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Polly Marino

Chris Mattingly
ENGL 101 14
November 30th, 2015
Racism According to James Baldwin
Racism is something that has been an everlasting struggle in our world. Even after major
movements, racism is still very prevalent in everyday life. White people are not affected today by
racism, and see the good change that the Civil Rights Movement has made for the world, they
still fail to see the racist and prejudice nuances that live on today. In James Baldwins 1970s
novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, he capitalizes on the prejudice undertones of the world we live
in that continues post-Civil Rights movements by emphasizing the importance of truth.
Baldwin highlights on the effects of truth in the book when Sharon confronts Mrs. Rogers in
Puerto Rico:
You pay for the lies you tell. She stares at the girl. The girl stares at her. Youve put a
man in jail, daughter, a man youve never seen. Hes twenty-two years old, daughter, he
wants to marry my daughter-and- Victorias eyes meet her again- hes black. She let
the girl go, and turns back to the window. Like us.
I did see him.
You saw him in the police lineup. Thats the first time you saw him. And the only time.
(Baldwin 183).

In this scene the reader realizes how much the truth really can affect not just one person, but all
their friends and family. Because Victoria said that she was raped by a black man, Fonny was
found guilty because he was the only black man in the police lineup, making him the obvious
target. This shows how the world today is still affected by racism, and a lot of it stems from truth
and dishonesty. When Sharon says hes blacklike us, she is using a metaphor saying because
none of them are white, they are just black, even though Victoria is not, they are therefore
unimportant and their future is mended for them based on whites, unless the truth is somehow
In the article Socrates in a Different Key: James Baldwin and Race in America, Joel
Alden Schlosser compares the great philosopherSocrates to Baldwin and their shared thoughts on
the relationship between truth and racism in society:
Socrates proceeds by critical examination of his fellow citizens; he subscribes to some
kind of intellectualism, by which knowing the truth will lead to better action; and
Socrates ultimate task lies in bringing citizens to think what they are doing,
entailing not

political withdrawal but a new kind of informed political engagement.

Baldwins essays

picks up his original key of Socrates and play it I the context of

racialized America. In

the first place, Baldwin proceeds in his essays from a commitment

to the value and

importance of examination (Schlosser 488).

Socrates had a great influence on Baldwin and his essays. Socrates had a strong belief in the
importance of truth and the effect it had on your neighbor. This comes into the picture in the
novel because of Fonny being accused of rape because of the color of his skin, and the affect that
it had on him and his family. In Baldwins writings its examined that he believes people need to
face the truth that people who are not affected by racism are seeing delusions in America, but yet

we all need to live together and as a whole everyone would benefit if everyone examined their
ways. Schlosser explains that Baldwin intensifies the Socratic call for an examined life. Baldwin
does not just name a quest for truth and knowledge as intrinsic goods but offers America the only
hope to overcome its delusions about itself an thereby realize its full promise and potential, or in
Baldwins words, to achieve its identity. (Schlosser 489). Baldwin furthers that belief by
realizing that most people do know what they should do and how they should act, yet they refuse
to do so, making it a great danger. He argued that many whites think that racism doesnt exist
anymore because of the Civil Rights movement, but havent faced the whole truth and its effects
on society. You can see this come through in the novel when Officer Bell almost arrests Fonny
for battery, but the store owner speaks up, showing the potential and greatness that could come
from the truth.
Baldwin demonstrates this great danger within in a scene where Tish gets attacked and
Fonny comes to her protection, but it will eventually backfire on them gravely:
Well, says Bell, staring at Fonny, be seeing you around.
You may, says Fonny, and then again, you might not. (Baldwin150).

By this encounter Officer Bell feels threatened by a black man, ultimately making him feel
disgraced and this scene foreshadows for what Bell is going to do to them. Bell falsely accuses
Fonny twice just because of the prejudice in his eyes and the racism that still lives within him.
In that eye, you do not exist: if you are lucky. If that eye, from its height, has been forced to
notice you, if you do exist in the unbelievably cold winter which lives behind that eye, you are
marked, marked, marked, like a man in a black overcoat, crawling, fleeting across the snow
These eyes look only into the eyes of a conquered victim. They cannot look into any other eyes.
When Fonny was alone, the same thing happened. Bells eyes swept over Fonnys black body

with the unanswerable cruelty of lust, as though he had lit the blowtorch and had it aimed at
Fonnys sex (Baldwin 185-186). This is Tishs point of view and she is talking about how evil
and prejudice Officer Bell is and how he had it coming for Fonny the whole time, because the
color of his skin making him an easy target. His eyes searched for something, and to stay clear of
his eyes, but they lit up when they hit Fonny. He saw Fonny as an easy target and a puppet to be
easy manipulated in his game, going against any truth or honesty.
In Norman Brians article James Baldwins Confrontation with US Imperialism in If
Beale Street Could Talk he states that On the surface, Baldwins novel presents a stymied love
story where Tishs romantic desire and Fonnys imprisonment helps her to make sense of US
racism in a world that would not cherish their love In addition to the critique of the US judicial
system, Baldwin also uses this story of heterosexual love to critique US imperialism and
examine the idea of cross-ethnic community. Critics tend to see Baldwins use of the black
family as a trope to critique domestic inequality. For example, Horace Porter contends, Beale
Street, while ostensibly a love story, dramatizes the tragedy and inefficiency of the criminal
justice system (Norman 121-122).
Baldwin is trying to get at that the unfair system of the US which is based on lies, racist
police officers, and inequality. If the American system was based on truth, there would be no
inequality, but only fair judgements. But because of the racism going on in America it is a place
that wont cherish their love and instead cheats them only because they are black. All together
James Baldwin believes that racism is still an ongoing occurrence through lies and pure prejudice
minds, but by looking out and judging yourself on correct behaviors, society as a whole can
come together and overcome inequality, but until then it will live on.

Works Cited Page

Baldwin, James. If Beale Street Could Talk. New York: Dial, 1974. Print.

Norman, Brian. James Baldwin's Confrontation with US Imperialism in If Beale Street Could Talk".
MELUS 32.1 (2007): 119138. Web...

Washington, Robert. The Civil Rights Movement After Three Decades. International Journal of
Politics, Culture, and Society 7.2 (1993): 259285. Web...