If Beale Street Could Talk
Train Whistle Guitar
“I’d rather be here, than any place I know,” sings the boulevardier of Handy’s great blues song, unintimidated by having seen the seven wonders of the white world for he is sure that Beale Street had more than enough life and love for anyone until they closed down the saloons. As an account of black experience in America this has obvious limitations, and the irony in the title of James Baldwin’s bitter new novel of black lovers in the repressive hands of white justice tells us clearly enough the point he wants to make. But the novel itself does not succeed in telling a story that convinces us of that point.
Toward the middle of this novel Baldwin’s heroine and narrator; Tish Rivers, has dinner with her man, Fonny Hunt, in a hospitable West Village Spanish restaurant; still she finds that even there freedom is illusory:
But on this particular Saturday night, we did not know [that he would soon be in the Tombs on a false charge of rape]; Fonny did not know, and we were happy, all of us. I had one margherita, though we all knew that this was against the goddam motherfucking shit-eating law, and Fonny had a whiskey because at twenty-one you have a legal right to drink.
These pungent comments reflect Tish’s sense of things after Fonny has become a victim of the police, and so her view of “the law” seems fair enough. But there’s something mysterious in the occasion all the same. When Tish orders the margherita, she is eighteen—old enough to buy a drink under the goddam, etc., New York state law. Even if Tish and Fonny, New York-born and bred, might somehow not have known this, the kindly restaurant proprietors surely would. A small slip of the author’s mind, no doubt, but a sign of a larger problem in the book.
Whatever other horrors the law has in store for this couple, their anger has no immediate occasion in the scene—Tish is telling us of something she could not have felt in this way at this time. Elsewhere, too, Baldwin’s decision to have Tish tell the story produces obscurities that compromise the passion and immediacy his social and political theme demands. He writes himself into the trap of making Tish describe events she didn’t witness and that neither she nor her presumed informant can plausibly know about, as when her mother, Sharon, goes to Puerto Rico to look for evidence in Fonny’s behalf from the woman he is accused of raping:
This is the first time that Sharon has been alone in a very long time. Even now, she is alone merely physically, in the same way, for example, that she is alone when she goes shopping for her family….
Since this seems to say that for a long time she hasn’t been alone in the way she’s alone when she goes shopping, one would conclude that Tish thinks she hasn’t been shopping for a long time, that it’s not a regular part of her life. Yet our first glimpse of Sharon in the novel shows her “carrying a shopping bag and…wearing what I call her shopping hat.” And the confusion about whose mind we’re in increases as the passage goes on:
Shopping, she must listen, she must look, say yes to this, say no to that, she must choose: she has a family to feed. She cannot poison them, because she loves them. And now [in a San Juan nightclub] she finds herself listening to a sound she has never heard before. If she were shopping, she could not take this home and put it on the family table for it would not nourish them. My gal and I! cries the undernourished rock singer, whipping himself into an electronic orgasm. But no one who had ever had a lover, a mother or father, or a Lord, could sound so despairingly masturbatory.
Someone here seems to want to take a stern line about rock music, but who can it be? If Mrs. Rivers has never heard rock before, she’s the only American who hasn’t; if, allowing some critical subtlety to her reaction (she was a blues singer in her youth), it’s just that she’s never heard bad white rock, her case is still rare; if, as I must reluctantly suspect, Baldwin is simply working off a distaste of his own, he’s put it in an idiom that doesn’t suit either the mother or the daughter of his story. If Beale Street could talk, I doubt that it would say “electronic orgasm” or “despairingly masturbatory.”
These are, I hope, more than nit-picking complaints that Baldwin’s novel isn’t as self-conscious as it should be. Simplicity and directness will do very well for any story with the polemical intentions of If Beale Street Could Talk; but even simplicity requires that a writer take the trouble to get things right, imagine his world in ways that aren’t contradictory, not be careless about the occasions created for emotional invitations.
It is these occasions that go wrong in this novel whose governing situation seems at least improbable. Fonny is a young black man with no previous police record, from a stable, God-fearing, self-supporting, lower-middle-class Harlem family, with two sisters at City College. He is regularly employed and working hard at becoming a sculptor in his spare time, with a devoted and responsible fiancée from an equally respectable family. This young man is accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman in an East Side hallway. The only witness is the victim, who lives in New York without her Anglo husband and is involved with a rather shady nightclub operator; her story seems suspiciously dependent upon that of a white policeman who says he saw and identified the rapist fleeing from the scene.
Two people, Fonny’s fiancée and a friend (admittedly an ex-con), were with him in his apartment, on the far West Side, at the time of the offense; the cop, whose beat is Fonny’s own neighborhood, which is across town from the scene of the crime, and who has previously had a public run-in with Fonny and vaguely threatened him before impartial white witnesses, has recently been transferred from Brooklyn because he killed a twelve-year-old black child there. Fonny has a supposedly competent, hard-working, socially concerned white lawyer who knows all these facts. After Fonny is booked and put in the Tombs, the victim vanishes (when she’s found later in Puerto Rico, she miscarries an illegitimate child and goes mad). Fonny’s second witness, the ex-con, is arrested, beaten up, and sequestered from Fonny’s lawyer, then spirited away to an upstate prison where he mysteriously cannot be interviewed by the defense.
In the real world, one wonders if even the most officious Assistant DA would touch such a case, or if even the most bigoted examining magistrate would bind over the defendant without even allowing bail. One knows that some innocent men are in the Tombs, along with some who may not be innocent but have been denied their legal rights. But even in that real world, in which, as the feminists rightly insist, rape is about the hardest crime to get someone punished for, one doubts that Fonny’s case would have gone as badly as it does here.
Baldwin’s incontrovertible thesis, that being black makes it much harder to get justice in America, leads him into incredibility, like this interview between Fonny’s lawyer and Tish and her mother:
“Now: if the state can get three respectable black women to depose, or to testify, that their son and brother has always been a dangerously antisocial creature, this is a very serious blow for us.”
He pauses again, and he turns toward the window.
“As a matter of fact—for Galileo Santini [the prosecutor in charge of the case] is not a stupid man—it might be vastly more effective if he does not call them as character witnesses, for then they cannot be cross-examined—he need merely convey to the jury that these respectable churchgoing women are prostrate with shame and grief. And the father can be dismissed as a hard-drinking good-for-nothing, a dreadful example to his son—especially as he has publicly threatened to blow Santini’s head off.” [This, by the way, is the first we’ve heard of this threat.]
He turns from the window, to watch us very carefully.
“I think I will probably call on you, Sharon, and on Mr. Rivers, as character witnesses. But you see what we are up against.”
“It’s always better,” says Sharon, “to know than not to know.”
But Baldwin’s point isn’t that they need a new lawyer, but that this conscientious and capable man is as helpless as anyone else in the face of ruthless oppression in the name of “law.” No one could get Fonny out of jail, because the white man’s system is meant to entrap and destroy the Fonnys and Tishes of this “nation of pigs and murderers,” “this democratic hell,” “this fucked up time and place.”
To read If Beale Street Could Talk as accurate social drama seems to me virtually impossible. I can’t care as much as I want to about Fonny and Tish unless the system that victimizes them is described in a way that I can recognize. No one can doubt that terrible things are done to good and innocent black people. But Baldwin writes so flatly and schematically that he drives one to imagining ways in which his story might be more “believable.” One is unwillingly put in the position of a story editor of a bad movie, tempted to suggest, for example, that if Baldwin really needs to challenge white nightmares about black sexuality, then perhaps the rape victim should be unequivocally white, of good character, and subjectively honest; that Fonny’s difficulties in defending himself would seem more plausible if he weren’t so insistently made innocent of everything, if his and Tish’s families were poorer and more desperately helpless; that the drama of persecution would be more horrifying if the law’s malevolence were less conscious, if the bigoted policeman, for example, weren’t so broadly wicked, weren’t such a vindictive, diabolically calculating liar.
So one must try to read this novel allegorically, taking Tish and Fonny as Romeo and Juliet (as they’re in fact teasingly called by some of their friends), cop-crossed lovers victimized by a repressive order whose exact workings don’t really matter. They are credible and often affecting as lovers, but the fantasy on which Baldwin’s allegory relies may disturb some of Baldwin’s readers, particularly black ones: blackness in a white system becomes here a condition of helpless passivity, of getting screwed by the man; persecution and violation are emphasized so insistently and despairingly that enduring them becomes a kind of acceptance.
In fairness, I should say that Fonny is allowed to keep what manhood is possible for him by surviving confinement and escaping the homosexual rape he deeply fears that prison has in store for him. But consider Tish’s thoughts when she encounters the cop who later puts Fonny in jail: