If Beale Street Could Talk
By: James Baldwin
Let’s get cozy. Grab that heavy blanket, that cup of warm whatever. Find a secluded spot, one without distractions; a place where you can take out your pen and underline all his words and not feel bad about it. Pull your grandma sweater tightly around your middle. Wrap up in the understanding that this is going to be rough for everyone, especially us White people.
Today, the day we decide to read Baldwin, we take a bite of his bitter fruit. We recognize the beauty of its shape and salivate at the fragrance. God made it shine drawing us to eat it and we open our mouths to taste because we believe we are good and honest and doing the right thing. The acerbic juices are offensive and hard to swallow. We know fruit is good for us, but we pull back because we don’t want to eat this fruit. Something tells us that we need it, and because deep down we know that this uncomfortable feeling is fleeting, comparatively speaking, we continue. This day, the day we decide not to reject the discomfort that Baldwin serves to us, is a day of reflection and acceptance of complicity.
For African Americans and Black people around the world who are Baldwin’s stories, it’s just a Wednesday.
I want everyone to read this book. And then read it again and again. It’s not because it’s so well written (it is, though) or the fact that it’s timeless (also, yes) but because it will be an awakening. It was for me.
Before this book, I had never read Baldwin. I’d heard of him. He was on my “To Read” list. When the movie came out (which, I haven’t seen) I decided it was time. I decided I wanted to be an educated White woman who supports the Black community…right. What I became was a (still White) unmoored individual living among people who, I wanted to love and respect, but had not opened my eyes to truly see. Can I love and respect those to whom I am blind?
Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind. p.99
It’s the 1970s in New York. Tish and Fonny are in love. Two intelligent and good Black people are in love. It’s a sweet, forever kind of love that developed through a childhood friendship. We learn early on that Fonny is in prison and Tish is pregnant. The story follows Tish and her family’s tireless work to free Fonny for a crime he didn’t commit.
I asked my friend Kiva Wilson to answer some questions in regards to this story because I wanted a Black woman’s perspective:
ALISSA: You said to me once that Baldwin is your favorite writer. What is it about his writing that stays with you?
KIVA: To be honest, he was the first queer, Black writer I was ever introduced to…and simply experiencing the way he honored the Black experience and unconditional love through his writing left an indelible mark on me.
ALISSA: In Beale Street, we have the opportunity to read about a love story involving two Black people. Why don’t we see this more often? Is it a problem with the publishing industry? Is it a problem with the general public not wanting to consume* Black stories? Do White people (and maybe other non-Blacks) not want to admit that Black stories are worth telling (KIVA: like Bryan Stevenson says you can’t tell a story that you’re not proximate to…) that Black stories are complicated AND uplifting, that we can care about Black characters?
KIVA: (let’s say hear/listen to/appreciate…there’s already too much consumption/appropriation of the Black experience in this world)*
Why don’t we see more stories of Black excellence, Black resilience, Black leadership… it’s not just an issue with the publishing industry…it’s a problem that we face as a nation. Baldwin says it best: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” And on the flip side, I would offer that to be of the Majority in this country almost assures a degree of comfort and privilege unless one actively goes out of their way to be conscious/aware of the other.
ALISSA: So many themes.
Race, Gender, Love, Family, Loyalty, Religion, Motherhood, Time
Baldwin is able to fit so much into so few pages. It’s hard to pick a favorite or most impactful theme. I think the most interesting for me is TIME. Not only is it 1970s America, which has its own identity and sound (I actually consider it to be another character in this book), but the passing of time is an additional conflict for Tish and Fonny. Tish’s pregnancy is a living, breathing clock. They are all fighting to free Fonny in time for the baby, in time to for him to be the father he wants to be. Fonny is fighting the slowness of time in jail and the loss of time in the free world.
p. 162 Tish says, “And I understand that the growth of the baby is connected with his determination to be free. So. I don’t care if I get to be as big as two houses. The baby wants out. Fonny wants out. And we are going to make it: in time.”
Do you think Black culture has a different connection to “time” than other cultures? Time that we have/don’t have? Time wasted? Time saved?
KIVA: That’s a really good question that I don’t know the answer to. I do feel as if we – as a Black community – walk this earth with a heightened sense of urgency because time (and life particularly as a Black body in America) is fleeting.
ALISSA: Fonny’s mother, Mrs. Hunt, and his two sisters, Adrienne and Sheila, are very religious. His two sisters are proper, at least in public. Tish’s family is not especially religious, which creates contrast and strife among them.
Upon learning about Tish’s pregnancy, Mrs. Hunt says, “The Holy Ghost will cause that child to shrivel in your womb. But my son will be forgiven. My prayers will save him.” (p.68)
Do they represent organized religion? The contrast between God-fearing people and “others?”Are they evil vs. good, the guilty vs. the innocent, society’s views vs. personal experience?
KIVA: I think Mrs. Hunt and Tish highlight the difference between religion and faith. Mrs. Hunt prioritizes her presence in the House of God and is a God-fearing woman. It’s a pretty paternalistic dynamic that shapes her relationship with a higher power. On the flipside [sic], I believe Tish reminds us that one can be a person of faith, by believing in an unconditional love from God (a love that isn’t predicated on perfect church attendance or evening prayer).
ALISSA; When Tish’s mother drinks to the news of the baby she calls it a “sacrament.” (p,44) Perhaps this is her kind of religion, her kind of blessing. Also, the second part of the book is titled “Zion,” which is a reference to heaven – rebirth? Being made new? All sins forgiven? Also, Tish at one point talks about the baby being in water, which is great symbolism for holy water and baptism and innocence. Does this reflect on the importance of religion in Black culture? Is there a stereotype that all Black people are religious? Is it just in the South?
KIVA: You can’t be a descendent of slaves… people brought to this country unwittingly and enslaved for HUNDREDS of years and NOT believe in a power of something beyond yourself. For some it’s God (this is me), for some it’s Allah, for some it’s the unparalleled resiliency of the Black community, for some it’s the power of the institutionally disenfranchised.. call it what you will…but I think it’s nearly impossible to have a myopic understanding of self.
ALISSA: What I find incredible is that the crime that Fonny supposedly committed isn’t even mentioned until half-way through the book. Because it doesn’t matter. Does this speak to a Black man’s presumed guilt?
ALISSA: What do you feel when someone says that they support the police?
KIVA: I’d like to respond “that’s great. Do you also support Michael Brown? Do you think what happened in that instance was right?” There’s no point in making monolithic value statements, unless you can actually scratch beneath the surface and talk about particular examples.
ALISSA: What does that narrative say about us? Because I do support those in law enforcement that are doing the right thing, that are not racist and power-hungry. They’re good people and they are fighting against a really ugly system. How do we help them fight?
KIVA: I think this is the wrong question to ask. I think we should actually be asking how do we help one another understand…I need/want to understand the experience of a law enforcement officer, and I also want them to know and understand my experience as a Black person that gets monitored and followed every time I go into CVS. Security doesn’t care that I graduated from two ivy league institutions, they only see my Blackness as a threat. So let’s not focus on trying to help people fight…let’s get people closer to the experiences of others. Proximity is pivotal. Check out this Ted Talk** if you get a chance .
ALISSA: What does Policeman Bell, the character that chases Fonny, IDs him as the criminal because Fonny stands up to him earlier in the day, what does Bell really symbolize to Baldwin? To you? Is he THE SYSTEM? Is he WHITE POWER? Is he FEAR that every Black mother has when her son walks out of the house?
KIVA: I honestly think this Bladwin segment is precisely the best way to answer this question.
ALISSA: How should White people, especially White women (because Black women have always been standing up), approach racism? Can we talk about it while realizing that we are ignorant in a lot of ways? My feeling is that I just need to listen, to not assume I know the answers, to let people speak without becoming defensive and alarmed, to recognize my own fear of being uncomfortable with other people’s suffering and how I have contributed to it.
KIVA: Honestly, this is a touchy subject. Because the truth of the matter is that White women have not proven to be reliable allies. But honestly, it would be wonderful if White Women really examined if they want to be bystanders, allies, or actual accomplices…who are willing to share/endure the burden of the outcome.
*This Ted Talk is excellent. I dare you to watch it and not get goosebumps at the end of his talk.
Baldwin’s prose humanizes and illuminates those who are marginalized in our society. His observations of humankind are precise, sometimes stinging and other times beautifully soft. His words are a constant lesson. He peels back the layers showing us the fractured flesh, the dirty and sour, the refuse we want to sweep into a corner. He makes us look at it and forces us to consider how our actions contribute to this mess. And then he brings us back up allowing us to refresh ourselves, to dust off, and sit in comfort for awhile because he, after all, did believe in hope.
If we- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, p.99
Thanks, Kiva, for your insight and honesty.
Kiva Wilson is a graduate of Harvard University with a Masters of International Education Policy and Dartmouth College with a B.A. in Social Geography and International Relations. She is an Early Career Development Business Partner at Facebook. Her career includes positions focused on diversity and outreach through teaching. She’s basically a rock star.
Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times by Carolina De Robertis
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin