If Beale Street Could Talk Questions and Answers
by James Baldwin

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What was the setting (time and place) of the novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin?

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Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I am pleased to see this book is being read, since it is one of my favorite Baldwins. 

The story takes place in New York City, and I am guessing it takes place in the late sixties or early seventies because Tish's father was coming home from the Korean War when he met her mother. The book was first published in 1974, which is not necessarily a clue, but in this case, probably is.   

So what does that have to do with Beale Street?  This is a street in Memphis, Tennessee.  There still is a Beale Street there, to this day.  Beale Street was particularly important in the Twenties for a few reasons.  This was during Prohibition, and there were a number of speakeasies on the street. There were also gangsters around and about, including Machine Gun Kelly.  This was also a bit of a "red light district," where prostitutes were available. But most important was the music offered at the Beale Street establishments, with world-class musicians playing blues and jazz. There is a famous song called "Beale Street Blues."   

I would say that Baldwin wanted to evoke the idea of the blues of the African-American experience, whether in New York or in Memphis, Tennessee, both as music and as a commentary on the difficult lives of African-Americans. 

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clarissa87 | Student

James Baldwin, like many of the classic and iconic writers of the Harlem Renaissance and other cultural movements, makes the setting of If Beale Street Could Talk come alive through the central characters’ interactions with their physical environment.

The story of the young lovers named Tish and Fonny takes place in street-slick New York City during the early 1970s. Baldwin uses raw, colorful language to paint each scene in this setting --- a place seen by the lovebirds as both a concrete paradise and battleground throughout the novel. In one regard, New York City is the place where Tish and Fonny meet, fall in love and pledge their allegiance to each other. Baldwin describes how the characters first meet in a graphic street fight involving a board and rusty nail; they eventually begin a romantic relationship. Later, an outing at a Spanish restaurant preceding a night of passion at Fonny’s “dingy” apartment leads to a pregnancy. Fonny’s lack of money, as illustrated by his lackluster apartment, makes his loving promise even more inviting to Tish and deepens her feelings for him.

In a study of contrast, Tish and Fonny are also fighting for their love and freedom in this same metropolis. Several scenes show Tish visiting her beloved in jail after he is accused of a crime that tears them apart; she sees a worried Fonny through a glass divider and hears his distressed voice during her visits.

”I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass,” Baldwin wrote. “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.”

Baldwin also places Tish at the offices of a lawyer, Mr. Hayward, who is building a case to get Fonny from behind bars. The news of Tish’s pregnancy rattles her relatively normal home life when her apartment becomes a ground zero for a major heated fight between her and Fonny’s family; she boldly declares to Fonny’s stunned mother that she will raise her child with him once he is released from jail.

Baldwin turns the setting into a symbol: New York City comes to represent Tish’s hope for a reunion and new life with Fonny as a married couple raising their child together. Baldwin’s city scenes become a collection representing the couple’s love for each other despite their fears and separation over time. “Somewhere, in time, Fonny and I had met: some­ where, in time, we had loved; somewhere, no longer in time, but, now, totally, at time’s mercy, we loved,” Baldwin wrote.

The New York City setting of If Beale Street Could Talk --- with a title reference to the 1916 W.C. Handy blues song, “Beale Street Blues” that referred to the street of the same name in Memphis, Tennessee --- is a place where the characters’ lives change forever.

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cbohnet | Student

Tish's father was not coming home from the Korean War when he met her mother but he met her at the time of the Korean war, which means any time between 1950 and 1953. Seeing as Ernestine is four years older than Tish, so 23, the story cannot take place earlier than 1973.