If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin, published, 1974
Right around the time I graduated high school, I decided it was time to be “down with the struggle” and began reading the Negro authors of the Harlem Renaissance.
Upon the birth of our first child I grew much more conservative (funny how that happens), discovered a book written by Thomas Sowell, and decided that I no longer wanted to read anything that encouraged me to see myself as a victim when in reality, our earthly destinies are largely shaped by our individual choices.
Armed now with a greater understanding of the world than I possessed at age 18, I recently decided to go back and re-read several of the Harlem Renaissance writers, because in many ways, they come from where I come from.
Although James Baldwin came along much later than the Harlem Renaissance movement, the contemporary flavor of his writing resonated with me and as a young person he was my favorite. Wondering if I might view one of his most famous novels differently now than I did 26 years ago, I was anxious to dig into it and finished in more quickly than I typically would finish a novel.
At its heart, If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story. Alonzo and and Clementine (affectionately referred to as Fonny and Tish by those who knew them best), had been friends their entire lives. The best of friends, in fact, until one day Fonny “sees” Tish for the first time. They are 20 and 18 years old, respectively. He claims her -“You know you’ve always been mine, right?“- and they set about planning a life together, announcing to their families that they plan to marry. They work hard to save the money they’ll need to have a proper wedding and find a decent place to live. Fonny is not settling Tish down in the bad side of town.
The story is a first person narrative from Tish’s perspective.
Things are finally starting to come together for the young couple, when Fonny is unjustly jailed and awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit just as Tish realizes that she is pregnant. The families of the two young people set out to fund and assist in putting together a defense to prove his innocence.
What gripped me most about the story, some two decades since I first read it, was not the central story, but its back drop. Things that should have offended me (besides racists, only church people are depicted in a bad light), simply didn’t. And they didn’t offend me because I recognized every single meme that Baldwin presented.
While Baldwin’s bittersweet relationship with the church coupled with his own sexual confusion were no doubt the catalysts for his disdain for most church people, his characters didn’t just ring true. They were real to me. I knew them, grew up with them, went to church with them, was one of them.
The young people who were steadfast and vocally devoted to the Lord right up until they were old enough to make their own decisions. The “saved, sanctified, Holy Ghost-filled, fire-baptized” wife who somehow ended up with a heathen for a husband. The husband who tried to love her, but her zeal for “holiness” crowded out any ability for her to receive his love.
The men who sat under the tree drinking beer and playing cards while their women spent all afternoon on Saturday laundering, ironing dresses, pressing and cutting hair, in anticipation of Sunday morning services. Most of said husbands had no intention of darkening the door of a church with their wives unless they were paying respects to the dearly departed.
Baldwin’s depiction of the theater beneath the hoopla during Sunday morning services also took me back. Women who seemed to be trying to out shout one another. The men watching with disinterest. Baldwin, the son of a Pentecostal preacher, had his finger on the pulse of the games church people played and there was no denying the reality of his presentation, as much as it grieved me to acknowledge it.
Revisiting Beale Street was like walk down memory lane in myriad ways. I am not as enamored with it now as I was way back when, but I still like it well enough because Baldwin turns an excellent phrase and captures the intricacies of family and romantic relationships with a candor that is hard to find anymore.
He acknowledges hard truths without seeming angry or preachy, except of course, on the subject of race. Given the era in which he lived and wrote, I won’t begrudge him that. The universal truths, however, are well presented. That some families are extremely dysfunctional, but others are full of love and togetherness. That some wives are the salt of the earth in difficult relationships, but just as likely a man might wake up from the honeymoon to realize that he is on the verge of spending the next 50 years living a nightmare.
I am more than certain that this book is not for everyone.You need to be able to embrace nuances and the context of the climate in early 1970’s America to appreciate it, but I still like it well enough, all these years later.
- Sex: Scattered references, 2 0r 3 graphic moments (see my “Reading Standards” page).
- Profanity: Here and there, also with racial epithets.
- Faith: Narrated through the lens of ambivalence, but a very realistic portrayal of black church life in the 1970’s.