If Beale Street Could Talk Essay - Critical Essays

James Baldwin


If Beale Street Could Talk appeals to young adult readers because the two figures at the center of the novel’s conflict are themselves young adults. The struggle of Fonny and Tish is opposed by Fonny’s mother on the one hand, yet supported by Fonny’s father and Tish’s family on the other. These vexing circumstances involving family ties engage young readers. In addition, the love story, particularly the innocence of Tish and the tenderness of Fonny, capture the emotions of readers who are learning about love and sexuality.

Baldwin’s story explores social issues, including problems related to poverty, racism, housing, criminal justice, and religion, but a central question for the narrator is whether things in the world make sense. Does it make sense for a woman who emphasizes Christianity in her life to scorn her son in his time of greatest need? Does it make sense that a boy awakened to Christianity in a church should end up dead of a drug overdose? Does it make sense that schools are run to make sure that students do not become smart? Does it make sense that the most beautiful person in a young woman’s life is a scruffy young man in old clothes? Does it make sense that a proud, perceptive, and dedicated artist must bear up against a society intensely pressing against him, demanding that he break? At the start of the novel, Tish admits, “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.” In the end, Tish and the reader are forced to consider the conclusion that life in America does not make sense but that love, achieved despite a series of agonizing sacrifices, can counterbalance senselessness.