We are approaching Spring quickly and I couldn’t be more excited! Last month we celebrated James Baldwin’s classic Giovanni’s Room, so this month I decided to celebrate his classic 1973 novel titled If Beale Street Could Talk. To me this book is not only beautifully and poetically told, but it highlights some of the deeper rooted issues to do with race and family.
Without spoiling too much, the novel is set in Harlem, New York in the early 1970s, and tells the story of two lovers – Fonny and Tish. Fonny is falsely accused of rape, while Tish is pregnant. The novel is told in flashbacks to experiences both of them had when they first met, and situations that molded the strength of their relationship. The story is told from Tish’s perspective, and it’s amazing to me how much depth James Baldwin was able to put in her deep, flawed but fascinating character. She is a strong yet shy individual, who’s compassionate and empathetic nature is what makes her such a relatable and likable protagonist. Fonny has more of an asserting presence. He is more of a leading man, dominant yet compassionate and caring towards Tish. The two are a perfect match for each other, with both of their contrasting personalities fitting together brilliantly within the novel. James Baldwin’s political commentary within the book is also glaring, capturing the difficult and racist conditions black people had to endure and live through at the time. As for the theme of family, the way Baldwin is able to highlight the differences in both Fonny’s and Tish’s families is so profound. You notice every nuance and detail of the differences between all family members and the way they interact and interpret each other. All of them though had one thing in common – they all wanted the best for their children. That deeply rooted love each member has for Fonny and Tish is conveyed in such a delicate and soulful way, it really highlights the extent of James Baldwin’s genius in my opinion. This is what makes If Beale Street Could Talk not only one of James Baldwin’s best works but one of the best pieces of literature in the last hundred years or so. It’s a profound, delicate and socially aware piece of work that captures the essence of what defines black people in America. It’s relevant to today’s world, where black people are still being racially profiled and abused by police officers, where black men are being incarcerated at a disproportionate rate as white males, where the likelihood of finding a job in a white-dominated world is slimmer than it should ever be, where black women can’t be respected in the same way as white women could and most importantly when justice is rarely found. The list of examples goes on, and it’s saddening to think that this won’t improve anytime soon.
If Beale Street Could Talk is an essential, classic work of art that should be respected and acknowledged as one of the finest pieces of modern literature in American history. James Baldwin, you are a genius! Hope you pick this one up this month!