If Beale Street Could Talk


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The inspiration for the new film from Oscar award-winning director Barry Jenkins 'Achingly beautiful' Guardian Harlem in the 1970s: the black soul of New York City. Tish is nineteen and the man she loves - her lifelong friend and the father of her unborn child - has been jailed for a crime he did not commit. As their families come together to fight for his freedom, will their love be enough? 'Soulful . . . Racial injustice may flatten "the black experience" into one single, fearful, constantly ...

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Oct 12, 2017

Beale Street In Harlem

Although Beale Street was the fabled center of African American life and music in Memphis, this 1974 novel by James Baldwin (1924 -- 1987), with Beale Street as its namesake, is set in Harlem. The title is apt as Baldwin celebrates black life together with a great deal of black music. The themes of the novel include racism, family, and religion. But this book primarily is a love story.

The story is narrated by a 19 year old woman, Tish (Clementine) Rivers. Tish is in love with 22 year old Fonny (Alonzo) Hunt and Fonny is in love with her. Tish and Fonny have been sweethearts since childhood and have been called "Romeo and Juliet" by their neighbors and friends. As the story opens, Fonny is languishing in jail, the notorious "Tombs" in New York City, spuriously charged with the rape of a young Puerto Rican woman. Fonny's dream is to be a sculptor. Before his arrest, he had moved into a tiny "pad" near Grenwich Village where he tries to live the life of a young artist, working in wood and metal. Tish is pregnant with Fonny's child. Baldwin's story centers upon Tish's and Fonny's relationship in this difficult circumstance with throwbacks to the development of their love for each other.

The story involves the relationship of the two families as well. Tish comes from a happy family. Her father, Joe, was a sailor before he settled down and took work on the docks. Her mother, Sharon, once aspired to be a singer. Tish has an older sister, Ernestine, who works helping troubled children. Ernestine finds a lawyer, a white man in his mid-30s named Hayward, to represent Fonny.

Fonny's family life is much less happy. His father, Frank, was a tailor but loses his shop and takes work in the garment district. Fonny's two sisters are college-educated and don't get along with Fonny. His mother, Helen, is member of a sanctified, evangelical black church. Baldwin shows a great deal of cynicism in this book about religion. Frank and Helen don't get along.

When Tish discovers her pregnancy, her family is supportive. In addition, Tish's family works tirelessly to free her fiancé, Fonny from jail. Frank, Fonny's father, is also shown positively in his support for the young couple and for his son. Helen and the daughters are sanctimonious and hostile because the couple have had sex before marriage and are having a child out of wedlock.

Baldwin's story is unapologetically romantic in that it urges the possibility of deep and lasting love between two young people. As against what he sees as religious teachings, Baldwin emphasizes the physical, increasingly sexual nature of the young couple's emotional relationship. Baldwin's understanding of man-woman love and its mysteries, which seems to include passion, possessiveness, and strong views of gender roles, does not seem to me fully consistent with the way many people today try to understand gender issues, with the contemporary emphasis on high personal autonomy, independence, and egalitarianism.

The novel is filled with racial anguish and anger as Fonny is set up and knowingly falsely accused by a New York City policeman. The love of the couple is contrasted to the racism of their surroundings and to the loathsome condition of the prison which threatens to deprive Fonny of his character and his manhood.

Baldwin's writing in this novel is uneven. The scenes between Fonny and Tish, the physical consummation of their relationship, and the depictions of the streets of New York are highly effective. When Tish speaks colloquially and toughly, the writing is believable and tight. But there are some windy abstract passages in this book in which the young girl speaks in the not-so-persuasive -- or interesting --language of the adult Baldwin. Also, Tish offers narrations of many scenes in the story which she did not herself witness such as interactions between Frank and Joe at a bar, meetings between Tish's mother and the lawyer, and Tish's mother's trip to Puerto Rico to meet the young Puerto Rican woman that Fonny allegedly raped to try to get her to change her story. The young woman had been sent back home by the district attorney. The book does not adequately explain the source of Tish's knowledge of these incidents. Thus these second-hand reported scenes tend to be unconvincing. The book also comes to a quick and abrupt ending.

Baldwin has written a love story that rewards the telling and an angry criticism of racism. "If Beale Street could Talk" may not be the best of Baldwin's books but it is worthwhile. The book made me want to read more of Baldwin.

Robin Friedman

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