“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:
This may have been the very first time I ever really looked into a white man’s eyes. It stopped me, I stood still. It was not like looking into a man’s eyes. It was like nothing I knew, and—therefore—it was very powerful. It was seduction which contained the promise of rape. It was rape which promised debasement and revenge: on both sides. I wanted to get close to him, to enter into him, to open up that face and change it and destroy it, descend into the slime with him. Then we would both be free: I could almost hear the singing.
Taken by itself, the perception seems to me powerful and credible in a way that much of the novel is not; but if Baldwin’s political meanings carry an essentially sexual message, the frustrated rage in this novel needs a clearer relation to its inner subject. As it is, I unhappily suggest that an important and honorable writer has failed to make us believe in his vision of horrors that surely do exist, but outside his book.
Baldwin’s difficulty helps one to appreciate the virtues of a very different kind of book, Albert Murray’s Train Whistle Guitar, which in its way is much closer to what Handy’s Beale Street would say. Murray’s episodic fictional memoir of a black childhood and youth in Gasoline Point, Alabama, in the 1920s doesn’t wholly resist the temptation to settle for local color, the nostalgia for the pleasures of childhood in a protective rural setting that American fiction, good and bad, has always been so ready to celebrate. But Murray’s prose is in solid touch with the life it describes, as in the account of an aged ex-slave’s recollection of Reconstruction:
Well, now sir, here’s what it all boil down to in a nutshell. The whitefolks they always trying to make out like were none of that nothing but just one great big old free nigger mananial mess. Of course they does, but I’m right here to vouch for them and there were so many cunning ones right there in amongst them. Talking about right here in Alabama in Montgomery 1and all the way up the line to Washington City, D.C., and didn’t none of them old Confederate whitefolks understand that many niggers done found out all that about government business and couldn’t none of them figure out nothing to do with them but wait until they got them to call the Yankees on back up North and that’s when they started whipping them and killing them up right and left while the Yankees off somewhere studying about something else. But that just slowed them down, but it couldn’t stop them long as the answer was in the ballot box. So they still had to cheat them away from there and that’s how come today we got Poll Tax which ain’t nothing but nigger tax spreading like trying to keep up with mooter grass on down to this day and time and that’s what I’m talking about when you hear me talking about the young generation coming up now because they the ones got to know what to do because ain’t many of us old heads left….
The eloquence and shrewdness of folk wit is one of the hardest effects to convey in print, and to my (admittedly northern and white) ear this sounds convincing.
Still, Murray constructs the education of his young hero, Scooter, out of rather familiar stuff. We see Scooter idolizing Luzana Cholly and Stagolee Dupas (fils), the two hard-bitten blues players and sporting men who pass through Gasoline Point from time to time, carrying with them an aura of guns, gambling, fancy clothes, and far-off places, and bringing heroic images of black freedom to a world that the rednecks have less firmly in hand than they like to think. Scooter finds a dead body in the swamp, evidently the consequence of a moonshiner’s vendetta. He runs away from home and is sent back by Luzana Cholly, with a sermon about how he must get educated and make something of himself. He tells of the growth of his own mind, his sexual initiation, his discovery of his concealed true parentage. But such events are after all familiar because they do recur in real lives, or at least in dreams, and Murray handles them with a respectful humor that never becomes caricature. If the book is a kind of genre piece, it is an accomplished and honest one.
Murray recognizes that Scooter’s growing up, like everyone’s, largely happens through hearing and making up stories, the fabulous materials that teach one to construct an adult self that is more than just a passive response to the fixed conditions of birth, environment, race. Even the most modest images may still be authentic. Local place names (Gins Alley, Hog Bayou, Skin Game Jungle), folklore or made-up imitations (Scooter’s nickname comes from Joel Chandler Harris), a boy’s fantasies of himself as a bluesman, ballplayer, boxer, or sawmill worker, the tales and anecdotes which families and small communities circulate among themselves like money to sustain a sense of mutual trust—Murray shows life being absorbed and heightened by the imagination.
Murray’s story, told by a Scooter who finally went to college and made good, re-creates the not so simple life he remembers. Nothing much is made of it, it is accepted for what it is; Murray’s people are victims who don’t claim to be victimized, and their children and grandchildren now living in cities may not take much comfort from hearing about them. He tells, for example, the charming story of Calvin Hargroves, who, seeing his first airplane, thought it was the Ship of Zion, and in his excitement made the terrible error of running to tell the white folks first, rather than his own people; but Calvin’s disgrace made him flee to Cincinnati, from which, one imagines, his early life would look rather different. But if Murray’s novel doesn’t deal much with the present or entirely avoid sentimentalizing the past, it is alive and interesting.
The best of these books about growing up black seems to me to be Derek Walcott’s long autobiographical poem, Another Life. As a West Indian, Walcott has felt the split between black self and white culture and history rather differently from black American writers. He has had the advantage of the British colonial educational system, which, unlike ours, seems to have assumed that if other races were to be educated at all, they should be educated as rigorously and carefully as one’s own young. Walcott knows the alien culture whose weight troubles and divides him, and his experience provides him with painful ironies about how subject peoples enter into the history of their governors:
Cramming halfheartedly for the Scholarship,
I looked up from my red-jacketed Williamson’s
History of the British Empire,
the barracks’ plumed, imperial hill- sides
where cannon-bursts of bamboo sprayed the ridge,
riding to Khartoum, Rorke’s Drift,
through dervishes of dust,
behind the chevroned jalousies
I butchered fellaheen, thuggees, Mamelukes, wogs.
But that history has enlisted him, not politically but imaginatively, at least to the extent of protecting his loyalty to art from the enthusiasms of a new “black reality” as remote from the artist’s needs as any white one:
I enclose in this circle of hell,
in the stench of their own sulphur of self-hatred,
in the steaming, scabrous rocks of Soufrière,
in the boiling, pustular volcanoes of the South,
all o’ dem big boys, so, dem ministers,
ministers of culture, ministers of development,
the green blacks, and their old toms,
and all the syntactical apologists of the Third World
explaining why their artists die,
by their own hands, magicians of the New Vision.
Screaming the same shit….
These are the dividers,
they encompass our history,
in their hands is the body
of my friend and the future,
they measure the skulls with callipers
and pronounce their measure
of toms, of traitors, of traditionals and AfroSaxons.
This is a poetry that doesn’t conceal its influences (here mostly Pound, I should think). Walcott is a cultivated cosmopolitan poet who is black, and as such he risks irrelevant praise as well as blame, whites finding it clever of him to be able to sound so much like other sophisticated poets, blacks feeling that he’s sold his soul by practicing white arts. Whatever hardships this situation may create for Walcott, its difficulty is at least poetically profitable, as when he shows his rueful awareness of its incongruity:
I had entered the house of litera- ture as a houseboy,
filched as the slum child stole,
as the young slave appropriated
those heirlooms temptingly left
with the Victorian homilies of
The sense of having to live and work, however masterfully, within a culture never quite to be felt as one’s own is a predicament that any provincial writer or artist has to cope with, one (for example) from which white American writers haven’t yet escaped, and it does lend a fine authentic nervousness to provincial art at its best, Walcott’s included.
As an instance, he records his youthful habit of perceiving his own experience on St. Lucia through the heroic images provided by his doubly foreign classical education à l’Anglaise, as in the story of his neighbor Captain Foquarde, of the coastal vessel Jewel, whose wife, “when he ulysseed…bloomed again.” The Joycean vignette alerts him to defensive irony (“Provincialism loves the pseudo-epic”) but simultaneously opens the poem to a fine balance between pseudo-epic and true human comedy:
Heureux qui comme Ulysse,
ou Capitaine Foquarde,
while his pomegranate skinned
rocks in her bentwood chair,
laughing, stitching ripped knickers,
as her coast-threading captain
hums, “La vie c’est un voyage”
and the polished rocker dips
as her white burst of laughter
drives deep whose prow?
Another Life explores the suggestion in its title of both loss and possibility. As a child Walcott dwelt yearningly upon images—“an orchestra, a train, a theatre,” even the changes in season—that had no counterpart in his own West Indian life; as an adult who has found these things, he is estranged from that child and his unfulfilled imaginings. As an artist who turned from painting to writing, he feels the loss of what any art fails to capture in its intrusions into nature:
Beyond this frame, deceptive, indifferent,
nature returns to its work,
behind the square of blue you have cut from that sky,
another life, real, indifferent, resumes.
We also find in his work a confession of a more human failure, his betrayal of other lives, of friends and lovers, in turning the offer of themselves into imaginative material. Enclosing everything is the elegiac sense of having lost one life, the black one he was born to but couldn’t wholly live, without finding and completing himself in a world beyond color by producing the art to which his talent inevitably drew him.
A story of divided existence is difficult to conclude without falsifying, and the ending of Another Life, in which the poet returns to an island made vulgar by tourism and prosperity, unable to make contact even with those old friends who are still alive, seems a little foreshortened. But this is a finished poem of deep and complex self-awareness, one that preserves the distinction between the elegiac and the merely sentimental more firmly than do either of the other books discussed here. Derek Walcott tells me about as much about being both black and human as I feel I have any reasonable right to know.
June 13, 1974