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for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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The love story stresses not the romantic aspect of love but its fidelity, tenacity and cohesive power – the qualities

of love that battle frustration. Frustrating it is indeed that the young black man is accused of rape, yet

the black community suffers constant violations of its rights and identity.



Books by and about James Baldwin

 Go Tell It on the Mountain  /   The Fire Next Time  /  Notes of a Native Son  /    If Beale Street Could Talk

Carol E. Henderson, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain: Historical And Critical Essays. Peter Lang Publishing, 2006.

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Blues Lament

By Robert Detweiler

A review of

  If Beale Street Could Talk  by James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s latest novel is a love story of present-day Harlem. Nineteen-year-old Tish, narrator of much of the story, is carrying the baby of her lover, Fonny, an aspiring black sculptor imprisoned on charges of raping a Puerto Rican woman. The charges of raping a Puerto Rican woman. The charges are false; Fonny is the victim of a white policeman’s revenge for an earlier confrontation in which Fonny humiliated him. Yet evidence is twisted against Fonny by the police, so that it is hard to defend him. 

In desperation, Tish’s mother, Sharon, flies to Puerto Rico to find the rape victim, who has fled home. The hysterical woman, insisting that Fonny indeed was her attacker, has a miscarriage and is taken to a rest home; Sharon must return to New York, her errand a failure. Fonny’s trial is postponed, since the Puerto Rican woman, the key witness for the prosecution, cannot appear; a high bail is set for Fonny, and the two black families struggle to raise the money by legal and illegal means.

At the end of the novel, Fonny’s father kills himself in shame and despair over his failure to free his son. As Tish hears the news, her labor pains begin (a curious variation on Baldwin’s personal experience: his own father died in 1943 shortly before his last child was born), and the new birth offers a faint but persistent note of hope.

As the title suggests (Beale Street in Memphis  was a home of blues composition), the novel is written as a blues lament, a structure that explains the two unbalanced sections: the long lyric-evocation celebration of suffering in the first part (“Troubled About My Soul”) and the brief second section (“Zion’) that does not conclude but plaintively fades away.

This lack of plot resolution that frustrates the reader mirrors the frustration of the black families in their efforts to free Fonny. The love story stresses not the romantic aspect of love but its fidelity, tenacity and cohesive power – the qualities of love that battle frustration. Frustrating it is indeed that the young black man is accused of rape, yet the black community suffers constant violations of its rights and identity. Fonny himself is  eventually beaten up in prison because he will not submit to homosexual rape, and then is placed in solitary confinement. Against these invasions of person and community the strength of love offers the only defense.

Images of separation and of attempted reunion pervade the book. Most pathetic are the repeated scenes in which the lovers must speak their intimacies by telephone while watching each other through the thick glass of the prison cell. More subtly, Fonny’s rigid Pentecostal mother, who should offer Christian love in this crisis, is the main obstacle in the efforts of the two families to cooperate in freeing the young artist.

Now 50, Baldwin shows that he can still write with passion and empathy; but the book is not, as the dust jacket declares, “perhaps the finest novel Mr. Baldwin has ever written.” One appreciates the author’s depth of feeling and his struggle to convey it through the delicate motions of youthful love, but he has not transcended the clichés of language, theme and place. The novel moves one but does not convince.

Source: The Christian Century (July 31, 1974)


Selected Works

Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1953

Notes of a Native Son, 1955

Giovanni's Room, 1956

Nobody Know My Name (, 1962

Another Country, 1962

The Fire Next Time, 1963

Blues for Mister Charlie (a play, produced in 1964)

Going to Meet the Man, 1965

Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, 1968

A Rap on Race, with Margaret Mead, 1971

If Beale Street Could Talk 1974

The Devil Finds Work, 1976

Just Above My Head, 1979

The Evidence of Things Not Seen, 1985

The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction, 1948-1985, 1985

Perspectives: Angles on African Art, 1987

Conversations with James Baldwin, 1989

Early Novels and Stories, 1998

Collected Essays, 1998 (ed. by Toni Morrison)

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Take this Hammer—a James Baldwin documentary

KQED's film unit follows poet and activist James Baldwin in the spring of 1963, as he's driven around San Francisco to meet with members of the local African-American community. He is escorted by Youth For Service's Executive Director Orville Luster and intent on discovering: "The real situation of negroes in the city, as opposed to the image San Francisco would like to present." He declares: "There is no moral distance . . . between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham. Someone's got to tell it like it is. And that's where it's at." Includes frank exchanges with local people on the street, meetings with community leaders and extended point-of-view sequences shot from a moving vehicle, featuring the Bayview and Western Addition neighborhoods.

Baldwin reflects on the racial inequality that African-Americans are forced to confront and at one point tries to lift the morale of a young man by expressing his conviction that "There will be a negro president of this country but it will not be the country that we are sitting in now."

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 2 October 2007 /  update 24 February 2008



Home  James Baldwin Table

Related files: James Baldwin Bio   James Baldwins Jeremiad  Go Tell It on the Mountain  Rainer Reviews Notes of a Native Son 

Hughes Reviews Notes of a Native Son   If Beale Street Could Talk   Fire Last Time   Sermon and Blues     MAWA Baldwin