In Chapter One of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk, his 19-year-old African American female protagonist and narrator, Clementine, or Tish, as she is called, is describing her visit to the jail in which her boyfriend, the father of her unborn child, is imprisoned. Alonzo, or Fonny, as he is called, is in jail because he was accused of raping a Puerto Rican girl, seemingly framed for the crime by a white police officer described by Fonny’s lawyer, Hayward, as “a racist and a liar.” Baldwin’s narrative, published in 1974, could have been written today, at least from the perspective of an African American community mentally exhausted by repeated instances of violent confrontations with police officers. In the Harlem, New York, in which Baldwin’s story takes place, however, endemic poverty and cynicism is as rampant as at any time and at any place in U.S. history. In short, the life of a lower-income African American in the early-1970s would be defined by anger and bitterness at the racism and absence of opportunity that characterized inner-city life. For Baldwin’s young but intelligent protagonist, Tish, that gulf between hope and despair would be vast and seemingly insurmountable. It would be, to borrow from Tish’s narrative, like crossing a vast, empty, forbidding desert. Additionally, the propensity of young African American men like Fonny to be imprisoned would be symptomatic of that metaphorical gulf. Lacking opportunity, subject to systemic racism, unable to envision a brighter future, many African American men sought solace instead in activities that invariably end in jail or death. Baldwin, through his narrator, who has arrived at the jail to visit her boyfriend, describes the formidable obstacles as follows:
“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.”
“Crossing the Sahara,” then, is a metaphor for traversing that enormous gap between being poor and victimized and being part of the establishment that sets and enforces the rules, and between despair and hope. Fonny is forever ‘turning into the inferno,’ and Tish is forever walking towards the Sahara, because that is the world they know, a world with little or no hope, although If Beale Street Could Talk will end on a note of cautious optimism.