“If Beale Street Could Talk” is novel by James Baldwin written in 1974 that revolves around a love story between two blacks in Harlem. In the novel, Baldwin highlights the link between racism and apprehension, implying that bigots intimidate black people to keep them suppressed. He uses different literary elements to expose fear as the main reason young blacks such as Daniel and his friend Fonny cannot address their repression. Baldwin’s work is structured to show how deeply and extensively racism is institutionalized in their living settings. Baldwin shows how the power structures surrounding the young African Americans aggressively work to disenfranchise them. Baldwin shows how the young blacks live in perpetual fear of being incarcerated based on their skin color and not on their disobedience to the law. Daniel’s fear for re-incarceration after getting out of wrong incarceration shows the extensiveness of the bias, persecution and hatred for black people in the American society. Baldwin’s work shows how white America suppresses and oppresses individuals like Fonny and Daniel by subjecting them to positions of helplessness and intimidating them to discourage them from speaking out against their oppressors and oppression.
James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” combines varied literary aspects to highlight the prevalence and pervasiveness of corruption and racism in the American judicial system.
In the novel, Baldwin uses setting and context that show to show the disparities in the treatment of blacks and whites that are primarily occasioned by racial prejudice. The novel’s setting affects each character as they navigate varying types of social codes and intimidating situations dependent on the environment they are in. Tish, a protagonist in the novel, avers that she lives in downtown Manhattan and the conditions there are not habitable to people of color and this could explain why the jail was located in this area. Tish confirms the region’s undesirability for African Americans by averring “If I ever get out of this, if we ever get out of this, I swear I’ll never set foot in Downtown New York again” (Baldwin, 6). Tish is in love with a young black man named Fonny, although the racist system separates them from each other after Fonny is arrested for a rape that he did not commit. The woman charging him with this crime picks him from a police suspect lineup in which he is the only African-American. The officer who arrests him, Ed Skrein, initially attempted to arrest Fonny for countering a young white man who attempted to sexually harass Tish (Brody, par. 6).
Baldwin uses the character of Daniel, Fonny’s friend, to show the constant apprehension young blacks in New York live with for fear of persecution by the racist system. Daniel tells Tish that he was incarcerated because the authorities rigged the trial against him and he was too fearful to defend his innocence. He says they say that he stole a car but quips, “Man, I can’t even drive a car, and I tried to make my lawyer—but he was really their lawyer, dig, he worked for the city—prove that, but he didn’t” (Baldwin, 53). Daniel adds that when arresting him, the authorities realized he had marijuana on him, complicating his ability to defend himself. They offered him the choice of giving him a lighter sentence or throwing him in prison for an extended period unless he owned up to the crime. Baldwin uses this situation to show how a racist system ensures that everybody, especially the racially oppressed is alone and unable to thwart the biased authorities’ intentions. Being alone makes it risky to defend one’s innocence and effectively puts African Americans at a severe disadvantage that prevents them from rectifying their disenfranchisement. Daniel’s situation demonstrates how blacks in America live in constant fear because even after his release, Daniel continued to suffer for his safety and feared walking alone in places such as the subway. Even though he is free, he cannot escape the perpetual dread he feels because of his firsthand experience of easily racists can subdue and exploit him and others like him. He is terrified of freedom and the uncertainty of his life in the environment he lives in and constantly fears for his life. Unfortunately, Fonny will likely experience similar dread if he is ever released from prison.
The tone and mood in the book demonstrate how incredibly stressed the protagonists are by living in a highly repressive racial system. Baldwin’s tone and mood show the underlying truth that the systemic racism affecting the young blacks in the story dictates if or not a black individual gets erroneously convicted and upsets their psychological wellbeing because it infiltrates the individual’s life’s existential and emotional aspects. The outcome of such repression is living in constant fear of living because of the overt sponsored, institutionalized, systemic suppression of their rights. In the novel, the District Attorney’s office and added powerful racists controlling the racist systems across the different dynamics in society understand and exploit the fact that when people are kept afraid, they are invariably inclined to act against their best interests. They know how to install terror in such a person by isolating them from the resources and people that may assist them to advocate for themselves. In light of this, Tish, as seen in Baldwin (6), notes, “Trouble means you’re alone,” implying that a black person has few things they can do to get themselves out of a problem because the administrative, political, economic, and social systems are rigged against them. Even if other people wanted to help such an individual, they would not do much because of how these systems are structured to disfavor people in minority groups. By highlighting the pooled effect of isolation and terror, Baldwin effectively demonstrates why it is so difficult to conquer racism. Tish talks about the hardships people in her neighborhood face and the socioeconomic tensions of her downtown area. She and Fonny cannot access a habitable residence and most families often compromise even when looking for something affordable and these compromises endanger their lives. For example, they are compelled to live in dangerous areas despite their ability to afford quality houses. “The other places in Harlem are even worse than the projects. You’d never be able to start your new life in those places, you remember them too well, and you’d never want to bring up your baby there (Baldwin, 16).
Baldwin shows the pervasiveness of racism using tone and mood as seen in Tish’s statement, “Fonny had found something that he could do…this saved him from the death that was waiting to overtake the children of our age. Though the death took many forms… the death itself was very simple and the cause was simple… the kids had been told that they weren’t worth shit and everything they saw around them proved it. They struggled, they struggled, but they fell, like flies, and they congregated on the garbage heaps of their lives, like flies (Baldwin, 19-20). The statement reveals that the racist system purposely disenfranchises young blacks. This statement does not blame the blacks but the racist system that is designed for their failure so that regardless of the time they invest, for instance, in education, they can never succeed. They may lack the resources to advance their education due to their manufactured low socioeconomic status or lack jobs when they graduate because of deliberately-perpetuated repressive stereotypes that portray blacks as criminals.
Baldwin demonstrates the racist system’s bias through the passage, “I know both these young people. They shop here very often. What the young lady has told you is the truth…What would you do if a man attacked your wife? (Baldwin, 72). In this encounter, an officer named Bell wants to arrest Fonny in a shop but the Italian shop owner tells the officer to leave Fonny alone because she witnessed what had occurred. However, it is likely the Italian shop owner defends Fonny because she sees them in her shop often, not because she cares for them, especially considering they are blacks. It is likely she would let them be arrested if she did not know them, despite seeing they committed no crime. Officer Bell sets Fonny free because the Italian shop owner is a white businesswoman and therefore with significant social capital. However, the system cannot let Fonny escape because the officer, wounded by the Italian woman’s account, later frames Fonny for a crime he did not commit.
Baldwin uses the different literary elements that inform this paper to demonstrate the pervasiveness of racism in the society’s systems. He shows how these systems are intentionally structured to oppresses and suppress African-Americans and create bureaucratic, time-wasting procedures to deny blacks justice when their rights are violated. Baldwin uses different characters to demonstrate the different sides of racism and how it occurs in the protagonist’s area, downtown New York City. The literary arrangement of the novel shows the difficulties that complicate efforts to resolve problems created by institutionalized racism.
Baldwin, James. If Beale Street could talk. 1974.
Brody, Richard. The politics of memory in Barry Jenkins’s “If Beale Street could talk.” 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/the-politics-of-memory-in-barry-jenkinss-if-beale-street-could-talk. Accessed 25 October 2021.