Since reading The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin nearly 15 years ago, I’d been looking forward to reading more of his writing. In the past, life and other books had gotten in the way, but with If Beale Street Could Talk as Bookly’s March selection I finally revisited Baldwin.
James Baldwin was an author, activist, and queer black man at his creative peak in 1960’s / 1970’s America. His words have a power that’s lasted generations. He wrote works of fiction and nonfiction that channeled the voices of the oppressed. And in his novel If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) he tells the all too familiar story of a young black man in America. Fonny is living his life among family and first love, pursuing his creative passions in New York City. And yet all that, and much more, is stolen away. Framed for a rape he didn’t commit, Fonny is imprisoned with little hope of freedom. Even after discovering that Tish, the woman he loves, is carrying his child, we bear witness to the desperate and near hopeless decay of all the good in Fonny’s life.
Told from the perspective of expectant Tish, Baldwin gives us an unhurried, intimate look as America, diseased with racism and bigotry, eats away at Fonny’s life despite the love that surrounds him. Faced with bringing new life into this world, Tish, her mother, her sister, her father, and one distracted attorney spend months grasping at straws to set this soon-to-be father free.
Baldwin’s writing style felt like reading Tish’s diary. Every thought, her fears, and the actions of those around her are laid bare for the reader. In very few pages Baldwin covers decades, and his deceptively minimalist writing gives us so much of his characters. I was invested in Tish and Fonny, invested in this new life and the family of love surrounding it. At times this made their story that much more painful to read. Their tragedy felt very raw and human. I can’t see how someone couldn’t read this without compassion, and without seeing the pure wrongfulness that is such incarceration.
The only theme that left me a bit confused and uncomfortable was the treatment of women in this novel. Aside from the fact that there was something lacking in Tish’s character (although it’d be nearly impossible for Baldwin to get into the mind of an expectant mother), the violence against Fonny’s mother (both sexually and in a scene of domestic abuse) plays out with what seemed like no acknowledgement of its wrongfulness. Fonny’s father even seemed to be idolized and catered to despite his agressions. Sure, as a character Fonny’s mother was easy to dislike, but the treatment of her, and her daughters, felt normalized which made me uncomfortable. Even at one moment where Fonny seems to express his affection for Tish with a request for dinner while she’s pregnant and in the kitchen made my eyes roll. I will say it did take a bit away from the story for me, like a small black spot on an otherwise beautiful composition.
All of this being said, I consider this a must read. Tragically our country is still sick with stories like these. Fonny’s life may be fiction, but stories like his play over and over again. So if you haven’t yet, read this book… or really anything by Baldwin.
And now I need to watch the movie!