The final, published version of An American Marriage, the current selection of Oprah’s Book Club, features a trio of voices: Roy, Celestial, and Andre, Celestial’s love interest during Roy’s prison term, speak in alternating sections. The resulting story dramatizes the horrors of mass incarceration while navigating ethically fraught questions about loyalty, fidelity, and self-sacrifice. Tayari Jones is also the author of three other novels, Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, and Silver Sparrow. She spoke to me by phone.
Tayari Jones: I first read Song of Solomon as a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, a historically black college for women. It was founded in the 1800s, to provide education for emancipated women, but along the way it (unfairly, in my opinion) developed a reputation for being a sort of finishing school. Maybe that’s what my parents had in mind when they sent me there—that it was a good school for nice, achieving, smart “race women.” They thought I was going to get finished. Instead, I went and got ideologically turned out—and Toni Morrison was one reason for that.
Before Spelman, I understood myself as a black person more than a black woman. I had not really considered the way that my gender influenced the way I moved through the world. I grew up in southwest Atlanta, segregated and bourgeois, much like the characters in Song of Solomon. It had not yet occurred to me that there was such a thing as gendered experience.
I was born in 1970, after all, just post–civil rights. My parents are both PhDs in the social sciences. The racial conversation was such a part of everything. But having grown up in the ’70s, I’d always had that. Even as a baby I’d had books with black children in them. All my dolls were black; the talking one squeaked, “I’m black and I’m proud!” Sometimes when I give talks people ask me to tell them about the moment when I first realized that black people could be the center of stories. I think the answer would be “shortly after I was born.”
At the same time, I hadn’t really noticed how difficult it was for women to be the subject of stories. It never occurred to me that all the puppets on Sesame Street were boy puppets. Cookie Monster. Grover. The one in the trash can, that little red guy. Even Big Bird is a boy. Sesame Street had a multiracial cast and some of the people were women (shout out to Maria!), but all puppets were boy puppets. And no one ever noticed. Growing up, if there was a TV show with no black children represented, my parents would have said, “We’re not watching that.” But with all those boy puppets, no one even blinked.
But in college I started to see that so many of the theories of power I understood about race also applied to gender. It changed me. I would never be the same. And Song of Solomon was a big part of that epiphany. It was that book that taught me gender equality wasn’t just about society—it was about me, personally. It taught me that the patriarchy begins at home. That they call it “patriarchy” because it’s about your father and your brothers and your family. It’s obvious to me now. But at the time, at 17, it was a shock. I love my fathers and my brothers. Daddy and I are especially close, yet I couldn’t deny that there was a serious power imbalance at play.