Author: James Baldwin
Genre: Love and Racism
Explanation of the Title:
The Beale Street of the title refers to the street where Tish and Fonny live. Tish thinks that people aren't always truthful, and this is why Fonny is accused of a rape he didn't commit. If the street could talk Fonny wouldn't have to go to jail because it would tell the truth. People would then be treated fairly and equally.
Part one (the biggest part, 188 pages): Troubled about my soul
Tish and Fonny both live in the same street in Harlem, an area of New York populated mostly by Negroes. They have been friends since they were young. Fonny’s mother is overly religious and belongs to a fanatical Christian church. Fonny doesn’t get much attention from her. Fonny’s sisters aren’t nice either. His father Frank is very good to him, but he becomes an alcoholic. Tish’s parents are very loving. They do everything they can for Tish and Fonny.
Tish and Fonny fall in love. In the neighbourhood they are known as Romeo and Juliet. They become engaged to be married. Tish’s parents and Fonny’s dad are happy, but Fonny’s mother thinks the marriage will be a suitable punishment for Fonny because she thinks Tish is not good enough for him. Fonny’s sisters aren’t happy with the idea either.
Fonny lives in Harlem and makes sculptures, and to earn some extra money he works as a cook. Fonny and Tish move into an apartment, which will be too small when they get married, so they go looking for a somewhere bigger. This is very difficult because there is a lot of prejudice against Negroes. They meet an old (also Negro) friend who says that he has been in prison for two years for something he didn’t do.
Eventually they find the perfect apartment. While they are shopping an Italian man harasses Tish, and so Fonny beats him up. The police officer, Mr. Bell, accuses Fonny of causing the trouble. Mr Bell is a racist and a liar. A lady in the shop says the Italian started the fight so that Mr Bell can’t arrest Fonny, but he becomes resentful.
Later, a Puerto Rican woman, Mrs Rogers, is raped. Mr Bell asks her to pick out the offender from a line of people, amongst whom Fonny is the only black man. Since a black man committed the crime the woman is convinced that Fonny is the rapist, but she is mistaken. Fonny even has an alibi and the lawyer tries to prove his innocence, but without success.
Tish finds out she is pregnant. Fonny is very happy and wants to be out of jail for the baby’s birth. Tish, her parents and Fonny’s father work very hard to get him released. They take extra jobs and try everything they can to earn extra money to pay the lawyer.
Mrs Rogers goes to Puerto Rico. She could free Fonny if she would change her testimony. Tish’s mother goes to Puerto Rico to see Mrs Rogers, but unfortunately she doesn’t want to change her testimony because she doesn’t want to be reminded of the rape and she is confused.
Part two (22 pages): Zion
Fonny is released on bail in the end after a whole lot of hard work to get the money together. The money is collected after a lot of effort. The same day Fonny’s father is found dead in his car. He has committed suicide after losing his job because he stole goods to sell for money to pay the lawyer and the bail. At the end of the story, Tish’s baby is about to be born, but it is still not known whether or not they will win the trial and that Fonny is to be proven innocent.
About the author:
Although he spent a great deal of his life abroad, James Baldwin always remained a quintessentially American writer. Whether he was working in Paris or Istanbul, he never ceased to reflect on his experience as a black man in white America. In numerous essays, novels, plays, and public speeches, the eloquent voice of James Baldwin spoke of the pain and struggle of black Americans and the saving power of brotherhood.
James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. The oldest of nine children, he grew up in poverty, developing a troubled relationship with his strict, religious father. As a child, he cast about for a way to escape his circumstances. As he recalls, "I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn't know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use." By the time he was fourteen, Baldwin was spending much of his time in libraries and had found his passion for writing.
During this early part of his life, he followed in his father's footsteps and became a preacher. Of those teen years, Baldwin recalled, "Those three years in the pulpit -- I didn't realize it then -- that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty." Many have noted the strong influence of the language of the church on Baldwin's style, its cadences and tone. Eager to move on, Baldwin knew that if he left the pulpit he must also leave home, so at eighteen he took a job working for the New Jersey railroad.
After working for a short while with the railroad, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village, where he came into contact with the well-known writer Richard Wright. Baldwin worked for a number of years as a freelance writer, working primarily on book reviews. Though Baldwin had not yet finished a novel, Wright helped to secure him a grant with which he could support himself as a writer in Paris. So, in 1948 Baldwin left for Paris, where he would find enough distance from the American society he grew up in to write about it.
After writing a number of pieces that were published in various magazines, Baldwin went to Switzerland to finish his first novel. GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, published in 1953, was an autobiographical work about growing up in Harlem. The passion and depth with which he described the struggles of black Americans was unlike anything that had been written. Though not instantly recognized as such, GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN has long been considered an American classic. Throughout the rest of the decade, Baldwin moved from Paris to New York to Istanbul, writing NOTES FOR A NATIVE SON (1955) and GIOVANNI'S ROOM (1956). Dealing with taboo themes in both books (homosexuality and interracial relationships, respectively), Baldwin was creating socially relevant and psychologically penetrating literature.
Being abroad gave Baldwin a perspective on his life and a solitary freedom to pursue his craft. "Once you find yourself in another civilization," he notes, "you're forced to examine your own." In a sense, Baldwin's travels brought him even closer to the social concerns of contemporary America. In the early 1960s, overwhelmed with a responsibility to the times, Baldwin returned to take part in the civil rights movement. Traveling throughout the South, he began work on an explosive work about black identity and the state of racial struggle, THE FIRE NEXT TIME (1963). For many, NOTES FOR A NATIVE SON and THE FIRE NEXT TIME were an early and primary voice in the civil rights movement. Though at times criticized for his pacifist stance, Baldwin remained throughout the 1960s an important figure in that struggle.
After the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, Baldwin returned to France where he worked on a book about the disillusionment of the times, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (1974). Many responded to the harsh tone of IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK with accusations of bitterness. But, even if Baldwin had encapsulated much of the anger of the times in his book, he always remained a constant advocate for universal love and brotherhood. During the last ten years of his life, Baldwin produced a number of important works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and turned to teaching as a new way of connecting with the young. By his death in 1987, James Baldwin had become one of the most important and vocal advocates for equality. From GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN to THE EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN (1985), James Baldwin created works of literary beauty and depth that will remain essential parts of the American canon.
Tish (Clementine Rivers): She's a black negro girl who lives in Harlem (many negroes live there). She's 19 years old, for getting money she works at a parfume counter. She's the main character in this book and also the one who tells the story. She wants to marry Fonny. She knows Fonny well, because they used to be good friends when they were kids. She thinks the people in this world aren't good nor honest, that's why Fonny is in jail.
Fonny (Alonzo Hunt): He's a black person too. He is a boy of twenty-two years old. He's a cook and he's also a sculptor. He forms a main character in this book, because he's the father of the baby, Tish is going to have. They are planning to get married, which his parents don't like.
The story is told in the first person narration. Because of this technique you know everything trough the eyes of Tish. You read her thoughts, and you learn to know everybody like she sees them.
The story is set in Harlem, an area in New York mostly inhabited by poor Negroes. The story takes place in 1974.
The theme of this story is racism. Because of the racist Mr. Bell Fonny is in jail for something he didn’t do. Tish wants him out of jail for two reasons. One, she loves him and two, she’s having his baby. Tish and her family are doing everything to get Fonny out of jail. They can’t get Fonny out of jail before the baby comes. And when the baby comes, the story ends, so you never know if they really get Fonny out of jail or not.
If Beale Street Could Talk
Author: James Baldwin
Reviewer: Kara McPhillips
While this book is understandably controversial, its value for a mature classroom could be invaluable. If Beale Street Could Talk faces issues that require mature and intelligent readers led by a sensitive and confident teacher. If Beale Street Could Talk receives most of its criticism for the graphic depiction of and argument against racism, along with sexually explicit scenes and language. On the other hand, it should be praised for its honesty, reliance on family, and strong message of survival and love. If taught correctly, James Baldwin’s book could lend insight, understanding, and awareness to a new generation also facing the problems of racism and coming of age in a violent society.
If Beale Street Could Talk follows the experiences of a young black couple in the late sixties or early seventies. Fonny and Tish grew up together on the same street and shared their lives. When Fonny is twenty-one and Tish eighteen, their friendship begins to mature into a loving relationship. As they explore their new love, they must also deal with an American society that is very cruel and unjust to blacks, especially black men. Police arrest Fonny for rape, on a night he has not left his apartment. Fonny is identified by the victim in the lineup, however he is the only black man in the lineup when the victim only knows her assailant was black. The rest of the book chronicles Tish’s experiences on the outside while Fonny suffers in jail, this includes the realization that she is pregnant. The book shifts from scenes of the past and present, as the reader comes to a better understanding of Tish’s life, her family, and her society. If Beale Street Could Talk exposes the harsh reality of racism in American cities and what it takes to survive in those circumstances.
If Beale Street Could Talk addresses the very difficult subject of racism and it does so blatantly. There is no way to sugar coat the effects of racism. James Baldwin presents the truth of life for black Americans honestly. "I must say that I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody- if it is, God’s days have got to be numbered. That God these people say they serve- and do serve, in ways that they don’t know- has got a very nasty sense of humor. Like you’d beat the shit out of Him, if He was a man. Or: if you were." (p. 28) The language to describe racism is not pretty but neither is racism. Baldwin reminds his readers that honesty, even harsh and difficult honesty, is always better than denial.
Scene between Fonny and Tish that could be considered sexually explicit could also be considered very beautiful. In If Beale Street Could Talk sex is in no way exploited or degraded as it often is in modern media forms. Tish describes the conception of their child with unashamed beauty. "I had never been so open before. And when he started to pull out, I would not let him, I held on to him as tightly as I could, crying and moaning and shaking with him, and felt life, life, his life, inundating me, entrusting itself to me." (p. 144) While these scenes are graphic and obviously not appropriate for a younger audience, they do not cheapen sexuality in any way. Here sex is only shared between two people in a very trusting, open, and mature relationship. By focusing on these aspects of their sexual relationship the concern over the graphic nature of these scenes diminishes.
The criticism for If Beale Street Could Talk is only accurate if the book is not taught well. It includes profanity, explicit sexuality, and difficult topics, but so does a normal high school student’s life. The lesson plan for teaching this book would have to include much guided discussion and time for personal reflection. If Beale Street Could Talk would not be appropriate for younger students but could work very well for older students in the proper setting. Exposing children to a book with these issues could never cause as much harm as denying that these problems exist. Through education we can hope that some of these problems will begin to disappear. If Beale Street Could Talk is controversial but I believe its worth to teenagers of every race could be immeasurable
In my opinion this book is beautiful. First of all I really like the genre, love and racism. I've read a lot about these subjects. I think it’s good that people write about these subjects, because after I read about racism I always start thinking about it. I just can’t understand that people like Officer Bell discriminate people only because of their skin colour. I also can’t imagine that people are being prosecuted because of their black colour. I think that what happened to Fonny and his family shouldn’t be able to happen to anyone.
I also liked the way Fonny and Tish loved each other. You don’t see that a lot in this world and literary books are mostly about things that go wrong when people love each other. I haven’t read any book about people that loved each other so much.
I think that the book is beautifully written. Because you read everything trough the eyes of Tish you can also read how she feels, and I think that that was very good. Like this you can really imagine how Tish feels, and you also understand her. I really liked that. I just felt sorry for her and Fonny.
The book was also easy to read. There weren’t many difficult words in it and there were no boring pages. I read the book in about 5 hours. I just couldn’t put it away. I really would like to read more books from James Baldwin because I think he is a fantastic writer.