Just one tear. Reflecting on “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones

“The vast generosity of women is a mysterious tunnel, and nobody knows where it leads. The writing on the walls spells out trick questions, and as a man, you must know that you cannot reason your way out.” I read these words this morning among the closing pages of an emotionally charged and delightful read of Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage. In the New York Times best seller Jones tells the story of a love triangle between an wrongly accused and incarcerated man, his wife, and her friend turned lover.

When I first picked up the book, I thought it was going to be a novel illustrating the plight of incarcerated Black men in America. It is certainly that, but so much more. As Tayari Jones points out by remembering the sage advice of her mentor, “always write about people and their problems not problems and their people.” There were a number of emotions this read brought out of me that I’m still processing, but this morning as I read, my mind thrust me backwards to a moment as a much younger man. At the time I was serving as a chaplain for the county detention facility in Mississippi County, Arkansas. My responsibilities included directing a worship service and bible study twice a week for the incarcerated. At the time I was unaware that likely many of the men I was attempting to minister to were probably incarcerated on minor offenses, with the Black men facing significantly harsher sentences than their white counterparts.

But as I read the closing chapters of An American Marriage, I remember one especially moment where I had to inform a young Black inmate that his mother had died. I remember being informed by the Warden that it was my responsibility to do so, and having mixed feelings about what to say. I gathered myself, and whispered a prayer as I walked into the cellblock where the young man was alone atop his bunk. The white concrete blocks that surrounded us bore witness to the moment. I placed my hand on the young man shoulder, spoke his name, and as gently as I could informed him of his mother’s passing. There was a silence. A long silence where neither of us said anything. The young inmate knew that his mother was sick, but I’m sure that nothing prepared him to hear in that moment that she was dead. I’ll never forget the single solitary tear that slipped from his eye and made its way down his cheek and off his face. It was just one tear.

Just one tear was all this Black young man would give himself permission to shed in front of me. I remember trying to offer some words of comfort, some platitudes that now, upon reflection, seem trite and shallow. The truth is that with my limited experience there was no way I could relate to what the inmate was feeling. I was white. He was Black. I was free. He was incarcerated. I enjoyed the fellowship of my family and he remained separated from those he loved. The young man was locked away from society and had to endure the added humiliation of hearing of his mother’s death from a stranger. After a moment, he asked me about requesting to attend his mother’s funeral, and I assured him that I would follow up with that request. I don’t know what happened. I do hope that he did get to attend his mother’s funeral.

Emotions and memories are strange bedfellows. At the time, I really thought myself a hero, preaching the Bible to incarcerated men. But looking back, most of what I did in the name of service to others and to God, was most often in the service of myself. I was ignorant of the reasons my captive audience were serving sentences. I was willfully ignorant of most of their life experiences, and wouldn’t come to that knowledge until much later in life. I’ll admit that I still have much to learn. I’m not sure why or how Tayari Jones’ work of fiction stirred these emotions in me, but I’m grateful they did. In her essay “This is a love story” that concludes her book An American Marriage, Jones quotes Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: “What happens to you doesn’t belong to you, only half concerns you. It’s not yours. Not yours only.”

I suppose that all of us live our lives seeing ourselves as the hero of the story. We are limited to looking only through the lens of our own perspectives. The sadness that populates my heart upon my recollection of my exchange with that prisoner is magnified by the fact, that although I remember saying his name, now I can’t remember his name. It would be easy for me to blame this on the number of years that have passed, certainly they have, but the larger truth is harder to swallow. It is more likely that I can’t remember his name because I was never really intent on doing so. I was fulfilling a responsibility as Chaplain in a position that I valued for the experience I gained. I missed the most important part, it was never about the experience I gained as a minister, but rather about the people who were in my care. A lesson that in some respects I’m learning too late.

Yet amid my lament, I’m grateful for the memory. I’m hopeful that however clumsy my attempt to comfort that young man may have been, that somehow it helped. I’m thankful that he was courageous and vulnerable enough to show one single solitary tear to me, something that must be very difficult to do in the harsh environment of incarceration. I’m grateful for the lessons, what has happened to me isn’t just about me, but about the people, the relationships, the moments we collectively share. I’m thankful that Tayari Jones wrote her novel and that I read it, and for the emotions it evoked in me.

There are still trick questions in the world that I’m attempting to answer.

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