If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of two young African American lovers, Fony and Tish. Tish has recently become pregnant. Meanwhile, a racist and corrupt police officer has arrested Fony under false charges of rape, and has manipulated evidence so as to help secure a guilty verdict against him.
Fony and Tish narrate the story in alternate chapters. While incarcerated, Fony often makes social commentary on the nature of freedom and captivity. While working towards Fony's exoneration, Tish considers the social aspects of freedom, autonomy, and captivity. She laments, most notably, the ways in which racism works to restrain and limit the scope of her personal choices. She notes how even the school system responsible for educating her works to limit what she and others like her can become. "Those kids aren't dumb," she says, "[b]ut the people who run these schools want to make sure they don't get smart: they are really teaching the kids to be slaves." Tish is highly sensitive to the social and economic limitations that burden her and those within her community.
Incarcerated Fony is also sensitive to these limiting social structures. He notes that incarcerated people like him are in a sense the price of the freedom of others. “These captive men," he says, "are the hidden price for a hidden lie: the righteous must be able to locate the damned." Fony's arrest and incarceration for a crime he is guilty of is a coming-of-age story, in which he learns the harshness of the racism and oppression and how these social realities can strip him personal freedom and severely limit his autonomy.