Have you ever heard of the book “If Beale Street Could Talk” by James Baldwin? Me neither, but a few powerful reviews of the book made me curious to check it out:
“A moving, painful story, so vividly human and so obviously based on reality that it strikes us as timeless.” –Joyce Carol Oates
“A moving, painful story, so vividly human and so obviously based on reality that it strikes us as timeless.” –The New York Times Book Review
Twice, I see the word “timeless” to describe this book. While I found this to be a captivating story, “timeless” seems to be too strong a word. If Beale Street Could Talk is a novel that centers around Tish and Fonny, two young black Americans living in Harlem in the 1970s. In short, the story revolves around Tish and Fonny’s romantic relationship amidst extraordinary drama in the form of Fonny’s rape accusation, police harassment, and an unexpected pregnancy. While this story is certainly powerful in the way that it portrays the African American experience just after the civil rights era, the story is dated by the use of slang (men are often referred to as “cats” and police officers as “pigs”) and by the depiction of overt and endemic racism (that is not to say that racism is not a problem today—it most certainly[!!] is).
Overall, I was ambivalent about the “storytelling.” I was quite interested in the “story,” but less a fan of the “telling.” On the one hand, the profound emotion expressed through Tish and Fonny’s moments of hope and sorrow is a tour de force in plot. Yet, on the other hand, I found that the narrative voice left something to be desired. The story is told through the nineteen-year-old protagonist Tish. Tish’s voice is distinct yet has a predictable cadence and tendency towards circumlocution that the reader can quickly pick up on. Here’s a short example for you from the text:
She cannot decide whether to wear her hat, or not. Her problem is both trivial and serious, but she has never had to confront it before. Her problem is that she does not look her age. She takes her hat off. She puts it back on. Does the hat make her look younger or older? At home she looks her age, whatever that age is, because everybody knows her age. She looks her age because she knows her role.
This redundant way of describing things is reiterated in some form for most of Tish’s musing. While I found this sort of description to be amusing and childlike at first, I ultimately found this narration style to be (…I hate to use this word, but) annoying.
Recurring themes in this book include racism. Racial tension between African American men and the police is highlighted both through Fonny’s unfortunate arrest for what he claims to be a false rape charge, but also through more subtle cues such as Tish’s experience working at a high-end department store and other characters’ run-ins with law enforcement. After race, I feel that the secondary theme to this book (disregarding ‘true love’ which is the glue holding the pages of this novel together), is the role of a man and a woman. Tish frequently makes commentary on the role of men and women in a way that highlights the complementary nature of these two genders. While at times Tish actively extolls the merits of woman, she is also dismissive of the female gender and relegates girlfriends and mothers to a supporting (rather than an equal) role to her male partners.
So, in conclusion, should you check out If Beale Street Could Talk? If you’re interested in romantic dramas, African American literature, or just a passionate, yet heart wrenching story—sure, go for it! I admit that it wasn’t my favorite—there is an underlying sadness at every turn—however, I certainly recognize this book for its merits, even if I personally do not prefer it. Also, if movies are more your thing, I learned that If Beale Street Could Talk is a 2018 film directed by Barry Jenkins (famous for the film “Moonlight”).