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.
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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 […]