If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin: book review

James Baldwin’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers in New York, a tale of the dreadful consequences of racism and the impact of imprisonment on the prisoner’s loved ones.

I believe Black Lives Matter and racism should be a thing of the past, so I want to read and review more books written by Black, Asian and other ethnicities. James Baldwin was a Black, gay man, part of the Harlem Renaissance, who wrote this tale of racism and police prejudice and injustice in 1974. Sadly, little seems to have changed.

How do you decide which books to take on holiday? One of my usual strategies is to take as many as possible in case there are any I don’t like; how awful it would be to be stuck in the middle of nowhere without a good book to read. And to give me the greatest number of options, I usually take as many thin books as I can. And that is how a couple of years ago I came to be reading If Beale Street Could Talk by torchlight, in a freezing cold tent, high in the mountains of Switzerland. Further from the overheated setting of the book in New York would not be possible.

Virtue signalling

This is a tale infused with the injustice of racism and poverty in the New York of the 1960s and 1970s, when equality was theoretically possible, but racism kept rearing its ugly head. In this book, James Baldwin uses some of his characters as mouthpieces for angry rants about injustice. Tish is ‘lucky’ to be taken on as a perfume saleswoman in a department store, almost as a favour, so the owners could show they weren’t racist. Nowadays there’s a term for that: virtue signalling. It’s rather interesting that so many of the characters are actually in work, in spite of prejudice, but this period was a boom time. Nevertheless, there’s always an undercurrent of violence, of people hooked on drugs or alcohol.

The main story in this short novel is about Tish and Fonny, childhood sweethearts. Tish is the narrator and mentions that others tease them about being like Romeo and Juliet, thinking that is the ultimate in romance, forgetting the implication that their ultimate fate is tragic. The book starts with a dramatic event: Tish telling Fonny that she is expecting their child, the problem being that he is in prison. At first we don’t know why, but the events leading up to Fonny’s arrest gradually unfold.

“Being in trouble can have a funny effect on the mind. I don’t know if I can explain this. You go through some days and you seem to be hearing people and you seem to be talking to them and you seem to be doing your work, or, at least, your work gets done; but you haven’t seen or heard a soul and if someone had asked you what you have done that day you’d have to think a while before you could answer. But, at the same time, and even on the self-same day – and this is what’s hard to explain – you see people like you never saw them before. They shine as bright as a razor.” (p.12)

Standing up and being counted

Talking about the first time Fonny and Tish make love, after feeling they belonged together since childhood, she says, “We had not seen it coming. Abruptly, it was there: and then we knew that it had always been there, waiting. We had not seen the moment. But the moment had seen us, from a long ways off – sat there, waiting for us – utterly free, the moment, playing cards, hurling thunderbolts, cracking spines, tremendously waiting for us, dawdling home from school, to keep our appointment.” (p.40)

After giving up her job, Tish can always visit Fonny in jail, emphasising the importance of just showing up, of moral support, of being there for somebody:

“It is very strange , and I now begin to learn a very strange thing. My presence, which is of no practical value whatever, which can even be considered, from a practical point of view, as a betrayal, is vastly more important than any practical thing I might be doing. Every day, when he sees my face, he knows, again, that I love him.” (p.113)

The racist policeman, the bluest eye

Describing the policeman, Bell, who has it in for Fonny, Tish comments, “If you look steadily into that unblinking blue, into that pinpoint at the centre of the eye, you discover a bottomless cruelty, a viciousness cold and icy. In that eye, you do not exist if you are lucky. If that eye, from its height, has been forced to notice you, if you do exist in the unbelievably frozen winter which lives behind that eye, you are marked, marked, marked, like a man in a black overcoat, crawling, fleeing, across the snow. The eye resents your presence in the landscape, cluttering up the view, the black overcoat will be still, turning red with blood, and the snow will be red, and the eye resents this, too, blinks once, and causes more snow to fall, covering it all.” (pp.119-120) Black incarceration

This book is still relevant today, not only in light of George Floyd and others who died in the aftermath of his murder, but also with respect to the unjustly high numbers of Black inmates in American prisons and the impact this has on society. I recently watched the documentary 13th on Netflix, highlighting how Black society is disproportionately affected by this and how successive government measures have exacerbated it and convinced the public that it is somehow justified. It isn’t. Baldwin addresses this in If Beale Street Could Talk as we see the terrible effects of Fonny’s imprisonment on the rest of the family. This is not just the story of ‘two star-crossed lovers’. It involves the entire family of both Fonny and Tish as they all try to clear his name, get the charges dropped, discredit the racist policeman and do whatever it takes to raise the money to pay the lawyer. Desperate measures with dire consequences.

This was a great read. I highly recommend it and hope I will soon be able to watch Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk film, released in 2018.

Adapted from my original post in January 2019.