If Beale Street Could Talk Analysis
by James Baldwin

Start Your Free Trial

If Beale Street Could Talk Analysis

  • If Beale Street Could Talk explores the difficulties and inequities faced by Black Americans. Bell, the police officer who selected Fonny as a potential perpetrator, embodies the racism and corruption of the criminal justice system.
  • The novel is a compelling portrait of first love. Through her recollections, Tish tells the story of her relationship with Fonny, whom she has known since they were children.
  • Baldwin combines vernacular language and non-chronological narrative techniques to forge a singular style. Tish’s narration moves forwards and backwards in time, incorporating memories into her present-day storytelling.

Download If Beale Street Could Talk Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Analysis

James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk examines the prevalence of racism and corruption in the American judicial system through the story of Tish and Fonny, two lovers living in Harlem who are separated from each other by Fonny’s wrongful accusation of rape and subsequent imprisonment. Tish, her family, and Fonny’s father go to great lengths to prove Fonny’s innocence and raise money for his case, and the situation becomes more urgent when Tish reveals that she is pregnant with Fonny’s child.

Throughout the novel, Baldwin highlights the presence of racism in law enforcement through the character of Officer Bell. Bell displays blatant racism from his first encounter with Tish and Fonny: when Fonny defends Tish from a White man who had been assaulting her, Bell arrives and immediately blames Fonny, calling him “boy.” A witness corrects and humiliates Bell, and Bell then seeks revenge on Fonny and promises to keep a close eye on him and Tish. Later, when Mrs. Rogers is raped by an unknown assailant, Bell claims that he saw Fonny leave the scene of the crime—which is entirely impossible due to the fact that Fonny was on the opposite side of town at the time. In identifying Fonny, Bell evidences the destructive effects of prejudice, pride, and vengeance in law enforcement.

Officer Bell also serves as an example of corruption in the justice system. When he hears that Mrs. Rogers’s rapist was a Black man, Bell purposely includes Fonny as the only Black man in the lineup presented to her. As a result, Mrs. Rogers identifies Fonny as her rapist. As Ernestine reveals in conversation with Tish, this is not Bell’s first instance of racist action going unpunished: he is guilty of the murder of a Black child several years prior, but instead of facing consequences, he was merely transferred to a different police department. 

After Bell succeeds in framing Fonny and putting him in prison, the district attorney’s office demonstrates corruption in its efforts to keep him there. Daniel, who was with Fonny on the night of the rape and could testify about his innocence, is conveniently arrested based on previous criminal charges. Fonny’s lawyer, Mr. Hayward, goes to great lengths to speak with Daniel, only to find that he has been beaten to discourage him from supporting Fonny and drugged to make him unreliable. Additionally, Mrs. Rogers has left the United States, leaving her unavailable for further investigations—and Hayward believes she left at the district attorney’s urging.

Through If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin presents a bleak view of a hypocritical justice system that claims to uphold the cause of the innocent but is run by prejudice and exploitation. Fonny is both accused and held in prison because of racist authorities and a corrupt judicial system, and at the novel’s conclusion, he has still not received justice. Fonny’s fate at the end of the novel is unknown; the reader only knows that his trial has been postponed and that he is presumably still in prison while Tish has their baby. Baldwin implies through Fonny and Tish’s story that until racism and corruption are eliminated from law enforcement and the judicial system, they will continue to wreak havoc on the lives of the innocent.

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

If Beale Street Could Talk reveals the struggle between the forces of...

(The entire section is 1,516 words.)