If Beale Street Could Talk – James Baldwin
A white cop against a black young man in New York (Harlem) around 1970. The last person does not stand a chance. Fonny, (his given name is Alonzo) the black young man in question, obviously loses, he gets arrested and goes to jail for a crime he did not commit. He is being charged for rape, but the attorney general succeeds in keeping the trail postponed. His girlfriend, Tish (her given name is Clementine), is his reason to keep on fighting, he stays strong, copes with all his trouble for her, so they can eventually be together again. Tish announces she is pregnant. Even though the lovers are only 19 and 22 they were already encaged and so now the are expecting a child.
Tish’ family tries everything to get Fonny out of jail. His own family: his mother, father and sisters do not really care. Well his father, Frank, does care but has a drinking problem and therefore he does not have any money or anything that would help his son get out of jail. His mother and sisters do not care, they hate Fonny and everything he does. They do believe he raped the woman, the crime he is being charged with. They did not find it odd at all when he got arrested, they say they always had known what a rotten kid he was. Tish’ parents, Joseph and Sharon, really care about and for their future son-in-law. Sharon even goes to Puerto Rico trying to find the rape-victim Mrs Rogers. According to his attorney, Mr. Hayward, Fonny stands a bigger chance if Mrs Rogers changes her testimony. She pointed him out as the rapist, her testimony states Fonny Hunt was the guy who raped her. No judge will acquit a recognised criminal. So Sharon tries to persuade Mrs Rogers to change her testimony, but she does not give in. Even though it was dark the night of the crime and Fonny had been the only dark-skinned boy in the line-up, she is absolutely sure, without a doubt (at least so she claims) that it was Fonny who raped her that night.
Meanwhile Tish tries to keep working, because they need money to pay the lawyer and the journey to Puerto Rico, but also tries to go to Fonny every moment she can. Being pregnant does not make all of that easier, but she feels she has to be strong! Everything depends on her. She is the one who is going to have to deliver that baby safe and sound on this planet.
Tish and Fonny have known each other practically all their lives. First they are just friends, but at one point they realise they feel more than that for each other. The become ‘boyfriend and girlfriend’. They even get to be known in the neighbourhood as ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Once Fonny asked Tish to marry him they
Try to find a place of their own to live. That does not turn out to be as easy as they thought it would be. But finally they do find a place to live, a place on Beale Street. The title refers to this address. Tish wished that the street could talk, because then everybody would hear that Fonny is innocent. The street could tell the whole story. But unfortunately streets can not talk so they have to wait for the trail to know the ending of this story.
The story does not go that far, the reader does not get to know who the trial ends. On the final pages it appears that Fonny gets out on bail, Frank commits suicide after losing his job for stealing goods to sell to get money for the attorney and the bail and the baby is about to be born. So is seems to head for a happy ending. Fonny gets to see his child, their child, Tish’ and his baby. That is what all the concerned persons had their hearts set on.
The novel is combination of a love story, a historical story, a drama and it seems to me the story could have easily happened in reality. Because the story is told by Tish, you get a good view in who life could have been in those days, in that city. Maybe it is because it is told very lively I would not find it odd to hear the story was not fiction, but non-fiction. But I also still feel James Baldwin describes the tough world Tish lives in very well, I do believe it is a genuinely image of life in Harlem around 1970.
The love James Baldwin describes is magnificent, it is so incredibly beautiful I’d actually wish at some point I was there, in Harlem, to feel the love. Tish, her family and Fonny seem to love each other so strong, just great! I loved reading about their story. It made me sad, but somehow it also gave me some sort of strength, hope in this society. The world has not totally gone bad. Reading about such loving just made me feel all warm inside. Even though their world seems so harsh, so unpleasant, they keep up hope. Maybe because it is the only thing left, but I really still admire their strength. Tish and her family seem so strong together, that is their power: their togetherness. They keep each other up, keep each other standing.
The injustice ruling the book still shocked me a bit. I think I do know some about the racism in The United States of America in some days, but still every time it gets illustrated in such a way, it shocks me a bit. I guess that is not to bad, it means I do not get used to it, it keeps bothering me. It is so weird for me, living in The Netherlands in 2006, to understand the way of thinking of, for example, officer Bell. The only words I can think of to describe him are insults, but I will keep those to myself. Officer Bell looked forward to arrest that little ‘nigger’ boy the day Fonny threshed that white boy who harassed his girlfriend. The owner of the shop they were in, prevented that from happening by telling the boy was telling him the truth: the white boy had harassed Tish and Fonny had just protected her and himself. Officer Bell has to let Fonny go, but tells him he will get him some day. And eventually he does. Bell arrests Fonny one night and he has to stand in a line-up. Mrs Rogers then points him out as her rapist, he being the only negro in the line-up, and she had seen it was a negro who had raped her, but she did not really know what he looked like. But still she picks Fonny and he gets charged with rape.
The injustice does not stop with this racist policeman who just wanted to get even. It goes on and on. The attorney general definitely knows his share of racism and injustice. They seem to try to do everything to get Fonny behind bars. Fonny’s alibi got arrested and Fonny’s lawyer was not allowed to speak to him. It had been quite a quest to locate Daniel, once located he turned out to be of no use for he was also in jail and therefore not a plausible witness. Another strange fact is that within ten minutes after the crime Fonny gets arrested at a place he could not possibly have ran to in ten minutes. The crime scene was a lot further away than a ten minute run from the place Fonny gets arrested. But the district attorney does not seem to care about that. It seems as though nobody really cares about the truth, they just need somebody to pay for the rape and Fonny had the bad luck to be in the wrong place with the right skin colour and the wrong history.
It made me lose a bit of hope in the world, in the righteousness of the people. But a I have written above, the love and care of those around Fonny restore a bit of that hope again.
One thing did disappoint me a bit: the ending! To me the last eight sentences of the book did not become clear. I guess it means the baby is coming, because Tish writes down: ‘my time has come’. This could also mean she is dying, but considering the circumstances I find that less obvious. Also if Fonny got out on bail was not totally obvious to me. Joseph states they have got the last money scrambled together to pay for bail, but it is not clear if they also really get him out of that jail. The money has been taken care of, that is what Joseph said, but Fonny seems to still sit in jail, waiting. I guess they will get Fonny out on bail, but they just did not have the time to do that because they just got hold of the last dollars.
I am very glad we had to write a book report, because otherwise I do not think I would have read this book. That would definitely have been a shame. It is a great, beautiful, emotional and encouraging book. I wish I had had the time to have read the whole book in one afternoon. Finish the book at once, no I had to take time in between, because I also had to sleep, eat, work, go to school, do my homework and have something of social life. I know there will not be a next time but try to give the other students I day off when you give them the assignment to write a book report, because then they will have the time to read their book, page by page, without having to put it away.