Sculptures In James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk

2068 words - 8 pages

In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, Douglass describes his overseer as “a man of the most inflexible firmness and stone-like coolness” (Andrews 181). He adds that his mistress’s “tender heart became stone” (Andrews 188). When he first tries to free himself from such people, Douglass ends up “all alone, within the walls of a stone prison” (Andrews 208). Throughout these references, the image of stone is repeatedly linked with the stonehearted and dramatic Caucasian oppression of African-Americans. James Baldwin also includes images of stone and wood in his novel, If Beale Street Could Talk. Stone and wood are often mentioned together and are used for a joint purpose as Fonny, the protagonist, uses these materials to create sculptures. The novel’s three mentioned sculptures act as foreshadowing symbols that predict what ultimately happens to their subjects; they intricately detail: the Caucasian oppression each subject faces, their subsequent imprisonment in stone, and their path to freedom.

Fonny gives one of his first sculptures to his girlfriend’s mother; when describing the sculpture, his girlfriend, Tish, says, “It’s not very high, it’s done in black wood. It’s of a naked man with one hand at his forehead and the other half hiding his sex. The legs are…very wide apart, and one foot seems planted, unable to move, and the whole motion of the figure is torment” (Baldwin 38). This sculpture acts as a foreshadowing symbol in the novel because, like the sculpture, Fonny is a vulnerable black man who tries to avoid being raped, but he ends up being tormented and imprisoned in wood and stone. Also, like the sculpture, Fonny is ultimately left in the care and protection of Tish’s mother. There are three metaphorical and literal rapes that Fonny experiences, and after examining them, it becomes clear why Tish’s mother is the person who’s chosen to care for both Fonny and his metaphorical representation.

The first time, Fonny experiences rape in the form of “[a]busive or improper treatment[, as in]…a rape of justice” (“Rape,” def. 3). Although Fonny defends Tish from an attacker at a vegetable stand, Officer Bell says, “We’re going to take you down, boy, for assault and battery” (Baldwin 149). This is improper treatment because the officer tries to arrest Fonny despite Tish’s defense of his actions, and he repeatedly refers to Fonny as “boy” even after Tish points out that “[h]e’s not a boy” (Baldwin 149). When the white Italian woman, who owns the vegetable stand, also defends Fonny’s actions, the officer decides not to arrest him; however, as a result of the officer’s metaphorical rape and taunting parting remarks, Fonny experiences a metaphorical “stone imprisonment.” “[W]ith a dreadful quietness” he tells Tish, “Don’t ever try to protect me again” (Baldwin 151). His defenses are up, and he presents a stony exterior to his girlfriend; he makes her cry although...

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