The successful Hollywood movie If Beale Street Could Talk brings James Baldwin (1924-1987) back in the centre of the spotlights. The Afro-American author and social critic wrote many essays about racial relations in the sixties and seventies. His work was imitated when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote Between the world and me in 2015. That pamphlet resembles the flaming arguments of Baldwin’s pen both in form and content.
Two of Baldwin’s books have recently been republished: the novel If Beale Street could talk (1974) and two essays from 1963 joined under the title Not by water but by fire. Although both works have similar themes, they differ in tone. Nineteen-year-old Tish is the main character in If Beale Street Could Talk. Tish is open-mindedly naïve, she welcomes new ideas and she has a nice narrative voice that gives this novel a pleasantly light tone, despite the severe problems that it describes.
Tish grows up in a loving black family, but she is worried about her early pregnancy. Her parents show that her child is welcome and her friend, the sensitive sculptor Fonny takes his responsibility as well. The real problems arise when Fonny is arrested by a racist agent as the perpetrator in a rape case. In a compelling style, James Baldwin describes the impotence that takes you by surprise when ‘the system’ turns against you and when your voice is heard nor acknowledged. Tish and her family turn out to be passionate advocates for Fonny who has been unjustly prisoned and who is abandoned by his own family. Without using too large words and with great attention to the many shades of grey, Baldwin paints a beautiful portrait of everyday life in the black Harlem district, where people remain hopeful, even in seemingly hopeless circumstances.
That Baldwin was a passionate preacher at the age of fourteen, makes his essays even more poignant. His faith was fundamentally affected by the way in which fellow Christians addressed him: ‘Our society is white because God has ordered so’. In his language, Baldwin remains a preacher. In his prose you feel the cadence that you hear if you listen to ministers of Baptist churches. It is a stirring, poetic way of speaking, that gradually works towards a climax and is also widely used by speakers who deal with American civil rights.
In the two essays ‘My dungeon trembled’ (addressed to his thirteen-year-old cousin) and ‘At the foot of the cross’ the reader follows Baldwin’s development closely. As a young man he visits Elijah Muhammad of The Nation of Islam movement who can tell him exactly why black people will eventually take over the world. Baldwin is too clever and erudite to accept any theory, even in the conversations with charismatic leader types he keeps some distance and as a result, you do not get lost as a reader and you remain fascinated, but shocked by the many injustices he describes.
Baldwin discusses so many subjects that it can become a little bit too much. He wanted to prove himself as an artist, he did not like to be judged because of his colour, he tried to find a way to live up to his faith and he was discriminated as a homosexual. No wonder he chose for a black heterosexual couple as the main characters in his novel If Beale Street Could Talk. That situation was already complicated enough.