If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin

Publisher: Penguin Books.

Published: 1974.

Rating: 9/10.

From the genius that was James Baldwin, his 13th novel still manages to carry the weight of his intellect and engagement with social issues. The novel, set in New York, follows Tish in her attempt to get her fiancé, Fonny, out of prison after he has been falsely imprisoned by a racist cop on a rape charge of a white woman. Together with her and Fonny’s family, they grapple to get his charge repealed before she gives birth to their child.

Like in Another Country (1962), Baldwin tackles racism and race relations between different groups of people. While in Another Country, he looked at interracial relationships, here he directly comments on racist white police officers. In one scene, a cop is quite antagonistic towards Tish and Fonny, taunting Fonny to retaliate after the officer is sexually aggressive towards Tish. Baldwin stirs up discussions about the corrupt police force and aggression towards black people in public. 

The judicial system also comes under scrutiny; Fonny is accused of raping a white woman and jailed. The police just see him as another black man and assume he is guilty. The accuser herself has no intention of finding the true culprit, and is content with throwing Fonny under the bus for the assault, as long as someone is jailed. Even the lawyers comment that Fonny’s case is not a unique situation, and that the odds are stacked against him. In fact, some of the lawyers suggest he plead guilty to make the process easier, and thus increasing his chances of a shorter stint in jail. All these social discussions are brought to the forefront, and we get a grasp of how racism and false accusations can destroy families and distort the judicial system to be antagonistic towards black individuals. 

The sense of family is strong throughout the novel; most of the characters surrounding Tish go to lengths to help her get Fonny out of jail. Her mother even travels to Puerto Rico to talk to the woman who falsely accused Fonny of the assault. This suggests the great sense of community running through the novel and surrounding the characters. The scrutiny that the pair feel at times is contrasted with the warm welcome they receive at a Spanish restaurant in West Village. The owner even allows them to have a meal on credit because he knows that money is short with them. 

The novel also chronicles the pair’s romance and their plans to move in together into an apartment and start a family. 

Overall, this short novel is a powerful drama that has a weighted interrogation of the judicial system along with a scrutiny of racism in America and how is affects families. 


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