American Marriage, Jones’ third novel, Silver Sparrow (2011) focuses on leading a double life as it explores what happens when the daughters of a man with both a public family and a secret family meet and become friends. While Jones’s previous works primarily focus on younger protagonists, all four books closely dissect the intricacies of family life. Like Jones, contemporary African American writer Jesmyn Ward explores the effects of mass incarceration on black families in her 2017 novel Sing, Unburied, Sing. Michelle Alexander’s 2010 nonfiction book The New Jim Crow presents mass incarceration as a new form of slavery, while famed activist Angela Davis has written multiple books espousing the merits of prison abolition, including Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003) and Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (2004). Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 Just Mercy tells the true story of a young black man sentenced to die for a murder he insisted he did not commit.
Key Facts about An American Marriage
  • Full Title: An American Marriage
  • When Written: 2011-2018
  • Where Written: Newark, New Jersey
  • When Published: 2018
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Setting: Atlanta, Georgia and Eloe, Louisiana
  • Climax: Upon returning home after being wrongfully incarcerated for five years, Roy fights Andre for having a romantic relationship with Celestial but stops short of killing his friend.
  • Antagonist: Mass incarceration, racism
  • Point of View: First person alternating among three characters

Extra Credit for An American Marriage

Inspiration at the Mall. Though Jones initially planned to write An American Marriage entirely from Celestial’s perspective, she changed her mind after a conversation in an Atlanta mall revealed the urgency of the male character’s situation. Jones overheard an elegant woman tell her male companion, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years!” To which he responded, “I don’t know what you’re talking about; this wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place!”