How We Do: Dawnie and Anthony's Love Story Is Better Than Fiction

·9 min read

To celebrate the start of wedding season, The Root has launched “How We Do,” a two-week series centering Black love stories, commitment and nuptial style. You can read prior installments here.

“We met twice—that’s how I like to tell the story...although she wasn’t taking me seriously at first,” explains creative director Anthony Santagati on how he met his wife, author Dawnie Walton (Santagati).

Read more

That first time was in 2014 at a World Cup viewing party (Portugal vs. USA) in a Manhattan bar. Introduced by host and mutual friend Chana, Dawnie recalls, “I thought he was handsome and gentlemanly...He guided me through the crowd and to the right table. We chatted a bit through the match, and I think we exchanged business cards. I was intrigued, and when I got home later I snuck a look at his website. Apparently, he tweeted at me not long after, but back then I wasn’t really on Twitter much—he teases me now that I ignored him, but I swear, I never saw it!”

Anthony tells The Root that “Dawnie was fun to talk to, super-engaging, and smart, and attractive, but when we first met neither of us was looking, I don’t think...IShe totally saw my tweet, though. Don’t believe those lies,” he jokes.

Their second meeting was in 2016 at Howard University’s Charter Day weekend (Anthony is an alum). “That time, it stuck,” says Dawnie.

“Quiet as it’s kept, this was just supposed to be a fun summer fling—but very quickly Dawnie set up shop in my head,” Anthony quips.

While the coupling was at last a lock, the lifelong commitment took a bit longer. Now the author of a highly acclaimed debut novel, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Dawnie was only five months into her burgeoning relationship with Anthony when she headed to graduate school at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop to pursue her fiction-writing dreams.

“I was incredibly stressed out, trying to purge and pack and move 20 years of my NYC life via the U.S. Postal Service,” she recalls. “I was so busy freaking out over my to-do list that I had not made room for the possibility that Anthony might want to help me carry those burdens. I never had to ask; he was just there for me...I had never really had a partner that I felt I could truly count on in this way before, who would be happy for me even if it meant I’d be away from him. I was incredulous. And that, in turn, surprised him.

“ ‘This is how it’s supposed to work,’ ” he kept telling her during the move. “It was a small thing, but that’s when I knew [it was love],” she shares. “Years later, when I went through a major health scare, I knew that I could be totally vulnerable with Anthony because he was emotionally capable and strong enough to be my shoulder, my rock.”

For Anthony, that scare proved a turning point—and confirmation of their love. “I am sure I said it first, and so I felt it on some level way back then, but there’s another level to love, and I don’t think I’d known that before her health scare,” he shares. “Like, there’s losing someone, as in breaking up, and that’s incredibly sad and painful, but then there’s really losing them, and when it looked to be possible to truly lose her, that was the most terrified I’d ever been in my life. So that is when. Without a doubt.”

After Anthony secretly procured blessings from each of her parents, the two became engaged in November 2018.

“They both signed off, and recorded congratulations videos (on the assumption she’d say yes—they were much more confident in that than I was),” he explains. “I engineered a brunch at a restaurant that was in close proximity to both (a) where we went on our first date, and (b) a nail salon. We went to brunch, I encouraged her to get her nails done (because I knew there would be IG posts to follow), and then I said I wanted to pop into the nearby art supply store (also something that happened on the first date). We looked around a bit, and I was getting super anxious trying to get us to a quiet place in the store without an audience, but she turned around to look at something and when she turned back I was down on one knee, in the printmaking aisle, next to the linoleum blocks.

“She said yes, thankfully,” he adds.

They planned a wedding at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Anthony’s hometown of Beaufort, S.C. (Dawnie hails from Jacksonville, Fla.), only to postpone a week beforehand, due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, the couple married on the anniversary of their first date, March 20, 2020, in a ceremony that was “still beautiful, meaningful, and intimate” in front of two friends inside the pastor’s office of Friendship Baptist Church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., where they also reside.

“It was something that reminded me that the pomp is sometimes not nearly as important as the partner,” says Anthony. “I like to think of marriages as being for the couple, and the wedding being a symbolic bringing together and merging of families, so I definitely missed that element, but in the end the thing that mattered the most to me was being with the person I was meant for and vice versa.

“I’m still hoping we do it as planned, surrounded by given and chosen family, with good food, and music; rooted in culture, community, and love,” he adds.

“So often my family gets together for sad reasons, like funerals,” adds Dawnie. “I love that our wedding will be a celebration between both our families, a happy moment to savor after a very difficult 2020.”

In the interim, the couple has been settling into married life, a transition likely made easier by Dawnie’s insistence that they do premarital counseling. Having been married previously, she now says “I worried about my ability to partner in the way Anthony needed and desired. At the same time, he had never been married and was used to doing things a certain way, so I was concerned he wouldn’t be able to bend either.

“Thankfully, Anthony was open to that process,” she adds. “I found it very helpful to hear the roots of why he viewed or did things a certain way, and why those things mattered so much to him.”

Totally agree on the counseling,” Anthony offers. “I wasn’t 100 percent in love with the idea but I knew it meant a ton to her; in hindsight I’m grateful for it. It made such a difference in how we approach and discuss issues...One of the things I learned in counseling is that I have a tendency to ‘fix’ things and to make sure everyone is happy, and I needed to get more comfortable with there being things that don’t need to be fixed,” he continues. “Sometimes people—mostly myself—need to work out what’s bothering them without trying to be managed.”

That said, they also admit the process of cohabiting was initially “rocky.”

“That first month was TOUGH and I seriously thought it might not work,” Anthony admits. “I still struggle with ensuring things are equitable; I try to be very conscious of putting too much domestic stuff on her....generally it’s better and everyone is happier if I do those things myself.”

“It’s really hard for me to vocalize things that annoy or upset me, but I’ve found it’s best to do that right away instead of bottling them up until some moment I unload them all on Anthony at once,” Dawnie adds. “And clarity is everything. Probably the biggest breakthrough we had, when it came to living together, was just to explicitly list out the household chores we expect each other to do.”

Ultimately, theirs is a relationship that thrives on a deep mutual respect and admiration.

“I love Anthony’s patience—a quality I often lack—and determination,” says Dawnie. “Any problem, whether it’s an issue with the Wifi or getting our home ready for quarantine or some misunderstanding between us, he puts in the time and effort to figure it out without getting overly frustrated or overwhelmed.”

“I have so much respect for her discipline and her courage,” Anthony adds. “I saw her develop herself into an amazing writer; she was always talented and smart but she worked and worked and worked to get to where she is skill-wise and she’s earned every single accolade. I wish I had a spoonful of that.”

Though still newlyweds, the couple’s take on commitment also belies their maturity.

“We found each other relatively late in life and in our years together have survived many challenges—long distance, health dramas, disappointments in trying to start a family, the devastating and premature deaths of loved ones (including Chana, the mutual friend who introduced us),” Dawnie shares. “Life is a lot more serious in our 40s than it would have been in our 20s, and as such we have perspective on how lucky we are to be navigating life together. The joy, laughter, and love are especially precious!”

“I’ve had to learn how to truly create space for someone else—apologies to my exes because I don’t know that I’d ever really done that fully,” Anthony adds. “It took 40 years to find not just the right person for me, but the person I was right for. Both sides of that equation matter, and I don’t think I could have appreciated that before her.

“When it comes to our situation, I try to make sure she always has a soft place to fall,” he continues. “The world is so very hard, and occasionally very cruel, and so your partner should be a place of support and respite from all that.”

“For me, real love requires kindness, grace, and an understanding that your partner is a different person than you are,” Dawnie adds. “Learn to love those admirable pieces your partner has that you lack, and appreciate when they love the same in you. You’ll find you have a true partner.”