Before reading the first 60 pages of If Beale Street Could Talk by James Balwin I knew very little of him, other than reading a short story by him in high school by the name of Sonny’s Blues. What struck me most in the reading of If Beale Street Could Talk was the way he wrote about love. I personally wanted to know whether James Baldwin ever fell in love or ever had kids of his own. After reading a couple of different Encyclopedia entries about Baldwin it came to my knowledge that he was in fact homosexual, with very little or no knowledge about possible partners in his 63 years of life before succumbing to cancer. Along with no knowledge about possible partners it was revealed to me that he also never had children. For someone who spent most of the later years of his life away from what little family he had, Balwin does an amazing job at capturing what I’m sure life must have been like for African Americans in the early to mid-1900s.
James Balwin spent most of his early life, childhood, and into early adulthood in Harlem NY. Raised by his mother and preacher stepfather. Balwin was introduced to religion very early on in life and it quickly became a very big role, especially in helping to stay out of trouble. Trouble seemed almost an epidemic at this time in Harlem NY for most children and teens. Selling drugs, gang relations, and general crime making a huge spike in Harlem NY throughout the youths.
At the age of 17, Baldwin gave up on his dream of becoming a preacher, to instead follow his passion for books and literature. He moved to New Jersey where he wrote book reviews. However, not long after getting this job he was fired and moved back in with his mother. Just in time to help support his family after the death of his stepfather came not long after he moved back Baldwin stayed home in NY to support his mother and younger siblings.
Baldwin, a huge fan of his role model Richard Wright, followed the author to France to flee the American life of racism, homophobia, and classism. It was from France that Balwin watched and read about the civil rights movement in the US. Baldwin even managed to go back to the US to befriend those such as Martin Luther King JR as well as Malcolm X. Balwin marched alongside Martin Luther King JR in the March on Washington in 1963. It wasn’t until after the assassination of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr that Balwin wrote the book If Beale Street Could Talk. Said to be one of his best if not his best novels written it was also one of the last things he wrote that wasn’t completely overlooked by the general public.
While I still wonder how Balwin managed to capture young love so magnificently perfectly, I did manage to find out a lot more than I knew about him through reading these Encyclopedia entries. Who knows, Balwin very well could have had a lover in France that no one ever knew about.