If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

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Summary

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...

(The entire section is 1,327 words.)