If Beale Street Could Talk
Baldwin’s Fiction: Liminal Agency and the Condition of Blackness
James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and “The Man Child” are both texts that demonstrate how the isolation of characters can yield overtly violent outcomes. Though the perspective from which Baldwin challenges dominant forces differs between the two texts, the race of the protagonists seems to be the underlying factor in how the characters experience and combat their own oppression, if they experience it at all. These varying forms of oppression range from gender inequality to hate crimes, but Tish and Fonny’s families are subjected to a condition by which they are trapped in their isolation and status with no viable way of escape. There are numerous similarities between the characters in If Beale Street Could Talk and “The Man Child”, but Baldwin’s black characters do not have the agency to exist in a space that fosters freedom, agency, or even love; those who face similar oppressive forces experience them differently specifically due to the fact that white characters are not subjected to a hellish wasteland.
As Baldwin expresses though both narratives, those who are able to exist comfortably within the confines of American ideology experience a life that is less constricted by oppressive forces. Early on in If Beale Street Could Talk, Tish expresses the constrictive nature of the corridors both in prison and in the church. Tish as describes the situation, “I swear New York must be the ugliest and the dirtiest city in the world…If any place is worse, it’s got to be so close to hell that you can smell the people frying. And, come to think of it, that’s exactly the smell of New York in the summertime” (Beale Street, 9). Whether considering New York or in Puerto Rico, Baldwin describes both places as literal and metaphorical wastelands that people of color are forced to inhabit. In “The Man Child,” Eric and his family view the space and land that they own as representing opportunity through the patriarchal pursuit of happiness. While Jaime is, perhaps, ostracized in comparison to Eric’s family, he is still a white male and thus has the means and opportunity to gain a stronghold within the American landscape. As Baldwin writes, “Eric rode his father’s shoulders through the wide green fields which belonged to him, into the yard which held the house which would hear the first cries of his children” (“The Man Child,” 74). The land for Eric’s relatives is something they have the opportunity to own because their space is neither limiting nor suppressing. Eric’s inherited land thus becomes a physical representation of an American idealism which breeds hope as well as of agriculture: both are key values in American philosophy. The contrasting nature of these two texts and how space is perceived in them demonstrates how Baldwin proclaims that the differences between black and white families cause black families to experience hell on earth while white families experience power through ownership.
Despite Baldwin’s tendency to write from male perspectives, he does not shy away from exploring the roles of women in his works. In both texts, Baldwin emphasizes how powerful gender stereotyping forces women into boxes so restrictive that their value comes solely from their ability to reproduce. Women are only vessels for new life, as is evident through Tish’s and Eric’s mothers’ stories. In If Beale Street Could Talk the child represents hope, which is something that is vital and necessary to black lives. In “The Man Child” the child that died was merely a representation of the nuclear family; as the son and heir, Eric is the key focus in the narrative. As is typical through American inheritance practices, Eric, the first born male, will gain the land after his father dies. Therefore, Eric’s mother’s children have the ability to both own and gain land in comparison to Tish and Fonny’s child, who is born in a hellish wasteland. Characters like Tish fall victim, at times, to internalized sexism, heteronormativity, and racism; Fonny faces similar circumstances. In the city and in black lives there is nothing to gain besides the representation of hope despite the treacherous conditions of their existence, at least in Baldwin’s narratives.
The pressures of gender expression and masculinity exist as options in both texts, but it is Fonny’s expression of white hegemonic masculinity that causes him to end up in prison. Both texts proclaim that there are overwhelming gender policing forces that yield to violence, but if black men fall into those practices then their freedom at risk. Fonny explains the cycle in which oppressive forces disallow the existence of black masculinity: “They got us in a trick bag, baby. It’s hard, but I just want or you to bear in mind that they can make us lose each other by putting me in the shit” (Beale Street, 142). Though Fonny’s act of protecting Tish against the Italian Thug is justifiable by moral law, it is unacceptable for a black male to protect his partner at the expense of the pride or authority of white men. This act directly causes Fonny to end up in prison, as his target of retaliation is an individual who is allowed to exist within the confines of white American masculinity. In contrast to Fonny, Jaime expresses his masculinity by killing Eric and asserting his power over things that are meant to be owned. Jaime retorts when he is chastised for hurting the dog, “It is my beast. And a man’s got a right to do as he likes with whatever’s his” (“The Man Child,” 64). Jaime’s ability to own is something that Fonny, like other black characters in Baldwin’s work, is unable to experience because of his race.
Though both texts have very different protagonists, the characters of Jaime and Daniel can be perceived as foils because they struggle with expressing their masculinity and feeling oppressed within their own liminal spaces or, simply, their bodies. Considering the naming of both these characters is vital when attempting to understand their roles as foil characters and as combatants against American ideological systems, especially in regards to masculinity. Baldwin’s “Here Be Dragons” talks explicitly about the violence that presents itself in American masculinity. Baldwin writes in regard to the American ideal of sexuality and masculinity that “This ideal has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it has virtually forbidden—as an unpatriotic act—the American boy evolve into complexity of manhood” (“Here Be Dragons,” 678). Sexuality is thus rooted in a type of violent dichotomy, as are other factors like race, gender, and masculinity. It is through this same theory that Daniel’s story becomes a tragic story of marginalization in ideology. Sexual violence, as Baldwin emphasizes in many of his texts, is a tool used for the sexual gratification of white men, and Daniel becomes yet another victim of this violence. Daniel explains, “I don’t believe there’s a white man in this country, baby, who can even get his dick hard, without he hear some nigger moan” (Beale Street, 108). The rape that Daniel experience in prison as well as the rape he witnessed both show the penetrative force of white ideology. Prison, according to this text, is an institution designed to oppress black men and stop them from existing in the very hellish conditions that white men have designed in the outside world.
The naming of these two characters, Daniel and Jaime, highlights their significance both in and outside of the text. Baldwin’s adherence to certain theological beliefs is important for understanding the themes that characters represent, especially in regards to how Baldwin intermixes morality and secular ideology. Though Jaime’s name could be perceived as feminine or masculine, his violent actions can be viewed as a way for him to prove his masculinity by expressing it appropriately, or as any white American male would. Daniel’s name relates him to the character of Daniel in the bible. The lion’s den for Baldwin is New York and subsequently America, and the metaphorical lions are attacking Daniel, who is a vivid representation of the struggles of black masculine identity. Daniel is, perhaps, broken; he proclaims that the system itself is attacking his very existence. Jaime, in his nature, is privileged by the system and thus fully buys into it because his compliance will not lead to his execution. The fact that Daniel is presented as “feminine” because he openly cries, because he’s metaphorically owned by the state, and because he was raped in prison all allow Baldwin to show that, despite the similarities between Daniel and Jaime, Daniel’s mis-identification with masculinity causes him to experience violence and imprisonment while Jaime is merely forced to take agency.
True masculinity, for Baldwin, is an opaque ideology that is undoubtedly flawed but undoubtedly exists for the characters that he presents in both narratives. Tish and Fonny’s fathers represent two sides of the same coin. In If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin represents the fluidity of masculinity, but in doing so he shows that black masculinity is a hindrance to social and political freedoms. Characters who are arguably liberated within the texts, such as Joe and Frank, struggle throughout the narrative to raise, and subsequently steal, enough money to pay for Fonny’s bond. When facing overwhelming pressure, Frank submits to the justice system: “It’s over. They got him. They ain’t going to let him go till they get ready. And they ain’t ready yet. And ain’t nothing we can do about it” (Beale Street, 188). Despite the fact that Frank and Joe fit into a hegemonic masculine role because they are no physically restrained by the state, they are not perceived as weak because of their emotions, and they have agency inside their homes and in their communities; still, their blackness still makes them feel hopeless in the face of their white oppressors. Their expressions of gender and masculinity do not give them power, especially when displaying power would be most significant in their lives and the lives of their family members.
James Baldwin is a mastermind at exposing the turmoil behind the ideal of American masculinity. If Beale Street Could Talk and “The Man Child” both play a vital role in Baldwin’s narratives surrounding gender, sexuality, gender expression, and race. James Baldwin asserts, through these two texts, that his principal characters face similar oppressive forces due to their varying identities, but it is the black characters who are ostracized, caged, and subjected to violence. This condition of blackness, as Baldwin indicates, disallows for freedom of any kind to the point where characters are systematically oppressed and end up locked in jail or end up living in a metaphorical hell. This hell, thus, becomes a wasteland for black bodies, and this wasteland is inescapable.
Baldwin, James. Going to Meet the Man. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Cantwell, Robert. If Beale Street Could Talk: Music, Community, Culture. Urbana: U of Illinois,
What Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” Adds to “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Michelle Alexander’s introduction to “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” helps readers understand the larger context of the theme of imprisonment in James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Baldwin’s novel illustrates the racial bias in the justice system through the imprisonment of Fonny. Alexander’s introduction takes the theme of imprisonment in Baldwin’s novel a step further, claiming the justice system is not only racially biased, but also reflective of a larger racial division in American society. Alexander gives readers a lense through which to view the unjust imprisonment of Fonny in Baldwin’s novel, as she claims that this corruption is in place of Jim Crow and thus creates a socioeconomic divide or a “racial caste system.”
The plot of Baldwin’s novel revolves around the unjust imprisonment of Fonny and, in doing so, highlights the corruption in the justice system. To readers and most of the characters in the novel, Fonny is innocent because Baldwin writes his novel from the perspective of the girl in love with Fonny, Tish. As a result the evidence readers are presented with depict Fonny as innocent. Because of Fonny’s innocence, Baldwin explains the character’s imprisonment through the racial corruption in the justice system. Before the reader knows what Fonny was accused of, Tish alludes to this racial injustice, explaining, “That same passion which saved Fonny got him into trouble, and put him in jail. For, you see, he had found his center, his own center, inside him: and it showed. He wasn’t anybody’s nigger. And that’s a crime, in this fucking free country. You’re suppose to be somebody’s nigger. And if you’re nobody’s nigger, you’re a bad nigger: and that’s what the cops decided when Fonny moved downtown” (Baldwin 37-38). Tish claims that by finding a “passion” and thus becoming his own person, Fonny committed a “crime.” In “this fucking free country,” a person’s independence should not be cause for prison, but by using the term “nigger,” a racial slur, over and over to describe Fonny, Tish alludes to the fact it is because of his race he was “moved downtown.” Tish explains that “if you’re nobody’s nigger, you’re a bad nigger,” denoting that the only way for a black man to stay out of prison is if he is submissive. The passion that Fonny has both for his artistic work and for Tish becomes the reason for his imprisonment, in addition to his race.
Fonny’s passion for Tish causes him to argue with a cop, which is why the characters in the novel believe he was singled out for a crime he did not commit. After his argument with the cop, Fonny claims that the cop is “going to try and get [him].” Tish responds, saying, “How? You didn’t do anything wrong. The Italian lady said so, and she said that she would swear to it,” to which he responds, “That’s why he’s going to try to get me” (143). Baldwin puts the idea of cop corruption into the reader’s mind, as Fonny believes the cop will try to “get” him, even if he did nothing wrong. Fonny seems to be right as the case against him “isn’t much of a case” and “if Fonny were white, it wouldn’t be a case at all” (120). Baldwin paints the actual case against Fonny as a corrupt charge that singled out Fonny due to his dark skin and passion for Tish. Not only would it not be a case if Fonny were white, but in the lineup Fonny was singled out for his skin as he was the only black man. As Tish explains to Fonny, “[Mrs. Rogers] says she was raped by a black man, and so they put one black man in a lineup with a whole lot of pale dudes. And so, naturally, she says it was you. If she was looking for a black cat, she knows it can’t be none of the others” (182). The fact Fonny was the only “black cat” in the lineup shows police corruption, because if the woman who accused Fonny of rape claimed “she was raped by a black man” the lineup should, reasonably, be mostly black men. It also demonstrates that Fonny was singled out for the crime because of his black skin, as Tish claims the only reason he was chosen was because “it can’t be none of the others.” The narrative Baldwin devises of Fonny’s imprisonment illustrates racial injustice in the system, as Fonny was singled out for a crime he did not commit simply because of his skin color and his love for Tish.
Baldwin paints Fonny’s imprisonment as one of racial injustice, but Alexander’s book explains that these injustices are part of a larger societal machine that purposefully imprisons minorities to maintain a “racial caste.” In the introduction to her book, Alexander writes: Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination— employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. (Alexander 2). In his novel, Baldwin illustrates the injustice in Fonny’s imprisonment, but does not explain what it means for society. The reader understands that Fonny was imprisoned was because of his skin color, but Alexander explains that the justice system purposefully discriminates in order to preserve the “racial caste in America.” Alexander asserts that people who are imprisoned are denied American rights, like the right to vote, educational opportunity, and jury service.
Alexander opens up the argument Baldwin’s book makes, which is that the injustice system is unfair, to explain that it is unfair because the people in power want it to be. Alexander claims that sending African Americans to jail denies them rights that they were denied at the “height of Jim Crow.” Additionally, Baldwin’s book only really highlights one character’s imprisonment, Fonny’s, and thus doesn’t give the reader an idea of how far out these injustices reach. Alexander does this for us, explaining, “The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid” (6). Alexander gives the reader a lens through which to look at Fonny’s imprisonment, as Fonny is just one man being falsely accused in a sea of thousands. Alexander explains that America not only imprisons the most “racial or ethnic minorities,” but has more prisoners than South Africa did during their apartheid. Alexander gives readers a different perspective on Fonny’s imprisonment by revealing that his imprisonment is part of a bigger societal injustice that exists to keep African Americans in a racial caste.
Alexander’s introduction helps readers better understand the meaning behind Fonny’s imprisonment. While Alexander does not hope to insinuate that all minorities in prison are innocent, she does explain why there are so many and why they serve such long sentences. Additionally, as Alexander wrote based on the present while Baldwin’s novel is set in 1970s Harlem, the introduction highlights the ways in which corruption in the justice system pervades American history much like racism does. Finally, Baldwin does not write a jail novel about reform, but instead one that highlights the injustice and racism in our justice system. Alexander opens up his novel to show that this corruption has a meaning, which is to maintain a racial caste system.
Baldwin, James. If Beale Street Could Talk: a Novel. Distributed by Paw Prints/Baker & Taylor, 2010.Alexander, Michelle. “Introduction.” The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press, 2012, pp. 1–19.