James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974)
What it’s about: New York City, the 1970s. Tish Rivers, a young African-American woman, narrates the story of her love for Fonny Hunt, her childhood sweetheart and the father of her child, who has been wrongfully imprisoned for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman. The narrative moves back and forward in time, from Tish’s and Fonny’s childhood to their becoming lovers, Fonny’s imprisonment, and Tish’s discovery that she is pregnant. Tish’s mother Sharon, father Joe, and sister Ernestine support Tish in her pregnancy, and invite the Hunts over to share the news. Fonny’s devoutly Christian mother curses Tish and her unborn child, leading to a furious argument between the two families. Tish takes a job at the perfume counter of a department store, while her family finds a young white lawyer to take Fonny’s case. Fonny has been framed by Bell, a corrupt white cop who had previously attempted to arrest him. The lawyer tells Tish and Sharon that the police have removed the witnesses that could prove Fonny’s innocence: Fonny’s friend Daniel (himself a victim of wrongful imprisonment) has been re-arrested to prevent giving Fonny an alibi, and the rape victim Victoria, who was unable to identify her attacker and encouraged by the police to identify Fonny in a line-up, has been sent home to Puerto Rico. Sharon travels to Puerto Rico and attempts to persuade Victoria to exonerate Fonny. Victoria, who is pregnant and close to nervous collapse, refuses to change her story, and Sharon returns to New York. The family discover that Victoria has miscarried and disappeared, requiring the postponement of Fonny’s trial. The novel ends with Fonny’s father Frank committing suicide, followed by the birth of Tish’s baby.
Why it’s a classic: James Baldwin was already a literary celebrity by the time he wrote If Beale Street Could Talk. A celebrated novelist, playwright, essayist and cultural commentator, he wrote with searing insight and fierce grace about racism in post-World War II America. As a gay black man who lived much of his life outside America (If Beale Street Could Talk was written at his home in the French Riviera, where he lived for the last two decades of his life), he was uniquely placed to track the corrosive intersection of racism, sexism, religion and homophobia in the African-American diaspora. If Beale Street Could Talk was Baldwin’s literary response to the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s, which focused on the lack of representation of black women, and was his first (and only) attempt to write in a female first-person voice. The book also marked his interest and renewed optimism in the power of the family unit, which he’d criticised in earlier works like Go Tell It On the Mountain.
Baldwin’s fearless attack of institutionalised racism in the criminal justice system was greeted with a mixed response at the time. Nearly forty years later, his insights found a more receptive audience in Trump America, finally woke to the epidemic of police shootings and mass incarcerations of young black men. Baldwin’s 1963 essay The Fire Next Time was re-interpreted by Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me, which was similarly focused on the dangers of inhabiting a black male body; Baldwin’s last, unfinished manuscript Remember This House was the basis of Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro; and in 2018, If Beale Street Could Talk was beautifully filmed by Barry Jenkins, the Academy Award-winning director of Moonlight. The film’s release and success was followed in quick succession by When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s Netflix drama series about the five young black men falsely convicted of rape in the 1989 Central Park Jogger case – a storyline that’s almost identical to Beale Street. “These captive men are the hidden price for a hidden and dreadful terror,” Baldwin writes: “the righteous must be able to locate the damned.” The world has finally caught up with his agenda, coupled with a renewed appreciation of his eloquence and artistry, and a certain nostalgia for the days when cultural criticism was rendered in elegant prose rather than a Tweet typed on the toilet.
Bouquet or Brickbat: Not so much a bouquet as a clenched fist raised in the air in a Black Power salute. Beale Street is a strange and compelling blend of two emotional registers that play in counterpoint, like the jazz tunes referred to throughout the narrative. The searing injustice of Fonny’s arrest and imprisonment and the fear and despair the characters experience is intercut with the heartfelt sweetness of Tish and Fonny’s romance, and the tower of strength created by the Rivers’ love for each other. The push-and-pull of despair and hope gives the novel its dramatic momentum and much of its emotional power. Right up to the finale, Baldwin seems to dangle the promise of redemption for Fonny and his family. That happy ending never comes – we exit the novel without knowing whether Fonny’s defence will succeed, or whether love is actually enough to withstand the hopelessness bred by hatred. Fonny seems to find a freedom in being released from hope that he will be freed, but the same news drives his father to suicide. Baldwin’s ability to present and hold onto the joy and depression of his story makes for an unusually complex reading experience – love can’t exist without an awareness of the hate that surrounds us. Michelle Obama’s famous maxim “When they go low, we go high” seems to have its DNA in the philosophy of Beale Street, describing a world where hope is less a feeling than a necessary strategy to banish cynicism and ensure survival.
Despite his impeccable moral strategy, Beale Street doesn’t always work as a piece of narrative fiction. Baldwin’s decision to narrate the story from Tish’s point-of-view is an admirable gesture towards female empowerment, even if it often feels unconvincing. The first-person voice is brilliant at giving us intimate access to the glowing furnace of love and hatred that fuels the story – the problem is that, more often than not, it’s Baldwin rather than Tish that we are hearing. I’ll leave it to other critics to assess whether Baldwin’s descriptions of Tish having sex and experiencing pregnancy are realistic, but I will comment that our narrator frequently bursts into state-of-the-nation pronouncements that don’t sound remotely like the voice of a 19 year-old woman. Statements like “Whoever discovered America deserved to be dragged home, in chains, to die” and “[A] woman is tremendously controlled by what the man’s imagination makes of her–literally, hour by hour, day by day; so she becomes a woman. But a man exists in his own imagination, and can never be at the mercy of a woman’s” are glorious to read, but this is clearly Baldwin, pole-vaulting over his narrator to tell his readers what they need to know, in language that Tish would be unlikely to use. We forgive him, almost, for this narrative sleight-of-hand, because his insights are so incisive and beautifully phrased, but I wonder if he would’ve been better to narrate the book from an omniscient third-person (which the book seems to settle into in its latter section, when narrating Sharon’s trip to Puerto Rico).
Elsewhere, Baldwin’s perspective as a gay African-American man provides some interesting insights into heterosexual relationships. Unlike his early novels Another Country and Giovanni’s Room, homosexuality is mostly invisible in Beale Street, apart from the frequent use of the word “faggot” as an insult. Nonetheless, Baldwin queers the pitch by sexualising the police officer’s hatred of Fonny: “Bell’s eyes swept over Fonny’s black body with the unanswerable cruelty of lust, as though he had lit the blow-torch and had it aimed at Fonny’s sex. When their paths crossed, and I was there, Fonny looked straight at Bell, Bell looked straight ahead. I’m going to fuck you, boy.” Likewise, when the police officer looks directly at Tish, “[i]t was seduction which contained the promise of rape. It was rape which promised debasement and revenge.” We are reminded, too, that Daniel witnesses the gang-rape of a fellow inmate in prison, and is raped himself, and that Fonny is sent to solitary confinement rather than submit to rape. “I don’t believe there’s a white man in this country, baby,” Daniel says, “who can even get his dick hard, without he hear some nigger moan.” In this world of racist brutality, the white male gaze eroticises and exoticises black bodies, and sex becomes a form of control and humiliation, from which no person of colour, male or female, is safe. Baldwin was writing this in the 1970s, just as Second Wave feminism was starting to discuss the male gaze and sexual violence against women, but long before the conversation had been extended to consider how sexual violence was racialised or how men could be victims as well as perpetrators. It’s this courage, I think, and his ability to understand the intersection of race, gender and class that makes him Baldwin of our greatest writers.
“I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody–if it is, God’s days have got to be numbered. That God these people say they serve–and do serve, in ways that they don’t know–has got a very nasty sense of humour. Like you’d beat the shit out of Him, if He was a man. Or: if you were.”
“Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind.”