James Baldwin (1924-1987)
Vintage Books (Random House) NY,NY 1974
Tish is 19 and pregnant. Fonny, the father and her childhood sweetheart, is in prison mostly for being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is an “everyman’s tale” of a black family in Harlem, New York in the late 1950s. The language is colored with beat era phrases. The setting long before Harlem was gentrified.
It is a story of love. It is a story of what makes a family. It is a slice of life, a birthing story. But what is being birthed here is not entirely clear. The family rallies behind Tish and Fonny and the baby. The insight, as Sharon (Tish’s mother) learns the difference between knowing she’s oppressed and exploring the fine detail of the many ways the system works against her, is as astonishing to her as it is to the reader. We see the small ways these people find to lift each other up and hold each other down.
This is a story of a different time and a different place. Nothing brings this home for me quite as dramatically as the way one character, Frank, beats his wife. In the narrative this is done as causally and offhandedly as a character in a British novel setting down her tea-cup, and with about as much notice. I think it was the third time he hits her upside the head and she falls to the floor that I consciously noticed what was going on. The other characters didn’t react, so neither did I.
The author paints the wife as such a hard hearted, sanctimonious, shrew that I found myself wanting to cheer Frank on. I had to stop in shock at my reaction. Regardless how I felt about the story, this is clearly brilliant writing. What kind of person would I be had I been brought up in this environment? What if these scenes were all I knew? What would it be like to be in prison just because the police needed a perpetrator and they knew where to find me?
I picked up this book at the recommendation of another blogger, thank you Totsy! I also picked up this book at a time when I am participating in conversations about privilege. (podcast discussion of privilege, Article/interview Pagans and Privilege) Nothing brings that issue home as effectively as a good story that sucks you into a world and a point of view so very different from your own. I am privileged by my upbringing, my social status, my skin color and my education. I am privileged to have literature like this at my disposal, from my local library. I am reminded of what I learned from To Kill A Mockingbird “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Here is a story that makes you walk around for a bit in someone else’s skin. Well done.