Listening to the voices from another place and time

Listening to the voices from another place and time

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If Beale Street Could Talk
James Baldwin

To read James Baldwin and not be moved would be like jumping into a lake and not getting wet. Baldwin was a master wordsmith and an elegant storyteller who figuratively grabs us gently by the arm, steers us towards an idea and then leaves us to stand on its precipice looking for resolution. He does no less in “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

The story is set in Harlem. Two black families who are coming to terms with how life has treated them and what little they can do about it. There are several parts that are difficult to read and it’s not the vocabulary; it’s the way Baldwin makes the reader feel. 

And feel, we do: anger, passion, hate, determination, futility, pain, sadness and love.

The key here: It’s a love story. The beauty of this book is that the love story isn’t immediately front and center but seemingly a plot point. But it’s woven in with fine threads throughout the patchwork quilt of reflection and determination that holds the tales together. And to keep the reader in suspense, Baldwin takes those quilting patches of jail and love and pregnancy and family and poverty and rearranges them into multiple timelines that converge at the end to complete the tale.

  The story is told from the view of Tish, a 19-year-old girl who is in love with longtime friend Fonny, who is falsely accused of raping an elderly white woman. Just before he is accused and arrested, the two get married and Tish gets pregnant. While Fonny is in jail, Tish visits daily, telling him about herself and the family as he tries to hold onto a sliver of hope by way of a possible appeal and the dropping of charges. In the background, the families have their congress in those humble hovels called home.

Without giving away story points or the ending, suffice it to say that the honesty and reality of two young black people in love while one is pregnant and the other is in jail is heartbreaking. And the two families who are coming to terms with these young lovers and their plight are engaging and compassionate. But the best parts may be those moments when Baldwin lets the pain in — giving characters ample reflections — and reveals their souls.

And, in the process, your pain will crystalize also.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” will soon be a major motion picture directed by Barry Jenkins, director of “Moonlight.” 

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Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room, 12th and Pine streets, donates all proceeds from purchase there or online at to  AIDS agencies.

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