James Baldwin is widely recognised as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He was a writer of essays, short stories, novels and even a children’s book but is most commonly known for his articulate social commentary on race relations in the United States. Some of his most famous debates were filmed, perhaps the most famous being the 1965 debate with Conservative political commentator, William F. Buckley, at the University of Cambridge. Although Baldwin was famous and well known during his lifetime as an active figure in the civil rights movement, his importance and role in the movement has not received the same attention as other figures. Baldwin a gay black man in 20th century America, felt disillusioned and left the states for France at the age of 24 where he lived for the majority of his life until his death. If Beale Street Could Talk was until very recently one of Baldwin’s lesser known works. Following on from the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, however, based on Baldwin’s manuscript of the same name, it was announced that Barry Jenkins (director of the Oscar-winning film Moonlight) would direct an adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk to be released in 2018.
Published in 1974, If Beale Street Could Talk was the second to last novel Baldwin finished, although he would remain active until 1985 a couple of years before his death in 1987. Its title is a reference to the 1916 W.C. Handy blues song ‘Beale Street Blues’. It follows the relationship between nineteen-year-old Clementine, whose nickname is Tish and twenty-two-year-old, Alonzo Fonny, who is imprisoned after he is falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers. The novel is rooted in the legacy of black men being accused by white women of rape, which began during slavery when white women would punish their black male slaves by having them beaten and emasculated by their slaveowner husbands. This terrible legacy has endured well into the present day with stereotypes of black men as more aggressive, masculine, hypersexual, and threatening to white women (and men). The most famous case in history is the case of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African-American boy who was lynched after being falsely accused of whistling at a white woman. In 2017, Carolyn Bryant, the woman who made the accusation disclosed that she had fabricated the most sensational part of her testimony.
If Beale Street Could Talk is political but it does not deal explicitly with politics. Instead, Baldwin focuses on the lives of two African-American families dealing with the unjust institutionally racist criminal justice system. The dialogue is vulgar, blunt, and sharply written in AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) and the writing is straight-forward and effectively heart-breaking. The novel is at its best when it is focusing on the conversations between the two families and between Tish and Fonny. But, as the chase for Victoria Rogers ensues, it begins to mirror a detective genre fiction form. It is a vital and essential read and unfortunately a brutally honest and sobering depiction of institutional racism in the criminal justice system against African-Americans in the United States.