This year, after 40 years, I finally learned how Black History Month came to be. It emerged out of the efforts of a former slave named Richard Robert Wright Sr. He thought that February 1, the day Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, should be commemorated across the nation; a year after he died, in 1948, President Harry S. Truman made it so. That set the stage for what would later become Black History Week, which would later extend to the full month. I mention this because books about about blackness tend to publish in February. Black stories, somehow, are elevated more this month. But they are resonant all year round.
I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God every year. This year, I found another book I will likely read again and again, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage. Aside from the fact that both books were penned by black women authors from the South, they also unearth the realities that complicate black heterosexual relationships in ways that are unique and hard to describe with grace or insight. Both are epic love stories that are at once timely and classic. Like Black History Month, and perhaps black history, so much of the story of our people is framed by slavery and struggle. Love is the only respite or solution, and, of course, even that is fraught, weighted by shackles.
Hurston and Jones offer us a little bit of humor and light, descriptions that give us back some air—sounds and beauty to remind us that not all darkness leads to despair. (And because there is such a dearth of diversity in publishing, I have to be clear that I’m not saying that I think Jones is the new Hurston. But it also happens that Valentine’s Day falls in the midst of Black History Month, so there is some synchronicity here that gives me an excuse to write about their unique brilliance and the way it overlaps.)
First, An American Marriage. The old folks might say that Roy and Celestial are not exactly equally yoked, as Scripture puts it. Roy is a down-home country boy from Eloe, La. She is well-to-do from Atlanta. The way he puts it is that she’s a “shooting star” woman, the kind he’s always had a thing for. Celestial and Roy have a friend named Andre who is better friends with Celestial, which turns out to be as suspicious as it might sound. From the beginning, we get the sense that Roy has a chip on his shoulder about their marriage that was placed there by Celestial’s family.
An argument between the two of them sends Roy out of their hotel room and into a situation that ends with his wrongful imprisonment. He goes to prison based on the oldest trope connected to black manhood in the South and in America: the rape of a white woman.
I don’t want to give away the plot, the twists and the turns. But An American Marriage showcases Jones at the height of her narrative powers. The novel alternates between first-person narration from the perspective of Roy, Celestial, and Andre, except for when Roy and Celestial are engaged in an engrossing, detailed, and ultimately heartbreaking correspondence. We know from experience or because we read, or because we have heard our coupled and married friends bemoan the truth of this: a person, a love, a relationship can be a prison. The throbbing, broken heart of An American Marriage is the tension we feel between rooting for Celestial to be free and wondering if it is her obligation to experience the same wrongful incarceration as Roy. This is a letter from Celestial to Roy in prison, on what losing him has taught her about love:
Our house is 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. Before I met you, I was not lonely, but now I’m so lonely I talk to the walls and sing to the ceiling.
I thought I was doing okay, that I wasn’t in danger at all of being gutted by this book, and then I read that line and my eyes swelled with tears at the accuracy of what lost love feels like—singing to a bare ceiling as you miss your beloved.
It is the kind of breathlessness I only ever experience over black love as depicted in Their Eyes Were Watching God, which begins with a line that I love more than any other in literature: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish onboard.” As someone who is perpetually crushing on someone, somewhere, this is how I always feel.
But this sets the stage for Hurston’s epic, which is about how women call in our horizons for the sake of love—she does not decide or cast judgment on whether we should. Janie first marries a mean ol’ man who ends up as Mayor Starks. No one really likes him, but he’s respected. He makes her tie up her long luscious hair and beats her instead of loving on her. The difference between a woman like Janie and a woman like Celestial could be said to be the difference between that generation and ours. Janie sticks it out, she stays confined.
But thankfully, a cruel fate befalls him (one gets the sense that Hurston, as a writer, was just fed up with Joe Starks so she killed him off) and Janie ends up a wealthy widower in South Florida. After she burns the rags, a man half her age named Tea Cake courts her scandalously (They play checkers in her husband’s store and the dead husband’s body ain’t even cold yet! They go fishing at night!) and he makes her “soul crawl out from its hiding place.”
What the stories have in common is a bittersweet ending, which is probably the biggest challenge with black love, which is maybe what makes it particularly fraught. We can liberate ourselves from what we believe our love should look like, but for us, holding onto memory usually has baggage attached. Remembrance for us always has the death of something in it. And it requires us to work to cleanse memory of death and pain. Maybe that’s why it’s good we come back to this month every year after all, to find good things to remember, and to celebrate them.