In An American Marriage, Jones notably focuses on a well-educated, successful black couple to explore the tensions between partners of different economic backgrounds as well as the broader intersection of race and class. The fact that Roy and Celestial’s upward mobility cannot shield them from the criminal justice system’s prejudicial assumptions about black people allows Jones to specifically highlight the insidious reach of racism.
Even before Roy’s arrest, much of the tension in Roy and Celestial’s relationship arises from their different upbringings. Roy, in fact, begins the novel by stating that Celestial views him as a “country boy,” a designation he “never cared for.” Roy is the first of his family to leave rural Louisiana to attend college, while Celestial grew up in relative privilege in Atlanta. Celestial believes that Roy’s mother, Olive, thinks she’s stuck up, and though Roy dismisses Celestial’s concern, this is in fact true. In the end of the novel Roy reads a letter his mother wrote to him years earlier, indicating that she believes Roy is marrying a woman who reflects the class he hopes to be a part of rather than a partner with whom he is truly compatible. Roy assures his wife that Olive will grow to like her with time, when she sees that Celestial is more down to earth than her background might suggest. Privately though, he knows that his mother criticizes his choice of a lighter-skinned black woman, a mindset reflective of societal associations of light skin with wealth and sophistication (and, in Olive’s mind, snobbery). Instead, Olive would prefer that her son pick a woman who is more like himself—and, it follows, like Olive: darker-skinned and from their small town of Eloe, Louisiana; she sees Celestial as a rebuke of her own life and values.
Celestial’s parents, on the other hand, embrace Roy. Both Davenports are successful professionals—Gloria a school administrator and Franklin a scientist—who experienced an extra boost in fortune when Franklin was able to sell one of his inventions. Celestial, though, desires to remain tied to her earlier roots, at one point reminding Roy of her grandparents’ occupation as sharecroppers when he expresses concerns about not being high class enough to satisfy Celestial’s parents. This acknowledgement of their shared humble beginnings, rather than their current statuses, shows Celestial’s desire to meet her in-laws in the middle, drawing comparisons between their lives rather than establishing differences. The lower class, meanwhile, appears to resent the upper class for allegedly compromising their culture in an attempt to assimilate to the standards of white society.
The novel ultimately suggests that the issue of race, however, supersedes that of class. Prejudice is something both families experience regardless of their wealth or status. For example, when Andre goes to Eloe to find Roy, he drives carefully, well-aware that his nice car combined with the color of his skin make him suspicious to law enforcement. When Roy takes Celestial to spend the night at the Piney Inn, he reveals that Olive used to work as a maid there, at a time when Confederate flags hung in the rooms. Roy himself was almost born at the Inn, but Olive refused to let her son enter the world under a symbol of the Confederacy. Nevertheless, Roy is arrested in the same place his mother once cleaned rooms; the flags may have been removed, but the racist societal attitudes they represented live on.
The circumstance of Roy’s arrest creates a shocking reminder of the ever-present prejudice hovering over the characters’ lives. Seemingly aware of stereotypes of black men as dangerous, Roy is demonstrably polite in his interaction with the woman in the hotel who will go on to accuse him of rape. He goes above and beyond in helping the woman, carrying her ice bucket back to her room and even trying to fix the bathroom plumbing. He says he behaves as “the gentleman my mama raised me to be” and that he even “called her ma’am” before leaving. Nevertheless, he is immediately singled out as a suspect and ultimately convicted of attacking the woman. Given the time period of the novel’s writing and the reality of the extensive societal criminalization of black men, it is clear that Roy’s race factors into his conviction and sentence. Roy’s incarceration destabilizes his family’s hard-won conception of safety and stability. If this could happen to someone like Roy, Jones suggests, then those of a lower social class stand even less of a chance of being treated fairly by a prejudiced criminal justice system. The novel thus ultimately underscores the frequent inability of black Americans to completely extricate themselves from a system that seeks to keep them entrenched in poverty and crime.
Race and Class ThemeTracker
Race and Class Quotes in An American Marriage
But home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch. You can’t pick your home any more than you can choose your family. In poker you get five cards. Three of them you can swap out, but two are yours to keep: family and native land.
Did we love so forcefully that night because we knew or because we didn’t? Was there an alarm from the future, a furious bell without its clapper? Did this hopeless bell manage to generate a breeze, causing me to reach to the floor to find my slip and use it to cover myself? Did some subtle warning cause Roy to turn and pin me to his side with his heavy arm?
But what is real? Was it our uneventful first impression? Or the day in New York, of all places, where we found each other once again? Or did things “get real” when we married, or was it the day that the prosecutor in a little nowhere town declared Roy to be a flight risk? The state declared that though he may have roots in Louisiana, his home was in Atlanta, so he was held without bond or bail. At this pronouncement, Roy spat out a caustic laugh. “So now roots are irrelevant?”
Am I different? It has been close to three years, so I guess I have changed. Yesterday I sat under the hickory tree in the front yard. It’s the only place where I find rest and just feel fine. I know fine isn’t a lot, but it’s rare for me these days. Even when I’m happy, there is something in between me and whatever good news comes my way. It’s like eating a butterscotch still sealed in a wrapper. The tree is untouched by whatever worries we humans fret over. I think about how it was here before I was born and it will be here after we’re all gone. Maybe this should make me sad, but it doesn’t.
“I’m ready. But I can’t lie. Sometimes I feel guilty as hell for just being able to live my life.”
I didn’t have to tell him that I understood, because he knew that I did. There should be a word for this, the way it feels to steal something that’s already yours.
When I was twenty-four, living in New York City, I thought maybe black love went that way, too, integrated into extinction.
Nikki Giovanni said, “Black love is Black wealth.”
“I know,” she said. “Nobody around here thought you did it. It was just the wrong race and the wrong time. Police are shady as hell. That’s why everybody is locked up.”
Now Mr. Davenport was loyal to Roy above his own daughter. In a way, the whole black race was loyal to Roy, a man just down from the cross.
“Is it love, or is it convenience?” Gloria asked me that Thanksgiving Day after my father had stormed upstairs and Andre went to gather our coats. She explained that convenience, habit, comfort, obligation—these are all things that wear the same clothing as love sometimes. Did I think this thing with Andre was maybe too easy? He is literally the boy next door.
All I wanted to take with me was my tooth. For years, I stored it in a velvet box, like what a ring comes in. I couldn’t tell her because she would think that I was being sentimental, that I was turning the memory of our first date over in my mouth like a mint. She wouldn’t understand that I couldn’t leave without the rest of my body.
Have you ever stared fury in its eyes? There is no saving yourself from a man in its throes. Roy’s face was haunted and wild. The cords of his neck muscles were like cables; his lips made a hard gash. The unceasing blows were fueled by a need to hurt me that was greater than his own need for oxygen or even freedom. His need to hurt me was greater even than my own desire to survive. My efforts to protect myself where ritualistic, mannered, and symbolic, while his fists, feet, and needs were operating from a brutal code.
But I was sorry. Not for what was between Celestial and me, I would never regret that. I was sorry for a lot of things. I was sorry for Evie, suffering from lupus for so many years. I was sorry for elephants killed for their ivory. I was sorry for Carlos, who traded one family for another. I was sorry for everyone in the world because we all had to die and nobody knew what happened after that. I was sorry for Celestial, who was probably watching from the window. Most of all, I was sorry for Roy. The last time I saw him on that morning before his mother’s wake, he said, “I never had a chance, did I? I only thought I did.”
But he only turned toward Old Hickey. “It’s too much.” Then quickly—it must have been quickly—but I somehow took notice of each move, Roy tucked his lips against his teeth, gripped the tree like a brother, and then tipped his head back, presenting his face to the sky before driving his forehead against the ancient bark. The sound was muted, like the wet crack of an egg against the kitchen floor. He did it again, harder this time.