Joseph and Ibi Zoboi’s courtship didn’t include romantic dinners, long flirty interactions, hand holding, kissing, or even much talking for that matter. “Usually there is an exchange of numbers, you call and then you go out. That’s what I understood it to be, but Joseph was different,” says Ibi, who worked alongside Joseph, at the time an art educator and set designer at the Girls & Boys Harbor in East Harlem in September of 2000. “It felt like someone who had a crush on you, but couldn’t approach you. We never kissed or even talked on the phone before he proposed,” she explains.
The pair didn’t engage in the traditional dating and intimacy dance. Instead, a few pivotal moments and exchanges would surprisingly be the catalyst for their ongoing 12-year marriage.
Like the one time, for example, Joseph asked Ibi to join him on a walk. “She had no idea where we were going, but she just went along with me,” recalls Joseph. He took her from Harlem all the way to downtown Brooklyn. “In my mind, her sharing that experience with me was a symbolic metaphor for marriage and life. Not everyone can make that journey with you, and she never complained.”
Although they barely spoke on their promenade through the two boroughs, this was the moment the then 30-year-old fell for Ibi. “It wasn’t just about the physical for me. What caught my eye was how she was conscious of African culture and the principles behind it.” Ibi’s Afrocentric aesthetic came to fruition at Hunter College. She went from wearing a perm to growing locks, making her own clothes and becoming a vegetarian immersed in politics and social activism (to the dismay of her conservative mother).
Twenty-three-year-old Ibi was in the midst of ending a two-year relationship, consumed by plans of jump-starting her writing career, and ready to move out of her mother’s house during that faithful walk with Joseph. “I was so distracted at the time, so I wasn’t so focused on him liking me. I do remember shortly after thinking how magical the walk was, and how safe I had felt with him. There was something commanding about his presence; I could really trust him. I never felt this in my previous relationships,” describes Ibi.
The next time they spent time together was when she was going to the movies alone and, unexpectedly, Joseph invited himself. “Again, we talked very little and it was really quiet. There was a deep connection happening that I did not recognize right away. He was much more aware of it,” she admits.
The Haitian-born, New York City-bred writer and educator’s first impressions of Joseph from afar had a hand in her initial hesitance to go there. “I really did not think he was my type. At that time, I was dating an Ivy League graduate poet. Joseph came across as dark and a loner, even though he was always smiling with the kids. He had a long beard, which he braided, and he wore a turban. He looked like a black Samurai carrying around a guitar,” says Ibi in mid-chuckle.
But when their conversations turned to reading (a favorite pastime of Ibi’s), she was instantly drawn to his passion for books and realized her view of him was far from reality. The two quickly started exchanging books. “I loved that he was well read. He read me passages he would highlight. I don’t remember thinking he would be a great boyfriend or husband, just that this was an amazing person,” says Ibi.
When she lent him her favorite book—The Spirit of Intimacy by Sobonfu Somé—the dynamic of their relationship was forever altered. Unlike their previous exchanges, Joseph didn’t share his thoughts on this particular book, which touches upon the power of spirituality in preserving relationships. “I thought he must have not read the book,” Ibi recalls. Little did she know Joseph not only read it but had planned to perform a special ceremony from the book for her.
“One of the things the author suggests to groom and nurture a relationship is to create an ash circle. I felt by Ibi giving me this book, she actually gave me the key on how to create the foundation for a safe and healthy relationship,” says Joseph.
On December 22, 2000, only three months after they first met, Joseph staged the ash circle ritual on the roof of the school. “In the center there was Joseph. He extended his hand and had me cross over to the middle of the circle. He got down on one knee and asked me to be his queen. I was shaking and crying,” says Ibi.
He presented her with a tall metal art piece she admired in a store but decided against purchasing due to its hefty price tag. It depicts three African women wearing three