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If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin – A must read.

March 17, 2019 15 comments

If Beale Street Coult Talk by James Baldwin (1974) French title: Si Beale Street pouvait parler.

Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born. Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy. James Baldwin

This is a way to tell the reader that what happens in Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk can happen everywhere in America. It’s painfully banal.

Fonny and Tish, the main characters, could be anyone. Fonny is twenty-two and Tish is nineteen. They live in Harlem in the early 1970s. They’ve known each other since they were children and are now a young couple in love. Marriage is in the air. Fonny wants to be a sculptor and works as a short order cook to make ends meet. Tish works in a fancy department store, in the perfume stand, where hiring a black clerk shows off how progressive the store is. They’re looking for a loft in the Village, to start their life together and for Fonny to have a workshop.

As soon as the book starts, we know that Fonny is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s accused of raping a woman from Porto Rico. Tish is pregnant with their baby. Tish is our narrator, her voice a haunting presence, aged by her circumstances. She recalls her life with Fonny, their love and tells us about their fight to get him out of jail. 

If Beale Street Could Talk is the story of a young and hopeful couple crushed by a system who wants its black population staying in designated neighborhoods and nowhere else. Except jail.

Fonny had found something that he could do, that he wanted to do, and this saved him from the death that was waiting to overtake the children of our age. Though the death took many forms, though people died early in many different ways, the death itself was very simple and the cause was simple, too: as simple as a plague: the kids had been told that they weren’t worth shit and everything they saw around them proved it. They struggled, they struggled, but they fell, like flies, and they congregated on the garbage heaps of their lives, like flies. And perhaps I clung to Fonny, perhaps Fonny saved me because he was just about the only boy I know who wasn’t fooling around with the needles or drinking cheap wine or mugging people or holding up stores – and he never got his hair conked: it just stayed nappy. He started working as a short order cook in a barbecue joint, so he could eat, and he found a basement where he could work on his wood and he was at our house more often than he was at his own house.

And indeed, Fonny’s only crime is to move out of Harlem to the Village, to dare to be a sculptor.

That same passion which saved Fonny got him into trouble, and put him in jail. For, you see, he had found his center, his own center, inside him: and it showed. He wasn’t anybody’s nigger. And that’s a crime, in this fucking free country. You’re supposed to be somebody’s nigger. And if you’re nobody’s nigger, you’re a bad nigger: and that’s what the cops decided when Fonny moved downtown.

That’s probably his only crime.

Fonny’s fall is staged. The victim was raped on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side and Fonny lives on Bank Street in the Village. As Tish points out, it’s a long way to run with a police officer on your heels. I put random addresses in Google Maps to see the distance between Orchard Street and Bank Street and it says it takes two hours and a half to walk from one street to the other. What marathon runners Fonny and this cop must have been to cover this distance.

The system is meant to crush them and no one will lift a finger to point out the obvious: that this procedure is ludicrous and unfair. Fonny’s white lawyer, Hayward is genuinely on the case. But the system throws any hurdle it can on the way. And his dedication on the case is suspicious to his peers, he starts to be an outcast in his profession.

It’s a haunting story because of Tish’s voice. She’s dead calm, telling her story with precision and resignation. And yet she fights and stays strong. Her family and Fonny’s father Frank gather around the young couple. They fight with all their might but their power is limited by their financial means and the color of their skin.

The only ones who don’t fight are Fonny’s mother and sisters. These churchy persons rely on God’s goodwill. If Fonny is meant to go out of prison, God will take care of it. They even feed the white power’s fire by speaking ill of Fonny, their own family. It’s so against actual Christian values that it would be laughable if it didn’t have such tragic consequences.

From the beginning, the reader knows that this is real life, not some Hollywood tale with a fairy godmother who saves the day. I read Go Tell It on the Mountain recently. In his debut novel, Balwin, the son of a preacher, hadn’t made up his mind regarding religion. In Beale Street, he has.

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. Or: if you were.

I also watched I Am Not Your Negroa documentary that leaves you shaken. Beale Street includes a lot of Baldwin’s thinking about America. In an interview, he explains that he’s between Martin Luther King’s views and Malcom X’s position. His ambivalence toward religion makes him challenge the non-violent attitude. The power of love cannot conquer all, as Tish and Fonny finds out. Worse, pious people can be your enemies, through their passivity and their feeling of superiority.

But he also says that he cannot hate all white people because he had a white school teacher when he was little and she took him under her wing. Seeing a bright child, she brought him books, took him out and helped him be more than what society had decided a black boy should be. Her kindness rooted in him the knowledge that not all white people were made of the same cloth.

Beale Street reflects that as well, as three white citizen help Fonny and Tish along the way. A landlord who doesn’t mind renting a loft to a black couple. An Italian woman who comes to Tish’s defense when she’s harassed by a white man. And of course, Hayward, the white lawyer who doesn’t give up.

King’s views might be too optimistic and Malcom X’s views might be too extreme. Baldwin stands in the middle. He’s implacable in his description of America, both in Beale Street and in I Am Not Your Negro. He throws punches with facts and cold anger. He’s rational and spot on, except when he says he doesn’t believe that a black man could become president of the USA within 40 years. He doesn’t spread hatred, he just wants the white population of the USA to acknowledge that African-Americans contributed to the construction of the country, that America is their legitimate homeland.

But Beale Street is a lot more than a political novel. It’s a delicate picture of young love. Baldwin writes graceful pages about Tish and Fonny’s new love, how their friendship turned into something more, how strong they are together and how solid their bond is. It’s described beautifully, through little touches here and there, in small moves and looks. No grand gestures here, only feelings that grow timidly, find a suitable compost and bloom beautifully. Their love has solid roots, they should have a future together, one that is robbed from them.

Baldwin is a master at mixing a lovely romance with strong political ideas and a great sense of place. Even if Beale Street could be any place in America according to Baldwin, in this novel, there’s no denying that we are in New York. Again, I’m amazed at his talent. His voice walks on the difficult line of being accusing but not yelling. He chooses a love story to throw uncomfortable political truths at us. And yet the romance is not a prop for politics. It has its own beauty, its own worth. And, this, my reading friends, is only achieved by masters of literature. 

Not “Highly recommended”, but like Going to Meet the Man, a Must Read.

See other reviews here, one by Claire and one by Jacqui

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