Sunday, December 13, 2009

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

The novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, is primarily written from the perspective of a young pregnant female named Tish. So what’s the big deal? A lot of stories are written from the perspective of a female. This story is unique because the author is not a pregnant female, the author has never been a pregnant female, and most likely never will be a pregnant female. Mr. James Baldwin is all male. If Beale Street Could Talk is considered one of America’s classics, could this be because a male author is successful as writing female? Is Baldwin breaking the barrier between masculine and feminine writing? Can he be considered a genderless author? I think not.

Note that I said the story is PRIMARILY written from the female perspective. At one point Baldwin transitions and the fathers lead the story. I do not feel that Baldwin is a genderless writer, in fact, I feel that he is an extreme gendered writer, but unique in that he has mastered both very feminine ideas and masculine ideas. Let me explain with a few examples.

Tish is pregnant and the father, Fonny, is in jail. While Tish has a very supportive family she cannot help but feel alone sometimes. Whenever she feels alone she remembers her baby. Baldwin does an excellent job of describing how a woman physically feels when she is pregnant. “Then, it [the baby] turns, beating the water, churning, obviously becoming unspeakably bored in this element, and wanting out. We are beginning to have a somewhat acrid dialogue, this thing and I—it kicks, and I smash an egg on the floor, it kicks, and suddenly the coffeepot is upside down on the table, it kicks…” (pg, 158). Baldwin is able to explain how the baby is constantly interrupting Tish and by talking about the baby turning and “beating water” Baldwin seems to be describing something only the mother can feel, not someone on the outside feeling the belly. Baldwin takes a stand and makes it clear that he knows what is going on by using words like “obviously becoming unspeakably bored”. There is no playroom; he does not leave this section open for interpretation.

Like I said, and to prove my argument, Baldwin not only writes extremely well as a woman, he also writes extremely well for a man. There is a part in the book where Joseph (Tish’s father) and Frank (Fonny’s father) are sitting in a bar discussing what the two will do to help Fonny get out of jail. This part of the story is heavy dialogue between the two men. The story is still “in Tish’s view” but she does not play a role in what is happening, she is simply discussing events that she heard about later (122). Frank expresses his love for his son. He describes Fonny as “…a real sweet manly little boy, wasn’t scared of nothing—except maybe his Mama. He didn’t understand his Mama…I don’t know what I should have done. I ain’t no woman. And there’s some things only a woman can do with a child.” He expresses that women are supposed to be raising the kids because they can do something men cannot. Frank feels bad that he could not “save” Fonny from jail, so what does Frank do, he blames the woman. Patriarchy anyone?

Baldwin is able to take two sides, Tish and Frank, and be very feminine and very masculine. Baldwin can describe a woman’s physical feelings of being pregnant yet he can also portray a patriarchal idea. Even though he can do both, I would not call him genderless, but rather gender extreme, for both genders.


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