If Beale Street Could Talk

When a student told me last year that If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin’s 1974 novel which I had not read at the time – was being made into a movie, I was sort of nonplussed.  There were other better choices, I thought (even though I hadn’t read this one).  Why not Giovanni’s Room or Go Tell It On the Mountain or Another Country?  The film is being written and directed by Barry Jenkins, writer/director of 2016’s best picture, Moonlight.  

But now I’ve read it , and I’m here to tell you that this is probably Baldwin’s best novel (though there’s still one more I haven’t read).  What makes it work best is the freshness of its first-person narrator Tish.  Telling the whole story from the perspective of its newly pregnant 21-year-old black female protagonist does so much at once for Baldwin.  It forces him to set aside No Name In the Street’s world-weary Jeremiad lightning-bolt throwing (which is great, but it’s also something he’d more or less mastered by this time).  It forces even its most racist reader to acknowledge Tish’s humanity and that of her entire family.  It allows an exploration of the relationships within and between two black families that makes tokenization impossible.  Tish’s voice brings a burst of light to this 2018 world that I had not anticipated as I began reading, and drew me to read the bulk of this novel in just a few hours over two days.  This was a revelation.

Last year, in my senior Ethnic and World Literature class, a student of Latinx and Black heritage told me one of the things she hates the most is “the Struggle film.”  What she explained she meant by this is that she is tired of every black character being a drug dealer, or a victim of police brutality, or pregnant and on welfare or in jail… she went on to explain it’s not that these things don’t happen, it’s just that she’s tired of teachers making choices which only highlight these aspects of black experience.  And she didn’t just mean she was tired of encountering those stereotypes – I think she was also tired of liberal-minded white people fetishizing them even as they mean to fight the anti-racist fight by making “gritty honest portrayals” of these aspects of black and Latinx existence.

I carry that student’s frustration with me now – her frustration was so palpable and true.  But she wasn’t saying “we should make more Cosby Shows” either.  When I read novels or watch movies representing black characters now, I think: what would that student say about this book?

Here is the really wonderful thing about If Beale Street Could Talk.  Even though its narrator Tish is an young, unmarried pregnant black woman, and her boyfriend Fonny has been arrested for rape and is in jail through the book, and their families live in a very traditionally undeserved, segregated neighborhood — in short, even though this has all the makings of “the struggle film” writ large — it is so much more than that, and somehow not at all what you would think a novel about “an unwed black mother” and a “falsely accused black man” would be.

I have tried to reflect on why I feel this way – but somehow, from the first words, that is not the space I was in:

I look at myself in the mirror.  I know that I was christened Clementine, and so it would make sense if people called me Clem, or even, come to think of it, Clementine, since that’s by name: but they don’t.  People call me Tish.  I guess that makes sense, too.  I’m tired, and I’m beginning to think that maybe everything that happens makes sense.  Like, if it didn’t make sense, how could it happen?  But that’s a really terrible thought.  It can only come out of trouble–trouble that doesn’t make sense.

Today, I went to see Fonny.  That’s not his name either, he was christened Alonzo: and it might make sense of people called him Lonnie.  But, no, we’ve always called in Fonny.  Alonzo Hunt, that’s his name.  I’ve known him all my life, and I hope I’ll always know him.  But I only call him Alonzo when I have to break down some real heavy shit to him.

Today, I said, “–Alonzo–?”

There is a love at the core of this book – the love between Fonny and Tish, yes, but also the love that binds the Rivers family together, the love that joins Fonny and his father – a love that does not deny pain or resentment or the harm of segregation (this is not that “when I went on a mission trip to the Caribbean I saw people that were happier than us even though they had so little”-type of crap) – but a love that “accepts” those injustice “as commonplace,” as Baldwin put in in “Notes of a Native Son,” but also one that fights them with every fiber of its being.  In that essay, Baldwin frames it as a paradox; this novel brings that paradox to life in a way that makes it make sense.

I said before that If Beale Street Could Talk is not written in the almost-expected Baldwinian Jeremiad voice – quite the opposite – but little bits of theorizing do creep in.  What I think works so well about them is that Baldwin has forced them to emerge organically from his younger narrator – she is making connections about a world that is new to her – things she has always had an emotional understanding of but only now is verbalizing them in narration.

So Tish will toss in a line like this —

I looked around the subway car. It was a little like the drawings I had seen of slave ships. Of course, they hadn’t had newspapers on the slave ships, hadn’t needed them yet; but, as concerned space (and also, perhaps, as concerned intention) the principle was exactly the same.

— And though you can here in that the voice of the Baldwin who has lived through Martin’s and Malcolm’s and Medgar’s (and Bobby’s and Jack’s) assassinations, you can also here a 21-year-old’s emerging inquisitive, critical consciousness.  You can also hear that nothing will ever break Tish – not because she is naive, but because her life is grounded in the love and support of family.

Baldwin’s epigram is drawn from gospel:

Mary, Mary,/What you going to name/That pretty little baby?

So the whole time you’re reading, you’re reminded, well, who was Mary really?  A poor pregnant unmarried woman of color.  And so this book forces you into the position of really examining what it would mean to place the child of such a woman at the center of your belief system.  What a radical revolution it would entail, for us actually to accept that woman’s love for her child — and how far from it White Christianity has wandered.  But Baldwin does this without white characters playing too much of a role at all.

STill, there is a powerful lesson in ally-ship in the depiction of a well-meaning white lawyer Hayward.  Here’s how Tish puts it:

Although, naturally, in the beginning, I distrusted him, I am not really what you can call a distrustful person: and, anyway, as time worse on, with each of us trying to hide our terror from the other, we began to depend more and more on one another–we had no choice.  And I began to see, as time wore on, that, for Hayward, the battle increasingly became a private one, involving neither gratitude nor public honor.  It was a sordid, a banal case, this rape by a black boy of an ignorant Puerto Rican woman–what was he getting so excited about?  And so his colleagues scorned and avoided him.  This fact introduced yet other dangers, not least of them the danger of retreating into the self-pitying and quixotic.  But Fonny was too real a presence, and Hayward too proud a man for that.

This is not a novel about or for white people, really, but this passage helps me, as a white person, understand what actually being an  “ally” might mean: not just to be willing to, but to actually put yourself on the line for racial justice so that your “[racist white] colleagues” “scorn and avoid” you.  To get to the point where you actually take it personally, and it is not a matter of morality or “public honor.”  It helps me understand what it might actually be to divest myself of my own “possessive investment in whiteness” (to borrow George Lipsitz’s term).

In the end, what works best for this novel is how short it is, somehow – it is a taut exercise in narrative economy that rings true 45 years later.  It redounds with life and freedom in the face of death and imprisonment.  I can’t wait to see the movie.

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