If Beale Street Could Talk

by James Baldwin

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If Beale Street Could Talk Summary

If Beale Street Could Talk is a 1974 novel by James Baldwin that tells the story of Tish Rivers and Fonny Hunt, a young couple in Harlem who face a mounting set of difficulties.

  • Fonny is awaiting trial in jail after a woman accused him of raping her.
  • Tish is pregnant, and the revelation of this fact further binds the Rivers and Hunt families together, despite Mrs. Hunt’s disapproval.
  • Both families work to pay the legal fees for Fonny’s case and try to prove his innocence.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk was published in 1974 and takes place in Harlem, New York. The book is narrated by a nineteen-year-old African American woman named Tish; Tish, whose real name is Clementine Rivers, lives in a Harlem housing project and works at the perfume counter of a department store. She is pregnant with the child of her boyfriend, Fonny (whose real name is Alonzo Hunt). Fonny is a twenty-two-year-old African American sculptor who is in jail after being falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman. The novel opens with Tish announcing to Fonny that she is pregnant with his child: because he is in prison, she has to do so by telephone, looking at him through a glass wall. Fonny appears nervous at first, then pleased, but their conversation is cut short when a guard arrives to end their visiting time.

On her way home on the bus, Tish reflects on her history with Fonny. They have known each other since she was six and he was nine, and they became friends after she hit him in the face with a piece of wood during a fight between their friends after school. Tish wounded Fonny, and Fonny humiliated Tish in retaliation; nevertheless, they became close friends after this encounter.

Tish’s family is supportive of her pregnancy, encouraging her not to be ashamed. Her father invites Fonny’s parents and sisters over to their house so that Tish can tell them their news. Fonny’s father, Frank, is initially shocked but soon expresses enthusiasm. Fonny’s mother, Alice, a very strict Christian woman, condemns Tish for ruining her son, claims Tish has a “demon,” and states that “the Holy Ghost will cause that child to shrivel in [her] womb.” Fonny’s sisters, Adrienne and Sheila, express similar sentiments. 

Tish’s sister, Ernestine, whom Tish calls “Sis,” hires a White lawyer named Mr. Hayward to defend Fonny. At a meeting with Tish and her mother, Hayward informs them that Fonny’s accuser, Mrs. Rogers, has likely returned to Puerto Rico. Through conversations with Hayward and Ernestine and through Tish’s various flashbacks, it is revealed that a police officer named Bell began to resent Fonny after Fonny defended Tish against a man who had been groping her in a grocery store. The owner of the store defended Fonny and humiliated Bell; Bell kept an eye on Tish and Fonny after that, and eventually claimed he had seen Fonny fleeing the scene of Mrs. Rogers’s rape. However, Fonny had been on the opposite side of town with Tish and his friend Daniel that night—Bell clearly “identified” Fonny out of revenge. Furthermore, Bell arranged to have Fonny be the only Black man in the lineup presented to Mrs. Rogers, knowing that Mrs. Rogers had said her attacker was Black.

Fonny’s friend Daniel is arrested by the district attorney and put in jail. Though Daniel has a criminal record and has been in jail before, the circumstances of his arrest are suspicious, as Daniel was with Fonny and Tish on the night Mrs. Rogers was raped. He is a key witness, but Hayward suspects that he has been arrested so that he can be kept from testifying. Hayward succeeds in talking to Daniel, but he realizes that Daniel has been beaten to discourage him from helping Hayward. Unless he becomes Daniel’s lawyer, Hayward cannot continue talking to Daniel, and because Hayward suspects that Daniel has been drugged to prevent him from providing valuable information, Daniel cannot be used as a witness.

Tish’s father convinces her to quit her job to protect her baby, so she begins...

(This entire section contains 908 words.)

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to visit Fonny twice a day instead. This lifts Fonny’s spirits and gives him hope as he sees Tish’s baby growing. Tish’s family members make various plans to help build the case for Fonny’s innocence: her mother, Sharon, takes a trip to Puerto Rico to attempt to find Mrs. Rogers and convince her to return for the case, and her sister plans to invite Bell’s wife, who hates him, as well as the mother of a Black child Bell murdered to the trial to rattle him. Joseph and Frank, Tish and Fonny’s fathers, begin stealing supplies from their jobs to sell to help pay legal fees. Everyone is eager to help Fonny by whatever means necessary—except his mother and sisters, who describe him as “worthless” while talking to the District Attorney.

In Puerto Rico, Sharon manages to locate Mrs. Rogers and has a conversation with her. Mrs. Rogers, who is traumatized, begins screaming, and Sharon is ushered out. When Sharon returns to New York, she informs Tish that Mrs. Rogers had a miscarriage and disappeared to a place in the mountains to recover. After the disappearance of this key witness, the case is postponed. At the end of the book, Frank is caught stealing at work, is fired, and commits suicide. Tish goes into labor soon after hearing this news.

The book ends ambiguously: Tish describes a scene in which Fonny is working on a sculpture, just as he had been in a dream earlier in the novel. The baby, which is “far away, but coming nearer,” cries continuously—“like it means to raise the dead.” It is unclear in the novel’s final paragraph whether Fonny is home with Tish and his baby or merely dreaming.


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