Relationships have a way of mirroring back our true selves. A year into Karen Tappin’s relationship with her now husband Damani Saunderson, she began to exhibit some familiar but toxic behavior. “I had a big personality then, and I liked to argue about silliness,” explains 40-year-old Karen. “I was just mean to guys I was dating.” Karen refused to acknowledge her irrational conduct, and self-described “immaturity” was at the root of her relationship issues. “All the guys I dated before did not really care. They were just happy to be with me, so they did not complain.”
That is, until Damani spoke up.
One day, when she was on the verge of sparking a row, Damani quickly pressed pause. “Damani was like, ‘Pump your breaks, not here, not me, not now. That’s not gonna work.’ ” It was at that exact moment it dawned on Karen that picking fights may drive the man she was falling in love with away.
“I was getting ready to mess up the perfect relationship. I stopped dead in my tracks and did a 180. I’m not going to lose this man over nonsense.” Karen adds that arguing and holding grudges over “the most insignificant things” wasn’t making her happy. When they first started dating back in 2000, Damani’s unflappable persona was contagious to the former drama-obsessed Karen. “I decided I want to be happy, nice, cool, calm and collected all the time, like this new man I’m dating. He was a breath of fresh air,” she shares.
And Karen wasn’t the only one who experienced some growing pains during the three years they dated before tying the knot in 2003. “We both changed. In order for people to stay together, people have to change,” says 57-year-old Damani, who was immersed in self-development, holistic health, yoga and martial arts when he first met Karen. “I learned how to think before I speak. I learned how not to say things out of anger. I had already started working on that, but my relationship with Karen helped me develop that side of me.”
It was 15 years ago that Karen and Damani first met. They were both high school social studies teachers in Brooklyn. “I was walking down the hallway and saw this tall, dark man walking my way. I was trying not to stare and look thirsty,” recalls Karen. She didn’t get a close look at him, since he turned into a classroom before they could pass each other. “The next day he came into my classroom while I was eating my lunch and asked why I was being anti-social.”
“I was attracted to her. I love her eyes. I’m an eye man,” says Damani. The pair was pleased to discover once they started talking over home-cooked lunches Karen would bring to school that there was much more to both of them than their physical attributes. “When I was dating, if a guy talked terribly about his ex-girlfriend, family or children, the deal was off. None of those negative signs came up with Damani. He was very mature, responsible, and had a great job teaching for decades. He was also a Black nationalist. I never knew anyone that had political views about Africans in the Diaspora,” says Karen.
“I liked the dedication she showed to her father when we spoke. Karen was smart and kind. It was easy to fall for her,” says Damani. “We shared a lot in common. We both loved to teach kids and we were both entrepreneurs.”
Damani had a record label and was producing artists, while Karen—who created her family business, a health care agency, at 16—started her own care-package business in college a year later at 17, Karen’s Delicious Deliveries (est. 1993).
“Entrepreneurship is rare and kind of a lonely world. Entrepreneurship is something that has been always coursing through my veins. Damani and I really related on that level,” says Karen. In 2002, Karen convinced Damani to join forces with her to build give Karen’s Delicious Deliveries a makeover.
“Karen thought I was wasting my money on my business. Her business didn’t require lots of money. It made sense,” says Damani. In summer ’03, the couple morphed Karen’s Delicious Deliveries into Karen’s Body Beautiful, a line of natural beauty products for hair, bath and body. In November ’04, they signed a store lease and opened their doors in February of that year. Today, Karen’s Body Beautiful is one of the most successful natural beauty product lines in the country.
Running a full-fledged beauty enterprise requires lots of work, time and dedication. Many would advise married couples not to work together, for fear it might cause turmoil in their marriages. But for the Saundersons, this couldn’t be further from their truth. Juggling their marriage, parenting their daughter (Imani, 8) and running a thriving company is all in day’s work for Karen and Damani.
“The business is an integral part of our marriage. I’m not sure if that’s the way it should be, but that’s how it is in our relationship. It works great for us,” says Damani. “I couldn’t ask for a better arrangement or dream for a better husband, business partner and father. I’m living the best life ever,” says Karen.
Some might also advise the couple to set clear boundaries between work and personal time to ensure smooth sailing when working with each other, but the Saundersons say their current arrangement, in which work is always up for discussion, works just fine for them. “We spend a lot of time talking about the business and we enjoy it. On our down time, we talk about it and our plans for the future. Our business is our marriage, our marriage is our business,” adds Karen.
Mixing business with pleasure isn’t the only area where the Saundersons differ from most couples. “Damani and I are not romantic. I don’t have a ring and I don’t care. It’s not a big deal,” says Karen, who admits that she never wanted to get married until she started dating Damani. “I remember asking him if he would marry me. Am I the one he would marry? He said, ‘Yes, and I said, ‘Let’s go down to city hall and get married tomorrow.’ He said, ‘Okay.’ ”
“I loved her and knew I wanted children with her,” says Damani.
Imani was born in 2007. They opted for a home birth. “It was the first time I experienced tears of joy. It was a powerful moment that I will always cherish,” says Damani. “The most beautiful experience was having my child at home. My sisters were there and so were his sons. When Imani came into the world, it was wonderful,” says Karen. Just like marriage, she never planned on having kids… until she met Damani (of course). “I admired the relationship he had with his sons. They were very close,” she says.
But making the transition from girlfriend to stepmother of both a 12- and 16-year-old wasn’t as seamless as everyone in the family would’ve hoped. “It was rough and somewhat difficult at first. There was some tension, and it was resolved,” admits Damani. Karen blames herself for that setback in their family unit.
“It was me. It was part of that whole immature phase I was in. Holding on to dumb stuff and sweating the small stuff,” says Karen. “I changed my whole approach and didn’t let silly things get in the way.” One of those things that drove Karen (a self-described neat freak) crazy was the boy’s messiness. “I needed to just accept that they are messy. Me coming in arguing and getting upset wasn’t going to solve anything. They are young boys; it’s gonna be messy!” Today the “boys”—Nana Yaw (30) and Kweku (25)—are close with Karen and get along “swimmingly.”
Raising Imani to be a kind and giving person is Damani and Karen’s focus now. Not surprisingly for two former social studies teachers, academics are a priority, but they also stress the importance of Imani being a good person.
“I value intelligence [but] I am more interested in moral behavior, a good foundation to continue our legacy,” says Damani. According to Karen, Imani is well on her way to helping those in need. “She thought of giving a homeless man our doggie bag from a restaurant. I was so proud. It’s very important that she is not just smart but also a thoughtful humanitarian.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org (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.