Summary: A young woman recounts her relationship with her fiancee, while facing his imprisonment on trumped up charges and her pregnancy with their coming baby.
If Beale Street Could Talk is my fifth James Baldwin and third of his fiction books. It is by far my favorite of the fiction. James Baldwin is an incredible writer. There are so many lines in the book that just drip with beauty or truth or so clearly express real emotion. But his books are hard. Not that they are hard to understand but the themes are tragic.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a tragic romance. It is not that families are keeping the young couple apart like Romeo and Juliet, it is that society is keeping them apart through the systemic racism of the 1970s. Tish is only 19, but she and Fonny have been friends since childhood. As they realize that they really do love one another and want to get married they have to overcome the normal objections to young love.
Fonny is a sculptor. He works odd jobs to pay expenses but he is a sculptor. Tish is from a tightly knit family, one that Fonny has long been a part of because of the problems of his own family. Her family is supportive, but cautious. As the prepare for marriage and look for a place to live, they bang up against the prevalent racism of the world.
As is revealed slowly throughout the book, Fonny was set up by a racist cop. He was set up by the cop to take the fall for a rape. The system doesn’t have anything against him in particular, it is just designed to not particularly care for anyone.
Having recently finished Rethinking Incarceration, If Beale Street Could Talk is a perfect fictional follow up. Many of the aspects of the criminal justice come out in the fictional characters. People are set up, police are giving broad, but largely unaccountable powers. Good lawyers matter, but are expensive. The system can work for people with money, but for the poor, or even moderately middle class, the costs associated with being accused of a crime impact not just the individual but the whole network of friends and family.
Tish’s family both loves her and is impacted. Her sisters have connections and gets the lawyer and does the work to make sure that the lawyer does a good job, but also changes jobs to work other connections. Her father that takes on extra work and rides Fonny’s father to make sure he does the same. Her mother is supportive, takes care of Tish with the pregnancy and supportive of her emotionally, also does what no one else can do at a key point. This is a strong family, but one that is broken by the weight of the task.
There are so many beautiful lines and thoughts. I listened to this on audiobook with Bahni Turpin as the narrator. She perfectly communicated the strength and vulnerability of Tish, who is the one that tells us the story.
“It’s a miracle to realize that somebody loves you.”
“The poor are always crossing the Sahara. And the lawyers and bondsmen and all that crowd circle around the poor, exactly like vultures. Of course, they’re not any richer than the poor, really, that’s why they’ve turned into vultures, scavengers, indecent garbage men, and I’m talking about the black cats, too, who, in so many ways, are worse.”
“The dream of safety dies hard.”
“I liked him too much to realized that I loved him” (my paraphrase)
There is so much weight to Baldwin’s writing. That weight is real because the reality of racism and sin in general in the world is real. I would like there to be more lightness in his books, but the heaviness is the truth that Baldwin is bringing. Even when I do not always love Baldwin’s characters or storylines, I always love his writing. There are few writers that carry such power in their words.
(Note: This is a book that has a lot of language and adult themes. I listened to it on audiobook, but always in my AirPods. This not a book that you want playing with young children around.)