TW: False r*pe accusation
Towards the beginning of this summer, my good friend and I read and raved about An American Marriage by Tayari Jones together. Aside from fueling the Black feminist in me, this novel has easily become a part of my personal canon of amazing literature, and solidified Jones as one of my favorite storytellers today. Jones’ powerful command of language and her ability to create vivid, touching narrative help amplify the sheer, uninhibited Blackness of the characters, setting, and story itself. What stood out most to me, of course, were the Black feminist themes that undergirded the story.
Our main character, Celestial, is placed in incredibly difficult circumstances when her husband—with whom she has a complex relationship—is wrongfully accused of r*ping an elderly white woman. Immediately I am aware that even in our romantic spaces, it is impossible for Black people to escape the social ramifications of living in Black bodies. Roy is sentenced to eleven years in prison.
Roy’s character epitomizes the real-life experiences of countless Black men who are marginalized in American society, and this very specific tale exemplifies how society expects Black women to respond to Black men’s oppression.
Wrongful or unjust imprisonment and police brutality are staple images of Black male oppression, so much so that they often overshadow the ways that Black women, femmes, LGBT+, and gender-nonconforming people are systemically brutalized in similar ways. Black sex workers are among our most vulnerable, subject not only to the rageful brutality of police—sexual violence is the second most reported form of police misconduct, after use of force (Amnesty International)—but also to the violent, rapacious whims of clients, lovers, and even strangers who intentionally seek us out to harm us.
Black transwomen are, across the board, even more susceptible to violence than ciswomen simply because of their transness. Black transwomen are killed at disproportionate and largely ignored rates, with four deaths passing only in the last week. #SayHerName
I say all this to say: Black community, and especially liberation, has been largely focused on the experiences of cishetero Black men. State-sanctioned violence is only one of the many ways Black women experience oppression, and the aforementioned examples only touch on systemic issues. The domestic violence, and sexual abuse & assault rates for Black women and girls are fucking ridiculous.
Okay. Back to the novel.
A couple years pass, and Celestial has tried to remain vigilant in her marriage to a man imprisoned more than two hours away from her. The toll of travel, invasive searching, and lack of romantic affection—not to mention control problems that existed prior to Roy’s sentencing—begin to weigh heavily on Celestial. She eventually makes the intentional decision to un-pause her life and, instead, move forward with her own journey: her dreams and passions, her childhood romance.
Tayari sets the stage for a dynamic that holds unique consequences for Black women in heterosexual relationships: Black women as “ride or dies.” Because the general consensus among Black people who have historically wielded power has been to center our lives around cisgendered, heterosexual Black men (typically those with capital), Celestial choosing to do anything “other than organiz[e] her life around [Roy’s] comfort would be considered treasonous” (Tayari Jones on writing a feminist novel from a man’s point of view).
(Another tangential rant coming up.)
U.S. Black feminist thought is predicated on the experiences of Black American women—much of it comparable to that of our sisters internationally. Our foremothers have done the very hard work of labeling phenomena, theorizing our lives and history, and connecting all our experiences while allowing room to consider the different ways that we move through life individually. So while Celestial’s circumstances may not seem inherently political, they are connected to a social justice theory that aims to free Black women both systemically and personally. For us, liberation will look like economic parity, unbridled body autonomy, safety from police terrorism, housing security, educational attainment, and access to things like affordable healthcare and healthy food. And it will also look like equitable relationships that don’t break our backs with unpaid, unequal emotional and physical labor (home-making, childcare, etc.), safety from domestic and street violence, and the freedom to put ourselves, our happiness, our lives first. It will not ask us to lay down on the ground so Black men have something on which to walk to freedom. Celestial’s decision to put her life first is an act of revolution.
Similar themes of personal revolution appear in Ava DuVernay’s 2012 film Middle of Nowhere, which I watched last night and fuck-ing loved. I cried, literally, in the first three minutes. Not only does DuVernay tell an amazing story that ignores the traditional witches-hat model that most Hollywood films follow, but she re-imagines Black life so that it is not riddled with maddening racist, sexist, and classist stereotypes.
Our main character Ruby makes a much different decision than Celestial when her partner, Derek, is sent to prison for illegal transport of guns. For the first four-and-a-half years of Derek’s five-year-with-good-behavior sentence Ruby sticks by his side. She suffers the long bus rides to and from prison bonding with other Black women on the way to visit their loved ones. She takes fewer shifts to ensure she’s around when Derek calls and essentially blocks out everything in her life that is not centered around freeing him. Derek falls pretty hard into the bowels of the American Prison Industrial System and Ruby becomes entirely responsible for his morale and freedom. This relentless commitment that Ruby sacrificed her life to give to Derek, is what Roy expected from Celestial because she was a Black woman and he was a Black man.
After Ruby has spent virtually all her money on Derek’s case—she borrows $750 from her mother to pay half of a bill she owes her husband’s lawyer—they finally have a chance at retribution. Derek may get an early release based on good behavior. Prior to his parole hearing, though, Derek is indicted in a fight and charged with assault, padding his current charges and adding jail time. I was certain this would be a stain on his unblemished in-prison record, and my sympathy for Derek skyrocketed. Until it was revealed at his hearing that while in prison he cheated on Ruby with a guard.
Ava DuVernay does an amazing job getting the audience to sympathize with Derek who is navigating prison life, which leaves him with new [gang-affiliated] tattoos and inexplicable scars. During the scene when Ruby tells Derek she’s leaving, I was admittedly hurt. My eyes were filled to the brim with tears and my throat hurt from choking them back, until—bam!—I remembered that nigga is a lie and a cheat.
With the help of the women around her—her mother and sister who force her to reevaluate how she’s let a man’s life overrun hers, her person, her mind—and a new romance, Ruby is able to move forward. The movie doesn’t end with her choosing a romantic partner, instead she tells Derek he needs to do for himself and she will no longer bear the burden of his freedom.
A huge difference between the two tales—one I only trust Black women to make—is both women left their partners in different circumstances. Celestial was not so obviously spurned by her partner as Ruby was—though we come to understand that Roy sees her as his property, expects her to halt her life for him, and at one point contemplates r*ping her. DuVernay even makes it a point to show us that at the beginning of his sentence, Derek wanted Ruby to move on and Ruby made the decision not to. In fact as the movie is ending and Ruby is leaving visitation for the last time (for a while, at least), she sits on Derek’s lap and kisses him like she hasn’t in five years. (At this point, I was full-on bawling.)
Celestial’s decision to annul her marriage to Roy is different than Ruby’s decision to wait for Derek to get his shit together, though the latter will not wait in stagnation. In both cases, Black women make a conscious decision not to be the unwavering, unrequited backbone to Black men. Regardless of their individual circumstances, neither woman was the “ride or die” that media, music, and your current romantic interest will try to make you believe is a Black woman’s place.
Out of a necessary sense of racial solidarity, Black women have consistently, without compensation or reciprocation pushed our needs to the back burner. As sisters in this movement that we cannot escape (a phenomenon that white women in particular do not experience), we are both unrecognized in our own struggles and simultaneously expected to alleviate our brothers’ and fathers’ and sons’.
For Roy, who was used to the women in his life organizing themselves around his needs (his mother included), Celestial’s decision to leave was unprecedented. For Derek who wronged Ruby—who stopped everything in her life when everything in his did—her leaving was foreseeable. However, it is important that both creators framed these narratives so that it was clear that: 1. Black women are the only ones expected to live for other people, and 2. neither woman betrayed her race by choosing not to do the former. In absorbing both narratives I am reminded that every day I choose to put myself first, I fuel my own personal revolution. When I am healthy and whole, I am better able to help free all my people.
Both narratives are romantic at their basis, and as a person currently romantically involved with a cisgendered man I am constantly aware of the balance that is necessary to have a reciprocal, loving, feminist relationship and still maintain my own sense of self and purpose. It is a difficult balance to find and requires unlearning and daily work on both our parts. I want to thank Tayari and Ava, and the tireless work of Black feminists before us, for producing my story and that of countless others. For putting our lives into perspective, for disallowing us to continue being doormats for Black men and love.
© Ama Akoto (2018)