In November 1970, in the wake of the controversial arrest of the black activist and UCLA professor Angela Yvonne Davis, James Baldwin reflected on the acrid irony of seeing a dark-skinned woman harassed and manacled by white Americans. “One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles,” he wrote in an open letter to Davis. “But no,” he lamented, “they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses.”
The incident began at California’s Soledad Prison, with a guard’s grisly murder of three black inmates. Davis rallied to the cause of the Soledad Brothers, as the executed prisoners became known. Their black bodies, it seemed, had been unceremoniously shipped off, like so many others, to some vast necropolis of America, a necropolis ironically the only city, by virtue of being a city of the dead, where black bodies seemed safe. But Davis was not alone in her anger at the Soledad Brothers’ deaths. Months after the murders, armed militants stormed a trial in Marin County to attempt to free three convicts in retaliation. Pandemonium erupted. In the chaos, bullets began to fly in the courtroom, and four people died, including a superior court judge. Davis was accused of supplying firearms to the militants, and she fled California in fear, becoming, in the process, the third woman ever to appear on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, charged with homicide, conspiracy, and kidnapping.
To Baldwin’s dismay, Davis—who would be acquitted of all charges in a 1972 trial that captivated the nation—appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 1970 in handcuffs—“chained,” as he put it. Only her attire and her glasses, really, appeared to set her apart from the countless slaves depicted in manacles in dehumanizing illustrations of slavery. America, Baldwin believed, not only could not stop putting chains on black people; it thrived, like a blood-drunk rose, on the wounds it inflicted on black bodies, its white inhabitants able to avoid nightmares only by imagining that black Americans were safely sequestered and rotting in distant, fetid cells.
Four years after that open letter, Baldwin composed what I consider his masterpiece, If Beale Street Could Talk, which also examined a black body forcibly incarcerated—that is, put in chains. It was also a profound depiction of two black people in love, both before and after one is wrongly imprisoned. To me, it is Baldwin’s most poignant, most moving novel. And, in its exploration of police brutality and racist cops trying to frame black men for crimes they did not commit, it has a particularly powerful resonance in 2018—making Barry Jenkins’s years-in-the-making cinematic adaptation, which will be released in American theaters later this month, particularly timely.
In some ways, If Beale Street Could Talk can be read as a response to, if not a corrective rewriting of, Richard Wright’s Native Son. The second novel by an African American to become a best seller (the first being Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem), Native Son was both popular and controversial, at once a gothic narrative of grisly violence and a moralizing tract advocating for better treatment of black Americans. For decades, Baldwin mentioned the book in his essays and lectures. Though he was initially repulsed by it, he couldn’t get it out of his head, couldn’t stop orbiting its ugly sun.
In both Beale Street and Native Son, a black man is accused of a crime under dubious circumstances. But whereas Wright’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is scarcely redeemable—he begins the novel preparing to commit a robbery, attempts to burn a white corpse, and murders his girlfriend with a brick while on the run from the cops—Baldwin’s character seems genuinely innocent of the sexual assault of which he is accused. Both figures are set up to fail by virtue of being black. In Native Son, when Bigger gets a job with a white family, the Daltons, he is so afraid of doing the wrong thing around white folks that he ends up allowing Mary, the family’s intoxicated daughter, to lead him up to her room; afraid of being seen holding a white woman but unable to resist kissing her, he stays with her, then puts a pillow over her face to silence her when her mother, who is blind, walks into the room, unintentionally suffocating her. Bigger attempts to get rid of her body by burning it in the furnace, and then finds himself on the run from the police. He is guilty of a crime, and yet, because he cannot say no to a white employer for fear of losing his job, his downfall was inevitable from the start. In Beale Street, when a raped woman claims a black man was the perpetrator, a racist white cop named Bell, who has long had it out for Fonny, makes him the only black man in the lineup of possible assailants, and Fonny is imprisoned.
To Baldwin, Native Son was less a novel than a crass, moralizing pamphlet designed to elicit sympathy from white readers toward black Americans. In his best-known response to Wright, the 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” he wrote that like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Native Son did not contain characters so much as caricatures; Bigger was not a rounded, fleshed-out human but simply a symbolic avatar of blackness, the long plea for believing in his humanity at the end of the book the baldest example of why it was little more than a sermon. Yet though Baldwin critiqued Native Son again in the later essay “Many Thousands Gone,” he acknowledged that “no American Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in the skull”—that, in other words, every black American lived in a state of horrific double consciousness. And Baldwin—both the boy who grew up impoverished in Harlem and the queer man who lived in America and Europe and was known for his educated, patrician, faintly transatlantic accent—understood what being an outsider meant, on multiple levels.
Beale Street, too, portrayed a world of varicolored identities. As much as it was a scathing look at racist white cops, poverty (including in an American territory, Puerto Rico), and the injustice of the American carceral system, it was also a tender, earnest depiction of two black people in love. You see it in the simple moments: the way Fonny takes Tish’s hand in a restaurant and says hello and she says it back, though they have been with each other all day; the way that Fonny drapes a pretty Mexican shawl over Tish’s shoulders when she enters the Bank Street apartment that he has been fighting to afford for them; the way she cries out of happiness when they profess their love; the way Tish does not stop visiting Fonny in prison even when she feels hopeless about his prospects of release.
It is an overly simplistic platitude that love will always conquer hate or suffering—Fonny, after all, remains in prison even after the novel ends, and his father kills himself in agony shortly before the conclusion—but Beale Street can almost make you believe it.
“Every poet is an optimist,” Baldwin told Hugh Hebert at the Guardian when Beale Street was published. And yet, Baldwin continued, “you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all … If you’re black, and short, and ugly, and pop-eyed, and you think maybe you’re homosexual though you don’t know the word, and you’ve got to support a family because your father is dying—that’s a stacked deal.”
Baldwin’s glimmer of faith in the world he volcanically condemned was even more extraordinary because, though the deck was stacked against him, he resisted succumbing to despair. This is perhaps best exemplified in the resonant ending to one of his best-known fictions, the 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues,” in which Sonny—sent to jail when the story starts for dealing heroin and plagued by a toxic relationship with his brother (the narrator)—ends up having a gentle, loving moment with his sibling in a jazz bar. For a long time, Sonny had wanted to learn to play jazz rather than follow the more traditional route of going to school, as his brother had; the narrator, partly because he knew little about jazz, disapproved of Sonny’s musical inclinations and continued heroin use, which Sonny claimed helped him play. The brothers grew estranged. But years later, when Sonny surprisingly invites his brother to hear him perform at a club in Greenwich, the narrator is moved by the sad beauty of the music. The two brothers of differing worlds, different weltanschauungs, have come to tacitly accept and embrace each other for who they are. The story also echoes Baldwin’s evolving view of Wright; it takes him time, but he learns to live with Wright’s specter, even if he never stopped finding Native Son problematic.
It is difficult to read Baldwin as an optimist, given how loudly we can hear death’s footfalls in his work. The America he evokes is a woebegone cinema playing film after film of callous racism and violent tragedy, and it hardly seems worthy of hope. “I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody,” Tish muses in Beale Street, because “if it is, God’s days have got to be numbered.”
Perhaps, though, with more philosophical nuance, Baldwin can be understood a little differently. I wrote that Ray Bradbury—frequently imagined as the epitome of eternal optimism—could instead be thought of as a “darker optimist, an optimist of the evening,” and a similar moniker may describe Baldwin. The world he conjures up in Beale Street is unfailingly unfair. The book ends with life being brought into the world in the form of Tish’s baby, but even the final sentence of the novel is funereal: “the baby cries and cries … like it means to wake the dead.” We literally end on death.
But for all the thickness of this sad, sepulchral atmosphere, it is impossible to forget how tender Tish and Fonny’s love is. If there is any saving grace, it is this: love may not save us all, but it helps us forget the night and its endless cemeteries, for a moment, when all the other stars have faded.
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer at Literary Hub, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Tin House, the New York Times, Guernica, The Cut, and elsewhere.