If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk

by James Baldwin

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In this honest and stunning novel, now a major motion picture directed by Barry Jenkins, James Baldwin has given America a moving story of love in the face of injustice.

Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin’s story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions–affection, despair, and hope. In a love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined, Baldwin has created two characters so alive and profoundly realized that they are unforgettably ingrained in the American psyche.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804149679
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/17/2013
Series: Vintage International
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 12,875
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

James Baldwin was born in 1924 and educated in New York. He is the author of more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, including Go Tell It on the Mountain; Notes of a Native Son; Giovanni’s Room; Nobody Knows My Name; Another Country; The Fire Next Time; Nothing Personal; Blues for Mister Charlie; Going to Meet the Man; The Amen Corner; Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone; One Day When I Was Lost; If Beale Street Could Talk; The Devil Finds Work; Little Man, Little Man; Just Above My Head; The Evidence of Things Not Seen; Jimmy’s Blues; and The Price of the Ticket. Among the awards he has received are a Eugene F. Saxon Memorial Trust Award, a Rosenwald Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Partisan Review Fellowship, and a Ford Foundation grant. He was made a Commander of the Legion of Honor in 1986. He died in 1987.

Date of Birth:

August 2, 1924

Date of Death:

December 1, 1987

Place of Birth:

New York, New York

Place of Death:

St. Paul de Vence, France


DeWitt Clinton High School, New York City

Read an Excerpt

Troubled About My Soul

I look at myself in the mirror. I know that I was christened Clementine, and so it would make sense if people called me Clem, or even, come to think of it, Clementine, since that's my name: but they don't. People call me Tish. I guess that makes sense, too. I'm tired, and I'm beginning to think that maybe everything that happens makes sense. Like, if it didn't make sense, how could it happen? But that's really a terrible thought. It can only come out of trouble—trouble that doesn't make sense.

Today, I went to see Fonny. That's not his name, either, he was christened Alonzo: and it might make sense if people called him Lonnie. But, no, we've always called him Fonny. Alonzo Hunt, that's his name. I've known him all my life, and I hope I'll always know him. But I only call him Alonzo when I have to break down some real heavy shit to him.

Today, I said, "—Alonzo—?"

And he looked at me, that quickening look he has when I call him by his name.

He's in jail. So where we were, I was sitting on a bench in front of a board, and he was sitting on a bench in front of a board. And we were facing each other through a wall of glass between us. You can't hear anything through this glass, and so you both have a little telephone. You have to talk through that. I don't know why people always look down when they talk through a telephone, but they always do. You have to remember to look up at the person you're talking to.

I always remember now, because he's in jail and I love his eyes and every time I see him I'm afraid I'll never see him again. So I pick up the phone as soon as I get there and I just hold it and I keeplooking up at him.

So, when I said, "—Alonzo—?" he looked down and then he looked up and he smiled and he held the phone and he waited.

I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.

And I didn't say it the way I meant to say it. I meant to say it in a very offhand way, so he wouldn't be too upset, so he'd understand that I was saying it without any kind of accusation in my heart.

You see: I know him. He's very proud, and he worries a lot, and, when I think about it, I know—he doesn't—that that's the biggest reason he's in jail. He worries too much already, I don't want him to worry about me. In fact, I didn't want to say what I had to say. But I knew I had to say it. He had to know.

And I thought, too, that when he got over being worried, when he was lying by himself at night, when he was all by himself, in the very deepest part of himself, maybe, when he thought about it, he'd be glad. And that might help him.

I said, "Alonzo, we're going to have a baby."

I looked at him. I know I smiled. His face looked as though it were plunging into water. I couldn't touch him. I wanted so to touch him. I smiled again and my hands got wet on the phone and then for a moment I couldn't see him at all and I shook my head and my face was wet and I said, "I'm glad. I'm glad. Don't you worry. I'm glad."

But he was far away from me now, all by himself. I waited for him to come back. I could see it flash across his face: my baby? I knew that he would think that. I don't mean that he doubted me: but a man thinks that. And for those few seconds while he was out there by himself, away from me, the baby was the only real thing in the world, more real than the prison, more real than me.

I should have said already: we're not married. That means more to him than it does to me, but I understand how he feels. We were going to get married, but then he went to jail.

Fonny is twenty-two. I am nineteen.

He asked the ridiculous question: "Are you sure?"

"No. I ain't sure. I'm just trying to mess with your mind."

Then he grinned. He grinned because, then, he knew.

"What we going to do?" he asked me—just like a little boy.

"Well, we ain't going to drown it. So, I guess we'll have to raise it."

Fonny threw back his head, and laughed, he laughed till tears come down his face. So, then, I felt that the first part, that I'd been so frightened of, would be all right.

"Did you tell Frank?" he asked me.

Frank is his father.

I said, "Not yet."

"You tell your folks?"

"Not yet. But don't worry about them. I just wanted to tell you first."

"Well," he said, "I guess that makes sense. A baby."

He looked at me, then he looked down. "What you going to do, for real?"

"I'm going to do just like I been doing. I'll work up to just about the last month. And then, Mama and Sis will take care for me, you ain't got to worry. And anyway we have you out of here before then."

"You sure about that?" With his little smile.

"Of course I'm sure about that. I'm always sure about that."

I knew what he was thinking, but I can't let myself think about it—not now, watching him. I must be sure.

The man came up behind Fonny, and it was time to go. Fonny smiled and raised his fist, like always, and I raised mine and he stood up. I'm always kind of surprised when I see him in here, at how tall he is. Of course, he's lost weight and that may make him seem taller.

He turned around and went through the door and the door closed behind him.

I felt dizzy. I hadn't eaten much all day, and now it was getting late.

I walked out, to cross these big, wide corridors I've come to hate, corridors wider than all the Sahara desert. The Sahara is never empty; these corridors are never empty. If you cross the Sahara, and you fall, by and by vultures circle around you, smelling, sensing, your death. They circle lower and lower: they wait. They know. They know exactly when the flesh is ready, when the spirit cannot fight back. The poor are always crossing the Sahara. And the lawyers and bondsmen and all that crowd circle around the poor, exactly like vultures. Of course, they're not any richer than the poor, really, that's why they've turned into vultures, scavengers, indecent garbage men, and I'm talking about the black cats, too, who, in so many ways, are worse. I think that, personally, I would be ashamed. But I've had to think about it and now I think that maybe not. I don't know what I wouldn't do to get Fonny out of jail. I've never come across any shame down here, except shame like mine, except the shame of the hardworking black ladies, who call me Daughter, and the shame of proud Puerto Ricans, who don't understand what's happened—no one who speaks to them speaks Spanish, for example—and who are ashamed that they have loved ones in jail. But they are wrong to be ashamed. The people responsible for these jails should be ashamed.

And I'm not ashamed of Fonny. If anything, I'm proud. He's a man. You can tell by the way he's taken all this shit that he's a man. Sometimes, I admit, I'm scared—because nobody can take the shit they throw on us forever. But, then, you just have to somehow fix your mind to get from one day to the next. If you think too far ahead, if you even try to think too far ahead, you'll never make it.

Sometimes I take the subway home, sometimes I take the bus. Today, I took the bus because it takes a little longer and I had a lot on my mind.

From the Paperback edition.

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If Beale Street Could Talk 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
foomy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In summer 1991 I was in Harlem, not knowing I was pregnant with a black man, and this book seemed like a prophecy. It is hard for me to remember my pregnancy without thinking of this book. Sometimes I seems like "Beale Street" was much bigger than my own self. After reading it, I made my decision to write to my parents and make a statement about how I view life, love and racism. It has definitely shaped my preceding years.
AK95 More than 1 year ago
Mr. Baldwin creates in "If Beale Street Could Talk" a harrowing account of a pregnant teenager trying to get her wrongly imprisoned boyfriend out of jail. This book is at times tender (when you get to see the two main characters, Tish and Fonny, interact), it's at times funny, and in other places it can be daunting due to the unchanging lens Mr. Baldwin chooses to use to tell the reader of this terrible time. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to read a high quality piece of fiction written in a first person account.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The only other book I'd read by James Balwin was Go Tell it on the Mountain. But it was an assigned reading in middle school, and I couldn't relate nor understand it. But when I read If Beale Street Could Talk, I cannot tell you how much i fell in love with it. It is simply hardbreakingly beautiful. The story is of a young black couple, Tish and Fonny, living in early 1970s Harlem. Told through the eyes of Tish, you see the harshness of the times they live in: the racism, the brutality of prison, the pathetic ways of which our people have been treated. It is heartbreaking because of this, but it is beautiful because it is essentially a love story. There is love all through the pages of this book. Beneath the tough exteriors and troubles of the characters, there is a love so raw and real, it cannot be beaten down by anything. Anything. I love this novel. I love Baldwin's use of "Black English", anything else just wouldn't have been authentic, and the text is lyrical, almost poetry. His style is truth writen on paper, his work is real. You cannot fault that. I was not able to appreciate his work before but I can tell you that this is one of the most moving pieces of literature that I've read in my eighteen years of living. So if you're a bookworm like myself, I deem it HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! By the way, I plan on rereading Go Tell It on the Mountain!
Anonymous 15 days ago
As a young African-American woman, I feel that Tish' s story is just as powerful and relevant today as it was in the 1970s. Baldwin is a masterful writer. His words bring the story to life and make it personal for every reader.
JimRGill2012 More than 1 year ago
I’m not sure how—or why—this powerful work of narrative beauty escaped me until now, but I’m certainly grateful that Barry Jenkins’ film adaption has rekindled interest in this narrative. Despite some perplexing inconsistencies in narrative point of view, this story of unconditional love blends themes of romance, race, social class, gender, sexuality, and family in ways that only literary masters can manage. Baldwin was undeniably head of his time. In the early 21st century, this story has become familiar enough. Tish, the young, Black first-person narrator, is pregnant with the child of her lifelong love, Fonny, who has been unjustly imprisoned for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman. As Tish and her family band together to free Fonny, institutionalized racism, economic inequality, and social oppression (not to mention members of Fonny’s own family) conspire to keep the young lovers apart. Baldwin’s prose is by turns lyrical, minimalist, imagistic, and brutally violent. He orchestrates his diction with sublime precision; therefore, I must presume that there is some artistic justification for having Tish narrate scenes (such as Fonny’s private conversations with his friend Daniel, Fonny’s experiences in prison, and her mother’s ordeal in Puerto Rico as she attempts to track down the rape victim) that she could not have possibly witnessed. That stylistic quibble aside, I cannot recall another book this brief (fewer than 200 pages) that permeates with such intensity and insight.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had to read it after seeing the film depiction. It’s amazing when a man can so eloquently write the thoughts and feelings of female characters and Baldwin does such a good job with Tish and Sharon. It also reads like a stream of consciousness which makes it hard to put down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great read. Enjoyed it tremendously. Wish it was longer.
aangela1010 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
the first Baldwin I've ever read. beautifully written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I chose this book to read for summer reading. It was different from anything I've read before. I thought that this book was bad, but after thinking about it, it isn't. It takes you into the hard life of Tish and makes you realize the difficulties the characters had. It's slow in some places, but overall a pretty good book. I would recomend it to others.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I resisted reading another problem in the family, however, I immediately related to the highs and lows spirit of the men and womaen of this family issues and values. This book has reminded me of what value and spirit is missing in this so called 'PROGRESSIVE' society, the tenacious spirit that is missing in each of us.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought the book was exellent and the characters were like so real. I write on my spare time.It's my #1 hobby and I never had a favorite author who actually inspired me to actually write for a living,but James Baldwin turned that around once my teacher introduced me to his books. And I thought 'HE IS SO TALENTED.' He must be a really fantastic author to write as if he were his charector.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Excellent reading! Always loved Baldwin and this is one of my favorites. Read this in high school, picked it up again as an adult and passed it on.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is raw, real, and just right. I read this book in a matter of two days, while attending college and working (guess which one slacked). A must read for everyone...Baldwin is amazing and that is why he is my favorite author of all time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am not a big reader, but this book kept me intrigued the entire time. It was difficult to read at first, but once you get going, the style becomes a part of you.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read the novel at work and wondered if co-workers could read the emotion in my face. Beale street is a historic place in Memphis, the birthplace of the 'blues.' The title clues us into the theme that love is enduring even when 'we got those blues.'
Guest More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
One thing totally remarkable about James Baldwin is the always underlined notion that 'love conquers all'. This book is the epitome of love against the odds. How many loves are lost in this country due to a system that does not condone its existence? A definite must read. Women will look for Fonnys of their own while men will try to emulate his spirit of passion.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A good book to read for recommendation.