Prison Book Club: If Beale Street Could Talk

Martin and I had our first “book club” experience. I chose If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, and mailed a copy for him to his prison mailroom. (For myself, I got the book from my local library.)

When we both finished reading, I shared first. 

“I’m trying to put my finger on what made me feel disconnected as I read,” I wrote to him. Because I couldn’t find myself in the story—and I struggled with how distanced I felt. “I think we read to discover something new, and also to find ourselves,” I said. 

The story was about Tish, an 18-year-old black girl in 1970s New York who found herself pregnant, only her boyfriend—a 22 year old black man—was just locked up for a crime he didn’t commit. I didn’t expect to find myself in the story, to feel precisely like the main character, but I was disheartened by how foreign reading her story felt to me. How disengaged I was, like I couldn’t latch on to any of it.

Maybe it was Baldwin’s writing style, I said. Or how passive it all felt. 

I was thinking out loud. And then I added, “But maybe it's that the book felt sad, hanging.” Describing Tish’s family and her boyfriend’s family, I wrote, “Like the bottom had dropped out long ago and no one knew…Or, they did know, but what were they going to do? That was their lives. Maybe that's why I didn't like it.” 

Because they desperately wanted to fight for this man—their son, brother, boyfriend—who was in jail, but it’s almost like they couldn’t. Or, at least, the way they had to fight was messy. Hard. They had to fight, squinting to see any hope. 

I kept going: “Maybe I didn’t like it because I've been feeling lately, intensely, that I want to infuse power in my life. That I want to impose order, clarity, wealth, purpose. That I want to make it happen, as if I have those powers. I want to declare it and chase it and crawl after it till it's so. But my life is not Tish's. I have more access. I have more resources. It's as if I can deny lives like Tish's exist because it wouldn't happen to me. Because a white girl like me wouldn't have to worry about a wrongly convicted boyfriend. Because, even if I did, my family wouldn't have to run a side hustle to pay his bail. 

“So I try to cling to my power, try to convince myself that I can climb out of where I am. But the devastating truth is I'm surrounded by people who cannot. All the people I write to who are in prison. They can't get up and leave. I just read a magazine composed almost entirely of submissions by teens in juvenile detention. One wrote a poem called ‘My Inheritance.’ It began: ‘I was raised around revolvers and cocaine sellers / I always had an uncle fresh out of jail.’ What do I do with that?” I pleaded. “What have we done so wrong that we're failing people, leaving them behind?”

I was almost devastated by how much I didn’t understand Tish’s family. And, even worse, by how much I didn’t like how her life made me feel—“foggy,” I wrote. Like life swept around them and they had no way to control it. Where was their agency? Reading it, I felt powerlessness. 

And then I heard from Martin. 

He acknowledged what I said, but then added, “For me, though, the overwhelming feeling that swept over me and kept reaffirming itself was pride.”

I paused. I had felt disconnection, sadness, anger, frustration—and he had felt pride. “The pride,” he said, “I felt in two families coming together to fight like hell to take care of one of their own.”

He went on, “I can understand why the lack of agency these people had may have frustrated you being that you possess a power and privilege they never will, yet you find yourself searching for even more of it. This is the plight and struggle for black folk in America, so the constant sinking feeling that kept them on the brink of despair, yet staving it off because life depended on it, was deeply resonant for me. It kept my attention because we shared that feeling; I’d lived with it for many years and occasionally have to fend it off still. You understand that no matter how hard you work in this country, how good a person you are, you don't independently control your destiny. Your future lies in the hands of that potential employer, loan officer, policeman or judge. And when you're black, you understand you need luck on your side far more than justice.”

Reading his words made me want to cry. I felt some kind of guilt for being so blind—and awe for seeing things through his eyes—revelatory, pertinent, truthful things I had completely missed. It was, oddly, beautiful. He had felt pride. 

I had started this “book club” with Martin because I wanted to share my thoughts about the books I was reading. But, as usual, the blessing came in reverse: it was hearing him that moved me. 

“I am ready for the next one when you are,” Martin told me. I’m ready, too. 

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published