‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ by James Baldwin – Young Lovers Who Are Kept Apart


‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ by James Baldwin (1974) – 197 pages

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” – James Baldwin

In ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’, James Baldwin has created a precarious love story and family drama that has now been made into a movie by Barry Jenkins (he of Oscar Best Picture winner ‘Moonlight’) which will very soon be coming out in theaters. I have not seen the movie and will discuss only the novel by James Baldwin instead.

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is the story of a young couple, Fonny aged 22 and Tish aged 19, living in Harlem in New York City in the 1970’s. It is told from the point of view of Tish. She visits Fonny in jail, framed for a rape he did not commit. Later we learn that Fonny was set up by a white racist policeman. Tish goes to the jail and visits him there every day.

“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…I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

On one of her jail visits, Tish tells Fonny that she is pregnant.

I guess it can’t be too often that two people can laugh and make love, too, make love because they are laughing, laugh because they’re making love. The love and the laughter come from the same place: but not many people go there.” 

Their two families meet and discuss what to do about this predicament. Despite differences between the two families, they agree that they must get Fonny out of jail. Tish’s mother goes to Puerto Rico in an effort to locate the woman who accused Fonny of rape and talk her into dropping the charges.

Tish has the bright optimism of youth but must deal with a dire situation made more dire by prevailing casual white racist attitudes.

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is a realistic intense black American love story and family drama of people trying to survive in an inherently unfair world. Baldwin captures the poignancy of both of these two young people and their families as they are caught in this unjust situation. As in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the world, in this case the white world, is conspiring to keep this loving young couple apart. As Stacia L Brown wrote in Gawker, Beale Street  “belongs to a collection of literature that seeks to humanize black men, through their relationships with parents, lovers, siblings, and children. It swan-dives from optimism to bleakness and rises from the ash of dashed hopes.”

Why Baldwin titled the book ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ remains a mystery, as there are no references to Beale Street in the novel.

Besides being a novelist, poet, essay writer, and civil rights activist, James Baldwin also came up with some great quotes. I will leave you with one more.

Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity.” – James Baldwin


Grade:    A

2 responses to this post.

  1. I really loved this book too. Such a powerful and poignant story, beautifully told. In many ways, I think Baldwin remains underappreciated (certainly over here in the UK). Maybe the film will help to revive a little interest in his work.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Jacqui,
      I’ve been reading up on Baldwin a bit, and in many ways he was an amazing man. I had under-appreciated him too, but I did read also his ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’ many years ago.



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