If Beale Street Could Talkby James Baldwin
Like the blues -- sweet, sad and full of truth -- this masterly work of fiction rocks us with powerful emotions. In it are anger and pain, but above all, love -- affirmative love of a woman for her man, the sustaining love of a black family. Fonny, a talented young artist, finds himself unjustly arrested and locked in New York's infamous tombs. But his girlfriend, Tish, is determined to free him, and to have his baby, in this starkly realisitic tale... a powerful endictment of American concepts of justice and punishment in our time.
Read an Excerpt
Troubled About My Soul
I look at myself in the mirror. I know that I was christened Clementine, and so it would make sense if people called me Clem, or even, come to think of it, Clementine, since that's my name: but they don't. People call me Tish. I guess that makes sense, too. I'm tired, and I'm beginning to think that maybe everything that happens makes sense. Like, if it didn't make sense, how could it happen? But that's really a terrible thought. It can only come out of troubletrouble that doesn't make sense.
Today, I went to see Fonny. That's not his name, either, he was christened Alonzo: and it might make sense if people called him Lonnie. But, no, we've always called him Fonny. Alonzo Hunt, that's his name. I've known him all my life, and I hope I'll always know him. But I only call him Alonzo when I have to break down some real heavy shit to him.
Today, I said, "Alonzo?"
And he looked at me, that quickening look he has when I call him by his name.
He's in jail. So where we were, I was sitting on a bench in front of a board, and he was sitting on a bench in front of a board. And we were facing each other through a wall of glass between us. You can't hear anything through this glass, and so you both have a little telephone. You have to talk through that. I don't know why people always look down when they talk through a telephone, but they always do. You have to remember to look up at the person you're talking to.
I always remember now, because he's in jail and I love his eyes and every time I see him I'm afraid I'll never see him again. So I pick up the phone as soon as I get there and I just hold it and I keeplooking up at him.
So, when I said, "Alonzo?" he looked down and then he looked up and he smiled and he held the phone and he waited.
I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.
And I didn't say it the way I meant to say it. I meant to say it in a very offhand way, so he wouldn't be too upset, so he'd understand that I was saying it without any kind of accusation in my heart.
You see: I know him. He's very proud, and he worries a lot, and, when I think about it, I knowhe doesn'tthat that's the biggest reason he's in jail. He worries too much already, I don't want him to worry about me. In fact, I didn't want to say what I had to say. But I knew I had to say it. He had to know.
And I thought, too, that when he got over being worried, when he was lying by himself at night, when he was all by himself, in the very deepest part of himself, maybe, when he thought about it, he'd be glad. And that might help him.
I said, "Alonzo, we're going to have a baby."
I looked at him. I know I smiled. His face looked as though it were plunging into water. I couldn't touch him. I wanted so to touch him. I smiled again and my hands got wet on the phone and then for a moment I couldn't see him at all and I shook my head and my face was wet and I said, "I'm glad. I'm glad. Don't you worry. I'm glad."
But he was far away from me now, all by himself. I waited for him to come back. I could see it flash across his face: my baby? I knew that he would think that. I don't mean that he doubted me: but a man thinks that. And for those few seconds while he was out there by himself, away from me, the baby was the only real thing in the world, more real than the prison, more real than me.
I should have said already: we're not married. That means more to him than it does to me, but I understand how he feels. We were going to get married, but then he went to jail.
Fonny is twenty-two. I am nineteen.
He asked the ridiculous question: "Are you sure?"
"No. I ain't sure. I'm just trying to mess with your mind."
Then he grinned. He grinned because, then, he knew.
"What we going to do?" he asked mejust like a little boy.
"Well, we ain't going to drown it. So, I guess we'll have to raise it."
Fonny threw back his head, and laughed, he laughed till tears come down his face. So, then, I felt that the first part, that I'd been so frightened of, would be all right.
"Did you tell Frank?" he asked me.
Frank is his father.
I said, "Not yet."
"You tell your folks?"
"Not yet. But don't worry about them. I just wanted to tell you first."
"Well," he said, "I guess that makes sense. A baby."
He looked at me, then he looked down. "What you going to do, for real?"
"I'm going to do just like I been doing. I'll work up to just about the last month. And then, Mama and Sis will take care for me, you ain't got to worry. And anyway we have you out of here before then."
"You sure about that?" With his little smile.
"Of course I'm sure about that. I'm always sure about that."
I knew what he was thinking, but I can't let myself think about itnot now, watching him. I must be sure.
The man came up behind Fonny, and it was time to go. Fonny smiled and raised his fist, like always, and I raised mine and he stood up. I'm always kind of surprised when I see him in here, at how tall he is. Of course, he's lost weight and that may make him seem taller.
He turned around and went through the door and the door closed behind him.
I felt dizzy. I hadn't eaten much all day, and now it was getting late.
I walked out, to cross these big, wide corridors I've come to hate, corridors wider than all the Sahara desert. The Sahara is never empty; these corridors are never empty. If you cross the Sahara, and you fall, by and by vultures circle around you, smelling, sensing, your death. They circle lower and lower: they wait. They know. They know exactly when the flesh is ready, when the spirit cannot fight back. The poor are always crossing the Sahara. And the lawyers and bondsmen and all that crowd circle around the poor, exactly like vultures. Of course, they're not any richer than the poor, really, that's why they've turned into vultures, scavengers, indecent garbage men, and I'm talking about the black cats, too, who, in so many ways, are worse. I think that, personally, I would be ashamed. But I've had to think about it and now I think that maybe not. I don't know what I wouldn't do to get Fonny out of jail. I've never come across any shame down here, except shame like mine, except the shame of the hardworking black ladies, who call me Daughter, and the shame of proud Puerto Ricans, who don't understand what's happenedno one who speaks to them speaks Spanish, for exampleand who are ashamed that they have loved ones in jail. But they are wrong to be ashamed. The people responsible for these jails should be ashamed.
And I'm not ashamed of Fonny. If anything, I'm proud. He's a man. You can tell by the way he's taken all this shit that he's a man. Sometimes, I admit, I'm scaredbecause nobody can take the shit they throw on us forever. But, then, you just have to somehow fix your mind to get from one day to the next. If you think too far ahead, if you even try to think too far ahead, you'll never make it.
Sometimes I take the subway home, sometimes I take the bus. Today, I took the bus because it takes a little longer and I had a lot on my mind.
From the Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
James Baldwin was born in 1924 and educated in New York. He is the author of more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, including Go Tell It on the Mountain; Notes of a Native Son; Giovanni’s Room; Nobody Knows My Name; Another Country; The Fire Next Time; Nothing Personal; Blues for Mister Charlie; Going to Meet the Man; The Amen Corner; Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone; One Day When I Was Lost; If Beale Street Could Talk; The Devil Finds Work; Little Man, Little Man; Just Above My Head; The Evidence of Things Not Seen; Jimmy’s Blues; and The Price of the Ticket. Among the awards he has received are a Eugene F. Saxon Memorial Trust Award, a Rosenwald Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Partisan Review Fellowship, and a Ford Foundation grant. He was made a Commander of the Legion of Honor in 1986. He died in 1987.
- Date of Birth:
- August 2, 1924
- Date of Death:
- December 1, 1987
- Place of Birth:
- New York, New York
- Place of Death:
- St. Paul de Vence, France
- DeWitt Clinton High School, New York City
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews
Mr. Baldwin creates in "If Beale Street Could Talk" a harrowing account of a pregnant teenager trying to get her wrongly imprisoned boyfriend out of jail. This book is at times tender (when you get to see the two main characters, Tish and Fonny, interact), it's at times funny, and in other places it can be daunting due to the unchanging lens Mr. Baldwin chooses to use to tell the reader of this terrible time. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to read a high quality piece of fiction written in a first person account.
I chose this book to read for summer reading. It was different from anything I've read before. I thought that this book was bad, but after thinking about it, it isn't. It takes you into the hard life of Tish and makes you realize the difficulties the characters had. It's slow in some places, but overall a pretty good book. I would recomend it to others.
The only other book I'd read by James Balwin was Go Tell it on the Mountain. But it was an assigned reading in middle school, and I couldn't relate nor understand it. But when I read If Beale Street Could Talk, I cannot tell you how much i fell in love with it. It is simply hardbreakingly beautiful. The story is of a young black couple, Tish and Fonny, living in early 1970s Harlem. Told through the eyes of Tish, you see the harshness of the times they live in: the racism, the brutality of prison, the pathetic ways of which our people have been treated. It is heartbreaking because of this, but it is beautiful because it is essentially a love story. There is love all through the pages of this book. Beneath the tough exteriors and troubles of the characters, there is a love so raw and real, it cannot be beaten down by anything. Anything. I love this novel. I love Baldwin's use of "Black English", anything else just wouldn't have been authentic, and the text is lyrical, almost poetry. His style is truth writen on paper, his work is real. You cannot fault that. I was not able to appreciate his work before but I can tell you that this is one of the most moving pieces of literature that I've read in my eighteen years of living. So if you're a bookworm like myself, I deem it HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! By the way, I plan on rereading Go Tell It on the Mountain!
I resisted reading another problem in the family, however, I immediately related to the highs and lows spirit of the men and womaen of this family issues and values. This book has reminded me of what value and spirit is missing in this so called 'PROGRESSIVE' society, the tenacious spirit that is missing in each of us.
I thought the book was exellent and the characters were like so real. I write on my spare time.It's my #1 hobby and I never had a favorite author who actually inspired me to actually write for a living,but James Baldwin turned that around once my teacher introduced me to his books. And I thought 'HE IS SO TALENTED.' He must be a really fantastic author to write as if he were his charector.
Excellent reading! Always loved Baldwin and this is one of my favorites. Read this in high school, picked it up again as an adult and passed it on.
This book is raw, real, and just right. I read this book in a matter of two days, while attending college and working (guess which one slacked). A must read for everyone...Baldwin is amazing and that is why he is my favorite author of all time.
I am not a big reader, but this book kept me intrigued the entire time. It was difficult to read at first, but once you get going, the style becomes a part of you.
I read the novel at work and wondered if co-workers could read the emotion in my face. Beale street is a historic place in Memphis, the birthplace of the 'blues.' The title clues us into the theme that love is enduring even when 'we got those blues.'
THIS WAS MY FIRST BOOK,I WAS 18 WHEN MY FIRST LOVE(HIGH SCHOOL SWEETHEART) GIVE ME THIS BOOK TO READ I LOVE IT ,AND NOW 20 YEARS LATER I'M BUYING IT FOR MY NIECE FOR HER 18TH BIRTHDAY.THANK YOU BN FOR HAVING IT IN STOCK. OUTSTANDING BOOK
One thing totally remarkable about James Baldwin is the always underlined notion that 'love conquers all'. This book is the epitome of love against the odds. How many loves are lost in this country due to a system that does not condone its existence? A definite must read. Women will look for Fonnys of their own while men will try to emulate his spirit of passion.
A good book to read for recommendation.