The first time 39-year-old Imani A. Dawson-Layne laid eyes on Yuriel Layne at her church’s children choir in East New York, Brooklyn, she believed he would be a kindred spirit. “He was so cute. He was wearing glasses; he was a little chubby like I was, and he looked a little awkward like me too,” recalls Imani. “In my 8-year-old mind, I felt like we were meant for each other.”
While Imani wasn’t shy about voicing her feelings to her first big crush, a then painfully introverted 7-year-old Yuriel didn’t know what to make of gregarious Imani. “I thought she was very intense, and based on my personality, I thought this match would never work,” reflects 38-year-old Yuriel. But little did Imani and Yuriel know that marriage was in their distant future, and although it would be years before they dated, their lives would overlap on various occasions.
In the summer of 1987, a 12-year-old Imani and 11-year-old Yuriel crossed paths again at Prep for Prep, a program offering promising students of color access to a private school education. Their personalities may have been worlds apart. But the trait that bounded them was an enthusiasm for identifying as smart, so much so that the two engaged in a friendly rivalry.
“In church, we got a lot of shine for being smart, so we sort of competed against each other,” Yuriel remembers. He credits his Panamanian parents, especially his father, with instilling the importance of an education in him early on. “Education was a major focus in our household. For Christmas, my father would only want to buy us books. He believed education would open up all kinds of opportunities for us,” adds Yuriel, who is currently a vice president at Bank of America.
“We were Black nerds way back before it was cool to be. Everyone is a nerd now,” says Imani. Similar to Yuriel’s household, Imani’s mother and grandparents taught her that education was the key to independence. “My grandparents did not have the same opportunities as myself and my mom, so they wanted us to take full advantage. My mom has three masters [degrees], and she is now getting a PhD. I realized very early that being smart helps me differentiate myself from other people,” points out Imani.
After spending years as a journalist and TV producer, Imani is now the founder and editor-in-chief of Tribe Called Curl, a site aimed at empowering and inspiring women of color to embrace their textured hair.
“I remember seeing Imani at Prep for Prep and always reaching out and her being like, ‘I don’t want to hang with you’,” says Yuriel, before Imani interjects, “Wait, what?” “Oh, that’s not what happened?” asks Yuriel sarcastically. “I’m kidding. She always tells me how I tried to avoid her, but you know, I was just shy and aloof. I don’t think I even thought about it so much,” adds Yuriel.
Upon completing Prep for Prep, both Yuriel and Imani secured highly coveted spots at New York’s top private schools. Imani was admitted to all-girl Spence (which boasts actresses Kerry Washington and Gwyneth Paltrow as alumna). As for Yuriel, he headed to Dalton School where CNN’s Anderson Cooper and actor Bokeem Woodbine attended.
“We ended up going to school three blocks from each other. I was on 91st street and Yuriel was on 89th street. This was just another way our lives started to intersect,” says Imani. They often ran into each other on their long commute on the train from Brooklyn to the Upper East Side.
Even though Imani may have been “content to be friends” with Yuriel, she never really stopped crushing on him, even as she developed other childhood crushes. As part of an exchange day program, Yuriel spent a day at Spence and his student host turned out to be a friend of Imani’s.
“She knew who I was,” says Yuriel. “I had been talking about you since the seventh grade,” Imani responds. The New York City private school community is small, even smaller when it comes to minority students, so Yuriel and Imani’s circle of friends were mostly familiar with one another. “Basically his host was like, ‘You’re Imani’s Yuriel.’ ”
While she may have had a sweet spot in her heart for Yuriel, the two never stopped competing when it came to excelling in school. When Imani got into Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the first person she called was Yuriel. “I wanted to show off and he tells me that he also got in. I didn’t even know he applied,” says Imani.
Imani and Yuriel grew to be closer friends in college. “I did find myself gravitating to Yuriel as a comrade-in-arms in college. I would lay my burdens at his feet, even if inside he was like, ‘Do I have to listen to another story about a crush?’ He was always an advocate for me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. He was a great friend and source of advice,” explains Imani.
It was during the summer after senior year that Yuriel says, “There was a fleeting moment we could have connected.” But in retrospect, Imani thinks it wasn’t the right time. “See, I come from a household of extremely progressive politics, and his family is way more conservative. I think ideologically we were still far apart to make a connection,” shares Imani. The two would connect in 1999 and then in 2000. Imani had planned to join Yuriel at a Wharton function, but was a no-show. It would be five years later that Imani and Yuriel would reconnect.
“I was getting interested in making music, and I’m reading all these magazines and seeing this byline, Imani A. Dawson,” says Yuriel. He looked her up through Prep for Prep and sent her an email. “I was excited to hear from him. I wrote him back and asked him to hang out on my 30th birthday. Knowing him, I know he thought it sounded like a date,” says Imani.
Yuriel wrote back that he had plans on that day, but invited her to hang out on another day. This wasn’t like any other time they’d hung out in the past. “I could tell immediately that he had a crush on me. It was greatest moment in my life, ’cause I felt completely vindicated. It was nice for my ego,” says Imani.
At the end of the night Imani’s dormant feelings for Yuriel were reawakened while Yuriel’s were just ripening. The transition from best friends to romantic couple was seamless.
“I never thought Imani wasn’t attractive, funny and smart. I just thought our personalities clashed. But on that day, I was at a point where I had more life experience and more experience with women. I had a better sense of myself,” Yuriel explains. “She had this confidence emanating from her, like a shiny piece of jewelry. It wasn’t something she lacked before, but it was very obvious to me that day. It was like, whoa.”
They dated for five years.
Following years of dating other people, they say they found everything they longed in a partner in each other. Imani, for one, had had enough of dating selfish men. “It was about what I can do for them,” reveals Imani. “I recognize many Black men and women have to face obstacles in their quest for success. I don’t think going to college and having a good job entitles you to be a jerk,” reveals Imani.
Growing up, she always admired her grandparents’ relationship, and as an adult, Imani sought to replicate their special bond. “My grandparents loved each other but also led independent lives and had their own interests. When I was looking for a relationship, it was important for me to be independent and have a partner who respected me as an equal. That wasn’t always the case before Yuriel and I got together,” says Imani, adding, “He thinks deeply about the world. He is considerate, thoughtful, and the smartest person I know. “
Yuriel and Imani’s shared history was comforting to Yuriel. “I never felt more comfortable in my skin and who I was than with Imani. She is ambitious and has huge goals. She has a big purpose in life and I will always support her,” reveals Yuriel. The biggest lesson he says his father taught him, besides the value of education, was the meaning of love and support. “He was always about our family being for each other. He never wanted me and my siblings to fight; he wanted us to fight for each other.”
On April 7, 2010 Yuriel proposed.
“I was prepared for a life with her early on into our relationship.” It took place at a nature preserve in East New York that they’d uncovered one day playing hooky from work. “To have the proposal there meant the world to me. That place embodied our relationship. We were two kids from East New York trying to make our way through the world, and together we created something beautiful,” says Imani.
They eloped on the beach in Key West, Florida, on April 16.
The wedding was a private, laid-back affair with just the two of them. Imani wore a dress from J.Crew and Yuriel donned black jeans and a white jacket. “We declared our love for each other and the 12-year-old in me got what she had been dreaming about,” says Imani. For Yuriel, marriage marked a new beginning. “I felt my childhood lasted a long time beyond my teens and beyond my twenties. I was recognizing my transition into adulthood with Imani. I was very excited to marry her,” says Yuriel.
Imani and Yuriel started working on building a family almost immediately, but reproductive challenges left them wondering if they’d ever be able to have a child. “It can really tear at your self-esteem as a woman to have reproductive issues and not be able to do this thing biologically we are all supposed to be able to do. I felt betrayed by my body,” explains Imani. It took three IVF cycles for Imani to get pregnant. Their 18-month-old son, Kayin, was born in 2013. “It was a trying time, but we trusted each other and sacrificed a lot to bring our son Kayin here. His name literally means long-awaited and celebrated. We wanted him so badly,” says Yuriel.
Raising a free and critical thinker is Yuriel and Imani’s aspiration for Kayin. “We want him to be his own person without other’s people’s perception of what being a Black boy or man is,” says Imani. “We want to make sure he rejects that,” adds Yuriel.
From friends to husband and wife, father and mother, Yuriel and Imani’s love took time to blossom and grow into the Coolest Black Family they are today. Imani believes they’re truly blessed. “To me, there is nothing more rewarding than having a friendship with someone you love. We’re a perfect match.”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn’t always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at email@example.com (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she’s not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she’s writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and magazines. Check out her work and blog at AlexandraPhanor.com.