If Beale Street Could Talk

After watching this year’s film adaptation of James Baldwin’s  If Beale Street Could Talk , I knew I had to get hold of the book. I’m completely new to Baldwin’s works, so had no clue what I was in for prose-wise, and this was quite the introduction.

The question that kept circling my mind whilst reading was, what do you do when you’re on a sinking ship? In 1970’s Harlem, it feels like the two protagonists, young lovebirds Tish and Fonny, along with their family, are just trying to keep their heads above water, which proves excruciatingly difficult in the midst of his wrongful arrest and imprisonment. Tish, her family and Fonny’s father are desperately trying to get him out, but face countless obstacles.

Each character in the book is brazenly authentic.  Neither love interest is inordinately bright or beautiful. Nobody is morally pure, they’re just doing the best they can. Their dreams are modest, but may as well be fairy tales, because they happen to be black. In many ways, this read like a thriller or horror story, because the reader is often holding their breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop.  These two, though young, vital, hardworking and ardently committed, are not in charge of their own progression. They are at the mercy of the white law enforcement, lawyers, store-owners and landlords, who can at any moment decide to decimate their futures.

And yet, Tish and Fonny are holding onto each other, and grounding eachother. They have been doing so since they were children. What Tish recalls as their first date was really her accompanying him to his pious, ‘holy roller’ mother’s church, an ordeal which Baldwin depicts as a terrifying spectacle, particularly when cast through a child’s gaze . In the midst of this sensory overload, she grabs hold of Fonny. She never lets go.

Baldwin writes with graceful simplicity. Tish holds court as narrator, staying mostly in first person. The prose was predominantly in present tense, effectively capturing her endless rolling thoughts, so the reader experiences her emotions in real time. Tish’s inner monologue is at times bewildered and immature. At 18, she is clearly not somebody who is particularly threatening, strong, or worldly-wise. Ironically, she carries much of the weight of their relationship. Her maturity shines through when thinking about or visiting Fonny. It’s interesting how she comes to realise that in this web of chaos, the most helpful thing she can do for Fonny is the thing that comes most naturally – just being a presence. Although their love is clearly mutual, the reader gets the sense that Fonny needs her more than she needs him. She literally carries his child, and the growing physical burden of pregnancy mirrors the emotional burden she shoulders.

There is a rich exploration of family relationships and their complexities. You’re made to think and look twice about those in the couple’s orbit. For instance, in contrast to Tish’s supportive parents and sister, Fonny’s family is crippled by toxicity. His mother and sisters are aloof, bound by respectability, to the point that they have no affection for him. His father is an alcoholic who abuses his wife physically and daughters verbally, but has a deep bond with Fonny. However, there are key moments which demonstrate that they love each other, just in a flawed, destructive way.

The book concludes on a hopeful note – Fonny is coping with life in prison, realising that he can’t keep ‘clinging’ to the outside world or the hope of release that may never come. There is almost enough money saved to get him released on bail, providing this is an option. In the face of uncertainty, the family presses on. One of many casualties of oppression is the futility it breeds. If your chances of a real future are so miniscule, why even continue trying, or living? Baldwin indicates the answer in this snapshot of a very normal black family.  The strong interpersonal relationships, in this case romantic and familial, underscore how each character’s will to live is tied to those they’re living for. It’s what compels them to keep going, to survive. As Tish and Fonny’s son is born, it’s profound that their story ends with new life, therefore it doesn’t really end – it continues.

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