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[504] If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin

” When two people love each other, when they really love each other, everything hat happens between them has something of a sacramental air. They can sometimes seem to be driven very far from each other: I know of no greater torment, no more resounding void—When your lover has gone! ” (143)

If Beale Street Could Talk is a moving, painful story of love in the face of injustice. Told through the eyes of Tish, born Clementine Rivers, a 19-year-old girl in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin delineation of the young couple’s struggle against “the jaws of this democratic hell” (128) is a lambaste against America’s racial injustice.

Of course, I must say that 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 humor. Like you’d beat the shit out of Him, if He was a man. (28)

Growing up like brother and sister, Tish and Fonny have sealed their fate long before they are coming of age. Perhaps they have saved each other by keeping one another off the streets. Fonny was “just about the only boy (Tish knows) who weren’t fooling around with the needles or drinking cheap wine or mugging people or holding up stores.” (36) When this hysterical, ignorant woman, a part-time whore visiting New York City from Puerto Rico was raped by a black man that she couldn’t recognize in recollection, Fonny, who happened to be near the crime scene, was put up by the police as the suspect.

As far as our situation is concerned, baby, she was raped. That’s it. I think, in fact, that she was raped and that she has absolutely no idea who did it, would probably not even recognize him if he passed her on the street. I may sound crazy, but the mind works that way. She’d recognize him if he raped her again. (118)

At the baby’s imminent birth, the families set out to clear Fonny’s name, but not without obstacle and clash due to their religious difference and the obscene power of the DA office. As they face an uncertain future with no prospect of closure, the young lovers experience a gamut of emotions—affection, despair, and hope. I find it very ironic that they prefer to subject the baby to a world where you’re marked for not what you have done but just for your color. For Baldwin, the injustice of Fonny’s situation is self-evident, and by no means unique: “Whoever discovered America deserved to be dragged home, in chains, to die,” Tish’s mother declares near the conclusion of the novel. Yet the novel is ultimately optimistic. It stresses the communal bond between members of an oppressed minority, especially between members of a family, which would probably not be experienced in happier times. That it is based on reality strikes readers as timeless.

197 pp. Vintage International. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


5 Responses

  1. It’s interesting to read this post just after I read your post on required reading in school. I was required to read this for a class when I was in graduate school studying to become a teacher.

    I loved this book. I never would have read it had it not been required reading, but fell in love with it and went on to read much more by James Baldwin.

  2. This was my first James Baldwin book. I love it.

  3. […] girl or allowed to poke around the back of C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe. Also set in New York, If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin is an U-turn in terms of the subject matter. It is a moving, painful story of love […]

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