Breath. It's the first thing I ponder whenever a new police brutality case, officer-involved shooting of an unarmed victim, or wrongful incarceration is reported to the public. If the victim has died, I think of the dozen or so breaths before the end. Staccato, heart-pounding breaths, caught in a snare of panic, as though the breather senses she is nearing her last and wants to take in as much oxygen as she can in the space between, "Step out of the vehicle!" or "Hands where I can see them!" and the first blow or footfall or bullet. If the victim lives, if he is severely bludgeoned or mauled, over-sentenced or falsely imprisoned, I think of a breath pattern permanently altered: breath held, to mimic death, in hopes that the beating or dog bites will end; breath exhaled after an announcement that bail has been granted and isn't too astronomical; or breath made ragged by the news that the assaulting officer won't be indicted or has been acquitted.
Next, I think of names, how indelible some are—the names of the victims in the cases that generate the most public outcry—and how anonymous others are, the names that go un- or underreported, the ones that remain private lamentations rather than becoming hashtags or protest chants.
James Baldwin opens his fifth novel, 1974's If Beale Street Could Talk, with 19-year-old Clementine Rivers marveling over the arbitrary assignment of names. Hers, inexplicably, is truncated to "Tish." And Alonzo Hunt, the 22-year-old love of her life, is called "Fonny." He's in jail, Tish soon reveals, before divulging where she is in the book's very first scene: "I was sitting on a bench in front of a board, and he was sitting on a bench in front of a board and we were facing each other through a wall of glass between us...I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass."
Every time I approach If Beale Street Could Talk with fresh eyes—and I've done so every two or three years for the last two decades—I realize I'm holding my breath somewhere in the reading of this first chapter. It happens either in the moment when it is made clear that Fonny is in jail, or just two pages later, when the purpose of Tish's visit becomes clear: she's there to tell him she's expecting their child.
How Fonny will receive the news, from behind the glass in a jailhouse, is always a point of suspense for me. This is a credit to Baldwin, who's immediately drawn the reader into this couple's confidence, by giving us the names known only to those they love, then ushering us into their most intimate, vulnerable, and helpless moment together.
Even as I write this, this first chapter assumes new meaning, as the videotaped murder of an unarmed South Carolina father, Walter Scott, at the hands of a police officer jumpstarts a news cycle. According to the New York Times, Scott is believed to have been running from the officer, when he was shot multiple times in the back, because he feared going to jail for back-owed child support. Chris Stewart, a lawyer for Scott's family, explained: "He has four children; he doesn't have some type of big violent past or arrest record. He had a job; he was engaged. He had back child support and didn't want to go to jail for back child support."
This twinning of fatherhood and ill-fated interaction with police is familiar. Sean Bell. Oscar Grant. Eric Garner. Abner Louima. All fathers, all rendered subhuman at the hands of officers, all leaving families to mourn and recuperate in the wake of sudden, senseless loss. It makes sense to consider Fonny alongside them, and Scott. We're meant to invest in him as a father, one already being robbed of his right to interact with and provide for his family.
If Beale Street Could Talk belongs to a collection of literature that seeks to humanize black men, through their relationships with parents, lovers, siblings, and children. It swan-dives from optimism to bleakness and rises from the ash of dashed hopes. That we, its readers, are there for the journey becomes more meaningful when this story imitates our realities.
Fonny is the first person Tish tells about her pregnancy—Fonny and us, that is. We're all meant to carry the burden of his and Tish's secret until their families discover it. We hold our breath, bracing for their reaction, but Tish's father, mother, and older sister are all supportive, and their efforts to ensure Fonny's release before Tish delivers their first grandchild/niece redouble. When they band together to break the news to Fonny's parents, we hold our breath again—the first reveal was too easy—and sure enough, this one hits a few snags. Fonny's father is encouraging, but his mother and sisters are mortified anew, already ashamed that a member of their family is in jail, his innocence irrelevant to them.
As Tish boards a bus with other loved ones leaving Visitation Day at the jail, Baldwin conveys her quiet terror, frustration, and anxiety in a series of long sentences. They read as rushed, and set the stage for the novel's narrative arc:
Look, Fonny is in trouble, he's in jail—can you imagine what anybody on this bus would say to me if they knew, from my mouth, that I love somebody in jail? — and I know he's never committed any crime and he's a beautiful person, please help me get him out. Can you imagine what anybody on this bus would say? What would you say? I can't say, I'm going to have this baby and I'm scared, too, and I don't want anything to happen to my baby's father, don't let him die in prison, please, oh, please! You can't say that. That means you can't say anything…. You sit down, and you look out the window and you wonder if you're going to spend the rest of your life going back and forth on this bus. And if you do, what's going to happen to your baby? What's going to happen to Fonny?
If Beale Street Could Talk is the kind of book that can be read in a few hours, the kind of book you worry about putting down, as if your return to your regular schedule somehow compounds the characters' tension. There's an immediacy to the storytelling, despite nearly half the narrative being recounted in flashbacks, as Tish vacillates between optimism during the despair of Fonny's incarceration and recalling how they got to this point in the first place.
In my initial readings, the earliest of which took place when I was the same age as Tish, that immediacy masked the book's flaws. Tish sounded authentic and convincing to me, because I knew little of what it meant to have ambitions loftier than a valorous, if troubled, romantic love like the one Tish describes. The descriptions of an advancing pregnancy and of a world in which women bend the arcs of their worlds toward rallying for and rescuing men they love didn't warrant interrogation. I invested only in the work Tish, her mother, and her sister undertook, doing the heavy-lifting of investigation and fundraising for Fonny's pending case. Questioning what the women's other desires, affiliations, or work might've entailed seemed like a tertiary matter.
It wasn't until I read an excerpt of poet June Jordan's Village Voice review of the novel that I realized Baldwin had underwritten his women. Jordan objects to Tish's point of view, as written, claiming it reads as though it belongs to "a rather fatuous, articulate man who entertains himself with bizarre woman-hating ideas at every turn." She goes on to assert that Tish doesn't resemble "any pregnant and unmarried young Black woman I can conceivably imagine, let alone accept as real."
Though I'm still reticent to concede that Tish's narrative voice is evidence that Baldwin harbored "bizarre woman-hating ideas," it's clear that Tish, despite being the sole narrator, is not Baldwin's main objective. He cares far more for what Tish is willing to sacrifice or endure for Fonny. It's a critique that again mimics an ongoing debate among today's black activists, regarding the gendered imbalance of advocacy for victims of police brutality. (A cursory Google search of "black women are killed by police, too" will bring you up to speed.)
If Fonny has, at 22, found his life's ambition and set about achieving it, Tish, at 19, has little ambition other than to be with Fonny, mother his child, work to contribute to his legal fees and to afford life with their newborn, and serve as his militant cheerleader and defender. She tells us:
Fonny had found something that he could do, that he wanted to do, and this saved him from the death that was waiting to overtake the children of our age. Though the death took many forms though people died early in many different ways, the death itself was very simple and the cause was simple, too: as simple as a plague: the kids had been told that they weren't worth shit and everything they saw around them proved it. They struggled, they struggled, but they fell, like flies, and they congregated on the garbage heaps of their lives, like flies. And perhaps I clung to Fonny, perhaps Fonny saved me because he was just about the only boy I knew who wasn't fooling around with the needles or drinking cheap wine or mugging people or holding up stores….
When Fonny tells Tish's parents of his intention to marry her, after keeping her out all night, at his apartment, Fonny and Tish's father square off, while Tish notes, "We, the women, were out of it now, and we knew it." It's the truth in more ways than one. As Fonny and her father head into a room apart, Tish muses, "Men are men, and sometimes they must be left alone. Especially if you have the sense to realize that if they're locked in a room together, where they may not especially want to be, they are locked in because of their responsibility for the women outside."
Given what's to come—women assuming primary responsibility for the defense of a man—these are particularly rankling sentiments.
Most significant, however, is the crime for which Fonny is falsely accused. It's rape. After a run-in with a local cop over an incident in which Tish is the victim of street harassment, Fonny defends her, and is then accused of assault by the cop who arrives at the scene. The cop begins to arrest Fonny, but Tish defends him. When her account isn't enough, the owner of a store in their neighborhood, an Italian woman, corroborates the couple's account. This flusters the cop, who's forced to release Fonny. The reprieve is temporary. Within days, he picks Fonny up as a suspect in the sexual assault of a Puerto Rican woman. Because he is the only black man in the line-up and the woman is certain her attacker was black, she identifies Fonny as the perpetrator.
Much is made of the arresting officer's history of racism—he killed an unarmed black boy before being transferred to the precinct where he arrested Fonny. But just as much time is spent casting aspersions on the assaulted woman's account of events. At one point, Tish asks her sister, "Do you think she was really raped?" to which her sister replies, "... that question has no bearing on anything. As far as our situation is concerned, baby, she was raped….I think, in fact, she was raped and that she has absolutely no idea who did it…. She'd recognize him if he raped her again. But then it would no longer be rape. If you see what I mean."
This isn't the only instance where sexual assault is discussed cavalierly, with the burden of accountability being placed on the victim. Tish's mother goes as far as traveling to Puerto Rico to track down Fonny's accuser, in hopes of convincing her to recant her identification of Fonny in the lineup. It's a particularly aggressive move to have one woman make with another, especially given the futility of it. The woman believes Fonny is the assailant; badgering her to believe otherwise only worsens her trauma.
Even the precipitating incident, in which Tish is street-harassed, becomes a moment for Baldwin to opine on women's ostensible "role" in attracting unwanted male attention. He tells a friend, "Tish ain't got no sense at all, man—she trusts everybody. She walk down the street, swinging that little behind of hers, and she's surprised, man, when some cat tries to jump her. She don't see what I see."
Despite its glaringly sexist moments, the book still always manages to retain my investment in Fonny's freedom. Regardless of his views about his role as protector of an unwitting Tish and in spite of everyone's momentary hope to discredit a rape victim's account of who attacked her, I still bristle at the ease with which one white officer's vendetta could confuse a victim about her own assault, criminalize a young black man who only wanted to marry young and successfully father a child, and amass endless emotional collateral damage, in the form of debt accrual, lost wages, and the jeopardized health of a pregnant teen (whose stress level remained off the charts from the first page of this book to the last).
Baldwin may have believed the wronged party in this narrative was singular and obvious—Fonny, of course—but he succeed instead in creating a much messier story, one in which misogyny and racism intersect, where false accusations and minimization of real crime stem from the same patriarchal messaging.
In the end, Fonny is released on bail, but not before his father commits suicide after being caught stealing from his employer, in order to help raise the funds. (In this, Baldwin leaves us one last example of a black father rendered unable to adequately care for his child, in the aftermath of police antagonism.) Tish goes into labor. And the progress of Fonny's pending trial remains stagnant: the arresting officer and district attorney have mounted a convincing, if fabricated, case against him. His accuser has not budged on her account of her attack. The ending is so open, it lets in a gale force of questions. How long does Fonny have left in the outside world? How long will he be permitted to relish new fatherhood, unencumbered? Is there a chance, however slim, that he'll be acquitted? If not, will he be released before his child is the same age that he is, the last time we encounter him as readers? Will Tish tire of waiting for a love that she began to lose the moment Fonny was arrested?
If the questions sound familiar, it's because they're the same kinds we're forced to ask, whenever a new case of police corruption and brutality surfaces. We're asking them right now. What will come of Walter Scott's four children, for instance? How will they find time to privately grieve, and will their memories of their father remain unmarred, in light of all this public speculation? What of the fiancee he leaves to mourn? How will she make peace with a future that can never again include him? Will the viral video, which shows Office Michael T. Slager shooting an unarmed Scott in the back, then denying him CPR and planting a weapon near his lifeless body, be enough to draw a conviction? How much (or more likely, how little) time might he serve? And what about us? Are we being inured to brutality, as it flickers across television, computer, and phone screens day in and day out? Will this country and its system of police ever make black citizens feel any less terrified? The more we wonder, the wilder the rush of worry, of weariness.
It's enough to leave us gasping for breath.
[Image via Getty]