Discussion Question 9/26

Something remarkable about If Beale Street Could Talk is that, though Tish’s family are trapped in an almost hopeless situation, they never allow themselves to give in to despair.

How do the attitudes of Tish and her family toward their seemingly insurmountable obstacles reflect Baldwin’s conceptions of the problems facing African-Americans in the era in which Beale Street is set? Have circumstances in our country changed enough today to warrant a different perspective?

6 Responses to Discussion Question 9/26

  1. Siobhan McKenna says:

    I think one thing that allows Tish and her family to never give in to despair is that they already know that it can’t really get much worse than it already is. As Baldwin explained in Nobody Knows My Name, “in a way, the Negro tells us where the bottom is: because he is there, and where he is, beneath us, we know where the limits are and how far we must not fall… In a way, if the Negro were not here, we might be forced to deal within ourselves and our own personalities… with which we have invested the Negro race” (133-134). Tish and her family seem to painfully aware of this situation, and their place within American society during that time, so although they may be at rock bottom, they know that their situation cannot get too much worse than it currently is. Fonny’s father, Frank, highlights this rock bottom status as he states, “‘you know I don’t want my boy’s life in the hands of these white, ball-less motherfuckers. That’s my only son, man, my only son. But we all in the hands of white men and I know some very hincty black cats I wouldn’t trust, neither.'” (65) Although Frank is very upset, is also acutely aware of the current situation and the various predictions that come along with it. Being aware of their place in this society gives Tish’s family, and Frank, motivation to work tirelessly towards Fonny’s release from jail. Although they know it can’t get much worse than it already is, they also know how difficult it will be to get out of where they are now. They recognize the trap they have been placed in, this endless cycle of moving from ghetto to ghetto with no way out or up, which Baldwin also explains on page 62 of Nobody Knows My Name, yet they use this to their advantage to keep them motivated.

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that things in this country have changed enough today to be able to say that a different perspective is necessary. Just the fact that there needs to be a Black Lives Matter movement suggests that our country still isn’t placing any value on the lives of African American individuals. Just like Fonny was arrested with no real evidence, or chance to explain his side of the story, every day African American citizens in the United States are killed without the chance for their voices to be heard, killed on assumptions, without evidence that any crime was actually committed. It seems that even today, in the year 2016, that African Americans are still trapped in this corrupt system, this system that favors the white voice over the black voice. It continues to beat down the African American community, keeping them at the same rock bottom that Tish and her family were at, and not really allowing for any way up or out. Although, with this Black Lives Matter movement, it does seem that we are finally allowing those voices that have been marginalized for so long to finally be heard, which is definitely a step in the right direction towards change.

  2. Alex Bordona says:

    In the introduction to Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison touches on a similar idea. He says, “given the persistence of racial violence and the unavailability of legal protection…what else was there to sustain our will to persevere but laughter?” (xii). I think Baldwin is making this same point. When one faces the type of oppression that Black Americans face, I think one of the coping mechanisms, and probably the only way to survive, is to keep a positive outlook. Or at least, not dwell on the negative. It is no coincidence that the only character who is unable to hold onto hope in Beale Street dies at the end of the novel. Baldwin doesn’t attempt to make the problems seem smaller by portraying the Rivers as being a happy family, I think his point was to showcase the resilience of some Black families (as the Hunts have a completely different family structure, one that doesn’t necessarily seem completely functional). I didn’t even read the novel as particularly political, I think it was just completely realistic and a humanization of Black families and Black individuals. I guess one can make anything political, but it is my belief that doing so is a privilege, something that is reserved for highly educated individuals, or those who are lucky enough to have access to the internet and/or books, etc, as well as the leisure time to read and to learn theory, etc (not that it takes these things to realize injustices, but there is a difference, in my opinion, between recognizing wrongs and politicizing injustices. I think to make things political is to have a knowledge of history, of theory, and to be able to describe that. Of course, I may be completely wrong.) In other words, families like the Rivers and the Hunts don’t even have time to politicize things, they are too concerned with living.
    Circumstances in our country have not changed. It’s almost amazing how much things have not changed. I think the perspective stays the same. There are some families, like the Rivers, who maintain optimism and a sense of hope, and families like the Hunts, who sort of dissolve, and of course an infinite amount of possibilities all along a spectrum of family functionality.

  3. Ryan Spencer says:

    The willingness to continue despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing Tish and her family seem to demonstrate an equality between African-American’s and whites in an era when equality between the two was so drastically different. To resign to their situation would have rendered Tish and her family wholly unequal and nearly inhuman as they would become stagnant, exerting no force on the forces working against them. Baldwin portrays African-Americans as neither inanimate nor simply reactionary but capable (even against all odds). Tish’s family does not give up hope and thus are human. Tish’s family does not simply flee, as Big Boy flees in Big Boy Leaves Home. They fight. Thus they are at least equal in ambition. Even if everything were to be as bleak as possible and Fonney were not offered bail, Frank says “We get him out! I don’t care what we have to do to get him out!” His family and Tish’s family are up for anything and even if they are not offered any possibility to retaliate, they will retaliate.

    No, things have not warranted a different perspective. In fact, I would argue, they never will. What Baldwin presents in the willingness to fight against insurmountable odds is an equality. When one group pushes one way, another must push back the other way to obtain balance — or else on group will wholly push another aside. Even as we grow nearer to that balance changing the perspective would mean becoming inanimate against a force working against African-Americans. Only if that force is wholly gone (if it ever can be wholly gone) is a change in perspective necessary or acceptable.

  4. Gilberto Rosa says:

    I’m reading this book alongside Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois and I have also been thinking of the latter question of how far we’ve actually come. I don’t really think that there is anything out of the ordinary with Tish’s family- in fact, it seems the way a lot of my personal family members and friends are like. However, I do not agree with the statement above. As a person studying African and Afro-American Studies, but also as a black person, I can’t live a life in which I don’t think that I will be free. Saying that I don’t think progress will come is, in part, accepting that the oppression against black people is normal and somehow the way things are supposed to be is rooted in racism. Like Tish, I will keep fighting.

  5. Julie Landy says:

    I think, in addition to staying positive because it can’t get much worse and keeping hope as a coping mechanism, the families on Beale Street, and especially the Rivers, don’t give up because there’s nothing else they can do and because other people are relying on them not to. When Tish and her mother are meeting with the lawyer and Tish starts to break down, her mother says to her, “We are in a rough situation—but if you really want to think about it, ain’t nothing new about that. That’s just exactly, daughter, when you do not give up. You can’t give up. We got to get Fonny out of there…You start thinking about it any other way, you just going to make yourself sick. You can’t get sick now—you know that—I’d rather for the state to kill him than for you to kill him” (95-96). This speech helps Tish pull herself together; Tish’s mother states that Tish can’t become hopeless and can’t get sick because she has to be there for Fonny and for her baby; she just doesn’t have the option of breaking down in this situation.

  6. Abigail Gardener says:

    Tish and her family’s attitudes towards the obstacles they face continually amazed me. Their refusal to give in to despair demonstrated both the incredible power of hope and the power of familial love. Tish’s father, when talking to Frank, tries to encourage him to keep fighting to get Fonny out of jail: “You’re saying they got us by the balls. Okay. But that’s our flesh and blood, baby: our flesh and blood. I don’t know how we going to do it. I just know we have to do it” (189). Even when they seem backed into a corner, Joseph remains determined to do something because of his profound love for his children. I also think their attitudes signify how much African-Americans in this country have already had to endure for such a long time. Their ability to keep hope alive when things seem hopeless stems from the fact that they, and their ancestors, have consistently had to deal with inequality and oppression. As Baldwin said in “Nobody Knows My Name”, a “history of oppression” may be the only thing that unites black populations across the globe. Their ancestors did not give up when faced with insurmountable odds, and if they give up hope they will have nothing left.

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