Hartford Public Library is hosting a One Book One Hartford Roundtable Book Discussion. Date to be announced!
Hosted by the Downtown Library, the discussion will include all of HPL's branches via Skype and readers from all over the city. Around the table will be Cathy Malloy, our facilitator Kate Rushin, and representatives from our partner organizations.
You're invited! Inquire at your neighborhood branch for a copy of If Beale Street Could Talk, and then join us for coffee, danish, and conversation.
Kate is an Oberlin College alum and received an MFA in Creative Writing from Brown University, as well as fellowships from The Cave Canem Foundation and The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She is the author of The Black Back-Ups, and "My Lord, What a Morning," poems in honor of Marian Anderson, as well as poems inspired by art and music. Her work appears in "Callaloo," and Sister/Citizen, edited by Melissa-Harris Perry. She has read her work at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival and on NPR. Kate serves on The CT Young Writers Trust, The CT Poetry Circuit and The James Merrill House Committee. She has held residencies at AS220 in Providence, RI and Westfield State University in Massachusetts and has run Poetry Out Loud workshops for the CT Humanities Foundation.
Discussion Questions prepared by Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Anne Farrow, retired Library Media Specialist (York Correctional Institution) Joe Lea, award-winning poet Kate Rushin, and Yale University African-American Studies Department Chair Professor Jacqueline Goldsby
1. If you were asked to describe this book, what words would you use?
2. What do you think is the most important idea in this book?
3. Does If Beale Street Could Talk make you angry?
4. This book was published 41 years ago. Does it feel old-fashioned to you in some ways, or does it feel accurate for today?
5. When this book was published, some black leaders and activists said that author James Baldwin was showing hatred for black people. Do you feel that the author, who was African American, showed hatred for black people and black society?
6. Were you shocked by parts of this book? If you were shocked, which parts shocked you?
7. Who do you see as the hero or heroes of this book? Who shows courage?
8. Beale Street shows a black man imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Do you see similarities in today’s America? Does this book help us understand why so many African American men are imprisoned?
9. Who do you feel is the most vulnerable person in this book?
10. Which character or characters are the most changed by what happens in this book?
11. Why do you think Fonny’s father Frank killed himself?
12. People often say, “Love conquers all.” Do you feel hopeful for Tish and Fonny at the end of the book? Will their love conquer their hardships?
13. The title of a novel is a deliberate and important choice that any author must make. The title of a novel can give the reader clues about the theme, subject or context of the story. What might be the significance of Baldwin's title?
14. Fonny and Tish are the protagonists of the novel. Discuss the characters in If Beale Street Could Talk in relation to whether or not they help or hinder the main characters.
15. Do you agree with this statement?: "The women characters in If Beale Street Could Talk are portrayed either as saints or villains." Why or why not? Give evidence to support your opinion based on quotes from the novel.
16. How do individual family members react to Fonny's arrest? Do some of these reactions resonate more than others? Why?
17. Does the relationship between the attorney and his client(s) reflect real life experiences?
18. At what point does Fonny find resolve/confidence? What triggers this change?
19. Do you think Fonny knew his fate was sealed when the shopkeeper defended him in front of the police officer? How does this compare to the school to prison pipeline?
20. Does getting money for Fonny's representation/bail justify what the fathers do to raise it?
21. Are the events that result from Fonny's arrest realistic?
For further discussion:
1. The U.S. criminal justice system is the clear antagonist in this novel. What specific images does Baldwin (through the narrator Tish) develop to express his critique of the government and its judicial processes? Consider Tish’s descriptions and depictions of courts, jails, lawyers, and police officers to start.
2. Tish's narration provides an important perspective on the process and politics of incarceration: the family survivors’ experience. Discuss her role, particularly as Fonny’s partner and mother of their child. Why does it matter that she narrates this story?
Then consider: Tish and Fonny’s immediate families. They are confronted with two “crimes”: Tish’s pregnancy and Fonny’s alleged rape. How do they react? Why do the Hunt and the Rivers respond so differently to these events? What models of community support are readers to regard as ideal, based on these examples?
3. The Black church comes under severe scrutiny and criticism in this novel. How so? To make what points? Do you agree with Baldwin’s critique?
4. In contrast to their families and the church, Fonny and Tish’s love for and commitment to one another are quite remarkable; why? What accounts for the strength and endurance of their bond?
One specific scene to consider: the night their baby is conceived (133-45). How does this event’s unfolding speak to the depth of the bond? How do their different investments in Tish’s pregnancy function to strengthen their bond?
5. Like all of Baldwin’s later novels, If Beale Street Could Talk depicts sexuality in bold, frank ways. Sexual intimacy provides a “strange anointing,” as Tish observes (81). How so? To make what points about freedom, commitment, and obligation?
6. By that same token, If Beale Street Could Talk is unlike Baldwin’s later fictional work in this respect: the novel defines its male and female characters in strictly defined gender roles—men do what they “must”; women understand each other’s’ motives because they are “mothers”. How is that the case? Trace this pattern throughout the novel. Consider how this claim extends Baldwin’s concern with freedom, commitment, and obligation.
7. Importantly, Harlem is not the neighborhood where Fonny and Tish live together. Fonny relocates them to NYC’s West Village. Why does he make that choice? Consider this setting’s double jeopardy: it liberates Fonny and Tish as a couple on the one hand; how so? On the other hand, it is the site where Fonny’s arrested and imprisoned for his alleged crime. What does this imply about the meaning of the cityscape—here, think about the novel’s title: If Beale Street Could Talk; focus on the Memphis allusion, “Beale Street”. What does it mean for Memphis to be in Manhattan?
8. Fonny's friend Daniel does more than provide a plausible alibi that would exonerate Fonny; Daniel’s plight reveals the horrors of imprisonment. Discuss Daniel’s predicaments and think about the symbolism of his name; here, Baldwin activates the Bible to an important end. Then consider: what does it mean for Tish to yield so much narrative time to Daniel’s story?
9. Though Fonny is wrongly accused of the crime of rape, Ernestine and Sharon’s investigations reveal that Victoria Rogers’ accusation isn’t exactly false. Why does the novel enclose Fonny’s plight within this ambiguity?
10. What does it mean that Victoria Rogers (born Sanchez) is Puerto Rican, and that to discover her testimony Sharon must journey to the island to find her? Put another way, how does this setting and geography expand our interpretation of the novel’s title--If Beale Street Could Talk
11. Fonny's “real life” (76) is defined by his artwork; he is a sculptor, first and foremost. How does his relationship to that craft shape his character? Pay special attention to the distinction he comes to make, but novel’s close: that he is an “artisan” and not an “artist” (193). What does that difference mean for him?