Set in Harlem in the 1970’s, If Beale Street Could Talk (this edition produced as a Penguin Classic 2019) was originally published in 1974, with author James Baldwin gifting us a novella richly depicting the black soul of New York City.
A compelling love story, the book features 19-year-old Tish, a young black woman who is pregnant to Fonny, her childhood sweetheart and now lover. Fonny has been jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. Their two families, long acquainted, face a seemingly insurmountable battle to gather together the money needed for a lawyer willing to plead Fonny’s case and prove his innocence. As the weeks go by, and their baby becomes more of a presence, Tish visits Fonny daily and tries to shore up his faith and strength, a difficult task in a world and a time where a black man accused is a black man condemned.
A complex depiction of race relations and of the racist and segregated society of the seventies, the story is narrated by Tish in a voice that is simple, authentic, keenly observed and evocative. We are drawn directly into the lives of these poor black people who are fighting a system that is heavily weighted against them. In broad terms, the themes of race, belonging, justice and police brutality are explored, but nestled inside these major threads is the poignant story of two young people in love, fighting for their lives and their freedom. A beautiful story that takes us straight to the heart of these two families and their struggles against poverty, racism, classism and lack of opportunity. The characters of Tish – determined, strong and committed – and Fonny – stoic, sweet, hopeful, honourable and vulnerable – stay with us. A slim book that packs a punch with its mix of violence, love, courage, optimism, loyalty, disappointment, humour and poignancy.