If Beale Street Could Talk follows the experiences of a young black couple in the late sixties or early seventies. Fonny and Tish grew up together on the same street and shared their lives. When Fonny is twenty-one and Tish eighteen, their friendship begins to mature into a loving relationship. As they explore their new love, they must also deal with an American society that is very cruel and unjust to blacks, especially black men. Police arrest Fonny for rape, on a night he has not left his apartment.
Fonny is identified by the victim in the lineup, however he is the only black man in the lineup when the victim only knows her assailant was black. The rest of the book chronicles Tish’s experiences on the outside while Fonny suffers in jail, this includes the realization that she is pregnant. The book shifts from scenes of the past and present, as the reader comes to a better understanding of Tish’s life, her family, and her society. If Beale Street Could Talk exposes the harsh reality of racism in American cities and what it takes to survive in those circumstances.
If Beale Street Could Talk addresses the very difficult subject of racism and it does so blatantly. There is no way to sugar coat the effects of racism. James Baldwin presents the truth of life for black Americans honestly. “I must say that I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody- if it is, God’s days have got to be numbered. That God these people say they serve- and do serve, in ways that they don’t know- has got a very nasty sense of humor. Like you’d beat the shit out of Him, if He was a man. Or: if you were. ” (p. 28) The language to describe racism is not pretty but neither is racism.
Baldwin reminds his readers that honesty, even harsh and difficult honesty, is always better than denial. Scene between Fonny and Tish that could be considered sexually explicit could also be considered very beautiful. In If Beale Street Could Talk sex is in no way exploited or degraded as it often is in modern media forms. Tish describes the conception of their child with unashamed beauty. “I had never been so open before. And when he started to pull out, I would not let him, I held on to him as tightly as I could, crying and moaning and shaking with him, and felt life, life, his life, inundating me, entrusting itself to me. p. 144) While these scenes are graphic and obviously not appropriate for a younger audience, they do not cheapen sexuality in any way. Here sex is only shared between two people in a very trusting, open, and mature relationship. By focusing on these aspects of their sexual relationship the concern over the graphic nature of these scenes diminishes. The criticism for If Beale Street Could Talk is only accurate if the book is not taught well. It includes profanity, explicit sexuality, and difficult topics, but so does a normal high school student’s life.
The lesson plan for teaching this book would have to include much guided discussion and time for personal reflection. If Beale Street Could Talk would not be appropriate for younger students but could work very well for older students in the proper setting. Exposing children to a book with these issues could never cause as much harm as denying that these problems exist. Through education we can hope that some of these problems will begin to disappear.