90 pages 3 hours read

James Baldwin

If Beale Street Could Talk

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1974

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Summary and Study Guide


If Beale Street Could Talk is a novel by James Baldwin (1924-1987), a critically acclaimed African American writer on matters of race and the African American experience. Originally published in 1974, the novel gained fresh attention with Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation in 2019. The novel is the love story of salesclerk Clementine “Tish” Rivers and budding sculptor Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt, African American natives of Harlem whose lives are derailed in the late 1960s to early 1970s when a corrupt policeman frames Fonny for rape. This guide is based on the 2006 Vintage/Random House print edition.

Plot Summary

Tish Rivers has grown up as the protected baby of the working-class Rivers family in the gritty surroundings of Harlem during the 1960s. Fonny is the troubled son of parents who argue constantly, and his sisters ostracize him. If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story about Tish and Fonny’s early courtship, Fonny’s arrest on false charges, and the birth of their child.

After a childhood spent teasing and fighting each other, Tish and Fonny fall in love when she is 18 and he is 22, much to the displeasure of Alice Hunt (Fonny’s mother), and the couple begins searching for a loft where they can live together. Tish and Fonny consummate their relationship one night during a date, and Fonny takes Tish back to her family’s apartment to seek permission from Joseph, Tish’s father, to marry Tish. Joseph reluctantly grants his permission. Having survived constant trouble as a boy, Fonny is a sculptor. He is eager to find a loft, a place with space for his work, because it will allow him adequate space to create his sculptures and set up a household with Tish.

One day as Tish and Fonny are out shopping and apartment hunting, an intoxicated teenager touches and propositions Tish as she stands in front of a sidewalk produce stand. Fonny is not beside her at that moment, so Tish calls out to a white police officer, Officer Bell, for help. Fonny returns and strikes the teen. Bell threatens to arrest Fonny due to racial prejudice but is forced to let Fonny go after the shop owner intervenes. Bell is insulted by Fonny’s lack of deference.

Bell begins following both Tish and Fonny, and this campaign of harassment culminates in Fonny’s arrest after Bell places Fonny in a line-up of potential perpetrators during an investigation into the rape of Victoria Rogers. Fonny is the only African American in the line-up, so Victoria identifies him as her rapist, who was also African American.

Despite having an alibi witness in Daniel Carty, a friend who recently completed his jail sentence, Fonny is arrested and held in the Tombs (the Manhattan Detention Complex) to await trial. Ernestine (called “Sis”), Tish’s elder sister, secures the services of Hayward, an idealistic lawyer, but everyone in the family is forced to work hard and even engage in theft from their respective jobs to pay his fees.

Meanwhile, Tish discovers that she is pregnant. The Rivers family rallies around her, and Sis invites over the entire Hunt family to share the news. Sis throws the Hunts out after Alice curses the child in Tish’s womb as a product of sin. The Hunt women are also a potential liability to Fonny because they are willing to testify against him as character witnesses in the trial. Victoria Rogers flees to her native Puerto Rico, putting her beyond the reach of the law and likely ensuring that Fonny will be detained indefinitely. Sharon, Tish’s mother, decides to go to Puerto Rico to find her and convince her to recant her identification of Fonny. Sharon also uncovers that Bell was likely involved in the murder of a little boy and is known to be corrupt. Sharon’s efforts to get Victoria to change her statement fail.

Tish quits her job as a salesclerk due to a difficult pregnancy and so that she can regularly visit Fonny. These visits are Fonny’s only respite. The pressure of imprisonment and his inability to be with Tish begin to break Fonny down psychologically. Tish goes into labor. The end of the novel is ambiguous: Fonny either has a vision, or there is an actual episode in which Fonny works on a sculpture as a baby cries in the background.