When I was 13, my middle school English teacher introduced me to James Baldwin through his novel “If Beale Street Could Talk.” More accurately, she told me I had to read the book.
It wasn’t an assignment, but it wasn’t something I could ignore. Because at that age, teachers held tremendous sway over me.
I had worked my way through Nancy Drew, Judy Blume and Paul Zindel. And even though I was a black kid attending majority white schools, I had read black authors. My older siblings were in college during the early 1970s when there was an emphasis on Black Studies. Their textbooks became mine, especially the poems of Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
But I had never read anything like Baldwin.
It was raw and unfiltered. It was the language of the working class, the street philosophers I would hear walking through my neighborhood. It featured people who fought hard, and loved harder. It described the struggles of people striving to define themselves while being constrained by race and racism. And in my 13-year-old mind, it was the story of a black Romeo and Juliet. Because above all, the words were lush and romantic.
Fonny and Tish are the couple at the center of the novel. It did not hurt that at 22 and 19, they were only a few years older than I was then, and to me the world was conspiring to keep them apart. It did not hurt that the story was set in Harlem, a place I had never seen but had romanticized with my limited knowledge of the writers of the Renaissance. This was a love story, and I was in love.
Not with the characters. I was in love with the words and their possibility. In love as any prepubescent girl would and could be about almost anything. I didn’t know it then, but my love affair with Baldwin was just beginning. I spent the next few years devouring his books and essays.
I can’t remember if Ms. Elliott knew of my love of books. And I don’t know if she recommended “Beale Street” to other students. But it’s not an understatement to say that gift changed my life in profound ways.
When you’re one of three or four black students in a classroom with 25 or so white students for much of your education, it can be exhausting to explain, to represent, to live. I’d like to believe it was more than a fluke that Ms. Elliott recommended Baldwin. I’d like to believe she understood my need for a voice like mine.
The news that Oscar winner Barry Jenkins would turn “Beale Street” into a movie left me checking websites for casting news, music scores, opening dates. One of the greatest regrets of my life was letting a snowstorm come between me and James Baldwin.
When I was 22, Baldwin had a speaking engagement at a community college in Baltimore. I left work and climbed into my used Fiat Spider, my Baldwin books stacked in the passenger’s seat. I think it was November. I know it was snowing, heavily. And my car had rear-wheel drive. But I was determined, until I nearly slid into a light pole. I turned around and headed home, so disappointed.
A co-worker who had managed to make it to see Baldwin later told me only a half-dozen or so people showed up. But Baldwin held court for hours, as only he could. He died a month later, and my disappointment turned to heartbreak. At least I had my books.
As the Dec. 14 date approached for the opening of the movie “Beale Street,” I had to be honest with myself. I had read the novel, and most of Baldwin’s books so long ago. What did I really remember of Fonny and Tish, my star-crossed lovers?
So last month I reread the novel, and my heart broke for an entirely different reason. What I didn’t understand then, and I understand all too well now, is that “Beale Street” is not only a love story, it is a story about mass incarceration and poverty and race and hard lives in low-income black and brown communities. And even though the novel was published in 1974, it is the story of right now.
A young black man in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. A Hispanic woman raped, traumatized and in all likelihood led or coerced into believing she has identified the right man. A racist police officer intent on making sure a black man goes to jail. Amid this central story is the story of their families — working class, struggling to survive, and fully aware of how tenuous life is when you have little to begin with and a system has been created to ensure you don’t get much more.
When I finished reading the book, I was devastated. Not because it wasn’t as good as I recalled. (Although I cringed at a sex scene, and I would like to think a female editor would have helped him create something less graphic and more romantic.)
I was devastated because 44 years after this book was written, Fonny and Tish’s reality remains the reality for so many in the black community. As my oldest nephew frequently reminds me, jail can happen — and innocence is not a defense.
So I cried. I cried for my star-crossed lovers who through it all never stop loving. I cried for all the present-day Fonny and Tishes. And I’m sure I’ll cry when I see the movie. Because I know happy endings are hard to come by for people like them.
But I’ll also rejoice because Baldwin is having a resurgence. A documentary about his life, “I Am Not Your Negro,” was nominated for an Academy Award in 2017. And I’ll rejoice for that preteen who was transported by love, anger and heartbreak that would stir her desire to tell the stories of people who had been left out and let down, marginalized and stereotyped.
And I’ll rejoice in the belief that some English teacher somewhere is still putting a James Baldwin book in some student’s hand.
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