“If Beale Street Could Talk”: How Baldwin Finds Sympathy in Suspicion
In James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, narrator Tish Rivers and her fiancé Fonny Hunt spend much of the story separated by the glass of his New York City jail cell, one which he finds himself in due to a misidentified charge of rape brought on by two people: Officer Bell, a white cop with a baseless vendetta against Fonny, who looks to lock him up by any means, and Victoria Rogers, the victim who flees to her home of Puerto Rico following the assault. While Bell’s role in the narrative as a crooked, racist cop who has framed Fonny (and previously murdered a 12-year-old black boy) is well-established as antagonistic, Victoria’s standing in the eyes of the reader isn’t quite as clear. Her refusal to return to the mainland United States and retract her testimony endangers not only Fonny, whose life depends on her decision, but Tish, their unborn child and the rest of their family. However, this resistance doesn’t stem from malice, as is the case with Officer Bell, but instead a grave trauma. The crippling fear instilled by her past is too horrifying to face once more, as evidenced by her breakdown while merely thinking about the possibility of a return to Harlem with Tish’s mother Sharon. While her refusal to cooperate may easily cast her in a negative light, this perspective fails to acknowledge the validity of Victoria’s own, in addition to the mental and emotional toll that being a victim of rape has taken on her. When also taking into consideration that she is a victim of both the same corrupt justice system that has failed Fonny, and of American imperialism that has forced her into this position, it is made clear that the tragic innocence of Victoria’s character proves her to be, much like Fonny himself, more sympathetic than suspect.
Even before the reader meets her character, the story of Victoria Maria San Felipe Sanchez is one marred by unfortunate circumstances. While not much is revealed about her past, the reader learns that she grew up in a favela in Puerto Rico described as a “garbage dump” (Baldwin 163), married Gary Rogers, a white Irishman from New York, at 18 and left her homeland for that of her husband. There, he struggled to make a living, he “pumped three children out of her, [and] he left.” (Baldwin 117) This relationship between Gary and Victoria, while not heavily elaborated upon and certainly not uncommon, gives her backstory much significance in that it serves as a stark symbol of how America has historically neglected Puerto Rico. Victoria is her home nation, a young woman living in poverty before the Yankee prematurely promises a new day, only for him to fail in delivering that promise, exploit her assets, give her more problems than she can handle and leave, forgetting that he ever married her in the first place. However, she can never forget, for she has taken his surname.
Victoria has been scarred and wants nothing to do with the imperial forces that abandoned her and her children, however, she must face her trauma once more not in the form of a white man, but instead a black woman. In “James Baldwin’s Confrontation with US Imperialism in “If Beale Street Could Talk””, Brian Norman writes that in travelling to Puerto Rico, Sharon “now occupies a position of privileged outsider, which is closer in kind to an imperialist position” (125). She is aware of her outsider status, as “Jaime’s brilliant eyes inform her [that she] looks like a Yankee — or a gringo — tourist”, and to compensate, Sharon attempts to establish a unity between herself and Victoria by saying that “I…am a mother too” (Baldwin 168), referring to her as “daughter” (Baldwin 169) and characterizing Fonny as “black…like us” (Baldwin 169). Here, Sharon uses “black” not in the typical form, but as a universal term for oppressed cultures in America, thus creating a tie between the history and status of African-American and Puerto Rican people. This attempt at allegiance falls flat for Victoria, who still views Sharon as another “North American lady” (Baldwin 165) with no regard for her life or culture, merely someone looking to extort her in the same way Gary did all those years ago. When Sharon arrives at her door looking for Mrs. Rogers, she claims that “I am Sanchez” (Baldwin 164) in an attempt to shield herself from a past plagued by sexual and imperial exploitation. She knows, however, that she has been stripped of her identity by her husband and cannot return to who she once was without consequence. Once more, she is now a Rogers.
Despite the supposed uncertainty regarding the assailant’s identity, Baldwin makes sure to leave little to no doubt in the reader’s mind that Victoria was indeed raped. Not only does she and the judicial system stand by this, but the Rivers family as well: While sitting together at a bar, Ernestine, Tish’s older sister, explained her thought that Victoria “was raped and that she has absolutely no idea who did it, would probably not even recognize him if he passed her on the street” (Baldwin 118). In her prior plea to Victoria’s guardian Pietro, Sharon states that “I know she was raped, and I know — well — I know what women know.” (Baldwin 156) With this considered, Victoria’s testimony that she was “used…in the most extreme and abominable sexual manner, and forced to undergo the most unimaginable sexual perversions” (Baldwin 117) is not to be taken lightly if the details of her testimony — apart from the identity of the accused, of course — are to be believed. This has broken the young woman, and emotions she exhibits during her exchange with Sharon are enough to show that the damage done may be irreparable.
Sharon’s narrow focus on Fonny’s freedom comes at the expense of Victoria’s health, and while her quest to exonerate her son-in-law is admirable, it reveals her ignorance to be a crucial flaw in her approach. Victoria sharply calls her out on this too: “‘One thing I can tell, lady — you ain’t never been raped.’” (Baldwin 167) Sharon continues to make her plea and makes herself look more ignorant towards Victoria’s perspective in the process, insisting upon Fonny’s innocence through unrelated factors such as his age and his engagement to her daughter, while giving her a clear warning that “you pay for the lies you tell.” (Baldwin 169) Sharon’s biggest misstep, however, comes here: “‘What makes you so sure?” “Because I’ve known him all his life.”’ This remark is a significant contradiction of “I know what women know” (Baldwin 156), and the “tears [which] rise in the dark, defeated eyes” (Baldwin 169) of Victoria tell the entire story. “If you knew how many women I’ve heard say that…Respectable women — like you! — they never see that,” (Baldwin 169–170) she cries, knowing that no matter how well-intentioned the mother is, Sharon cannot possibly grasp the weight of what she’s enduring. Pietro warned her of Victoria’s predicament, and even Ernestine knew that “if she changes her testimony, she’ll go mad,” (Baldwin 119) but Sharon persists nonetheless, and the tension between the two reaches a fever pitch when Sharon grabs Victoria by her crucifix necklace and makes her final plea. It is here where the reader witnesses Victoria at her most broken — and arguably her most sympathetic — as she screams in Spanish and fades away into the arms of her elders.
While the story of Victoria isn’t the novel’s focal point, it’s arguably more culturally relevant to modern American society than that of any other central character here. The nation is currently witnessing one of the largest, most heinous acts of imperial neglect in the wake of Hurricane Maria, as government officials downplay the disaster’s destruction and refuse to allocate proper recovery funds to the territory that they have taken that sweet tourism profit from for over a century. #MeToo has changed how the world views sexual abuse and how victims tell their stories, which has led to not only awareness but action as well, with high-profile celebrities being indicted for their crimes and new measures being constantly introduced to prevent cases of abuse at institutions around the country. In “How #MeToo Changes ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’” a December 2018 article published in The New York Times, author Aisha Harris notes that “it’s not until Victoria finally gets to speak for herself in the [book’s] third act that I felt the full weight of her circumstances” and it’s hard to disagree. Throughout the rest of the novel, Victoria is viewed as a mere Get Out of Jail Free card by the Rivers family — Tish even refers to her as a “part-time whore” (Baldwin 182) and uses that as judicial leverage — and in turn, she becomes just a plot device for the reader. During the seven pages in which her and Sharon share the floor, however, she is human. Here, she is given the opportunity to control her own narrative, and while it may not be entirely accurate, to discount her trauma would be unjust.
Harris also writes that “the pervasiveness of injustice is a persistent theme of “Beale Street,”’ and it’s made clear through the general perception of Victoria that this statement doesn’t apply exclusively to Fonny. In fact, Harris adds that “as I wrestled with “Beale Street”, the many accounts from assault victims that have made headlines in the last year weren’t far from my mind, right alongside the story’s clear indictment of a legal system that upholds racism by any means necessary.” Making this connection between Victoria and Fonny is crucial, as it illustrates the interconnectedness of African-American and Puerto Rican disenfranchisement that Sharon used to try unifying herself with the young victim. She would later further this point as she states “I don’t speak no Spanish and they don’t speak no English. But we on the same garbage dump. For the same reason.” Baldwin himself previously echoed this sentiment in “A Report from Occupied Territory,” a July 1966 article published in The Nation, which finds him asking “Why are Negroes and Puerto Ricans virtually the only people pushing trucks in the garment center, and what union has the right to trap and victimize Negroes and Puerto Ricans in this way? None of these things (I would say) could possibly be done without the consent, in fact, of the government.” When Sharon says “whoever discovered America deserved to be dragged home, in chains, to die,” (Baldwin 185) Baldwin’s words come to mind. Regardless of its imperial implications, in seeking out Victoria and pleading for her return, the Rivers family is not at fault. Her goals are justified and her journey is dignified, but that doesn’t negate the morality of Victoria’s decision to protect herself. It is entirely possible for both sides of the argument to garner an affinity from the reader, given that their problems are rooted in the same injustice. However, it is important to highlight Victoria’s story in particular, for it serves as a reminder that a victim — like injustice — can take many forms, and that no victim is undeserving of a little bit of sympathy.