In An American Marriage, Jones reveals the extraordinary effect mass incarceration has on the lives of black Americans. The tightly-focused narrative reveals how incarceration can destroy families, placing them at a social disadvantage from which it is difficult to recover. The novel further suggests that incarceration is a destructive force with little practical ties to justice, and which does more to harm society than it does to keep it safe.
Roy is a young, middle-class black man who falls prey to the codified racism of the American criminal justice system when he is wrongfully accused of a violent crime—something that happens disproportionately to black men—and sentenced to 12 years in prison. This sentence, of course, has a profound effect on Roy’s life. He’s forced to leave his job as a rising executive, stopping his budding career dead in its tracks. He is unable to attend the funeral of his mother Olive, who dies while he is in prison. He feels completely isolated from his family because none of them have experienced the pain and injustice with which he must contend on a daily basis. Even as a lawyer fights to get Roy’s conviction overturned, Roy slowly begins to see that his life when he gets out will look nothing like it did before prison. Through the example of Roy, Jones underscores the fact that incarceration affects individuals’ lives long after a sentence is served.
While Roy experiences the effects of incarceration personally, there are also repercussions of his incarceration on everyone around him. Aside from being separated from her husband, Celestial, who had at one point longed to have a child with Roy, decides it is no longer the right choice given their situation and has an abortion. Additionally, Roy had been integral in the development of her career as an artist, but his guiding presence is no longer possible as she develops and grows her business. Roy’s incarceration forces Celestial into a lonely position as her world is turned upside down and she must learn to live as an effectively single woman.
Later in the novel, Roy finds out that Davina’s son, Hopper, is also incarcerated. Hopper refuses to talk to his mother, showing the extreme breakdown in a parental relationship that can also happen when a child is incarcerated. Hopper’s refusal to communicate with Davina causes her later lack of interest in having additional children with Roy. As Roy comes to realize, prisoners are rarely able to resume life as it was before their incarceration, even when they are exonerated—not just because of the ways in which society disadvantages ex-convicts, but also because of the ways in which incarceration drives people apart from their loved ones.
When Roy is ultimately released after serving five years of his sentence, it becomes clear that his time in prison has irrevocably changed him. He finds himself prone to bouts of violence and anger that frighten both himself and those around him. At one point he even threatens to rape Celestial, telling her that he could “take it”—meaning her body—if he wanted to. Celestial braces herself for what she feels is an inevitable violation, but Roy stops himself. The following morning, he guiltily reflects on this moment as a mark of what prison has done to him. Later, when he and Andre fight over Celestial, the latter is surprised by Roy’s brutality, and wonders whether he learned to fight with such rage in prison. Through these examples, Jones highlights the deep, lasting effect of incarceration on a man’s psyche.
In this way, the book takes an extremely critical stance in its examination of the practice of incarceration in general, which Roy reflects too often has little to do with guilt or innocence. Distancing family members from one another reduces the possibility of a prisoner returning to a stable home life, placing not only the prisoner, but their entire family at a disadvantage. When such a practice is then echoed throughout a community, it can lead to a vicious cycle of crime and oppression. An American Marriage ultimately suggests that the prison system—ostensibly designed to keep a community safe—in reality destabilizes and disrupts the lives of everyone in its orbit.
The Effects of Incarceration ThemeTracker
The Effects of Incarceration 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.
Memory is a queer creature, an eccentric curator. I still look back on that night, although not as often as I once did. How long can you live with your face twisted over your shoulder? No matter what people may say, this was not a failure to remember. I’m not sure it is a failure at all.
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?”
Sleeping by myself didn’t kill me then and will not kill me now. But this is what loss has taught me of love. Our house isn’t simply empty, our home has been emptied. Love makes a place in your life, it makes a place for itself in your bed. Invisibly, it makes a place in your body, rerouting all your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it’s gone, nothing is whole again.
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 am innocent.
I am innocent, too.
“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.
But that was when we thought incarceration had something to do with being guilty or at least being stupid.
We laughed, a real laugh, a shared laugh. This is when our life changed. We came to each other with joy on our lips. What came next may not have been legally binding; there was no clergyman or witness. But it was ours.
“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.
The son that Celestial and I didn’t have would have been four or five, I think. If a kindergartener slept in the backroom, there is no way Celestial would be talking about how she’s with Andre now. I would say, “A boy need his father.” This is a scientific fact. There wouldn’t be anything else to talk about.
But as things were, there was a lot to talk about, more words than could fit into my mouth.
“I accidentally killed a man,” he told me. “I’ve been through a lot, Celestial. Even if you go in innocent, you don’t come out that way. So, please?”
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.