If Beale Street Could Talk
Like the blues -- sweet, sad and full of truth -- this masterly work of fiction rocks us with powerful emotions. In it are anger and pain, but above all, love -- affirmative love of a woman for her man, the sustaining love of a black family. Fonny, a talented young artist, finds himself unjustly arrested and locked in New York's infamous tombs. But his girlfriend, Tish, is determined to free him, and to have his baby, in this starkly realisitic tale... a powerful endictment of American concepts of justice and punishment in our time.
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One: Troubled About My Soul
Immediately pay attention to the point of view. Watch the following video on point of view to gain more insight into the narrative perspective used in this novel. (This annotation contains a video)
Clementine is the narrator of the novel (thus far). Based on this observation, from what point of view is the novel told?
What is the author's purpose in comparing the corridors to the Sahara and the people to vultures?
Vultures are birds that scavenge on the bodies of dead animals. Why does the author include this metaphor? (This annotation contains an image)
Notice how the author immediately builds tension and suspense by omitting the reason that Fonny is in jail. Because we are reading the text from Tish's first person point of view, we are only able to learn the information that she knows and tells us. What do you think could have caused Fonny to be sent to jail?
What do you learn about Tish and Fonny from the narrator's brief story of when they first met? What is the author's purpose in providing you with these details?
Did you know that you can look up any word in the text of the book or the text of the questions and answers? Just click (or press on mobile devices) the word you want to define and hold until the blue text selector pops up. When you release, a define option will appear. Since it's so easy to look up words, make sure you use this feature frequently. Is there a word on this page you need to look up?
Based on the details provided, what do you think contributes to Fonny having "something very sad in him" as described by Tish?
"Handn't been for me, I believe the cat would have split the scene."What does Fonny mean by the above line?
Observe the narrator's frequent mention of skin color. This is a clue that tells us that race is an important component of the novel. Look for context clues to determine the setting, which will further help you to understand why race is such a significant focus for Tish.
The highlighted line shows an example of two similes, which occurs when an author compares two unlike things using the words "like" or "as." A simile is a type of figurative language. Watch the following video on figurative language to gain more insight into this literary device. (This annotation contains a video)
Identify the simile in the highlighted line.
Watch the following video on direct and indirect characterization. How does the author characterize Mrs. Hunt here, and why might this characterization be important? (This annotation contains a video)
How does the author use indirect characterization to reveal Mrs. Hunt's personality? Provide at least three examples to support your response.
"The Tombs" is a nickname for the Manhattan Detention Complex in New York City (shown below). (This annotation contains an image)
The highlighted paragraph serves to provide the reader with
Evaluate the manner in which Tish's mother is indirectly characterized. Based on her brief interaction with Tish here, what can you infer about Sharon?
Are you surprised at how Sharon responds to her daughter here? What is your reaction to this scene?
We still do not know why Fonny is in jail. Do you think the highlighed section could explain the cause? Why or why not?
Identify the emerging theme that is present in the highlighted lines.
This reference is to Aretha Franklin and her immensely popular song "Respect," which gained popularity in 1967. You can listen to a clip of it, as well as see images of Aretha Franklin, by watching the video below. Also, consider the date that this song became popular. This may be the author's way of providing you with more clues regarding the setting (time) of the novel. (This annotation contains a video)
What details suggest that Tish and her father have a comfortable and loving relationship?
Repetition is a literary device that occurs when an author repeats the same words or phrases in close proximity. This is often used to clarify or emphasize an idea. Why do you think the author uses repetition in the highlighted lines?
The highlighted line implies that Tish believes which of the following regarding Fonny's imprisonment?
How do you think Tish feels knowing that her dad is willing to tell Fonny's family about the baby?
What does Ernestine imply with the words "clothes" versus "wardrobes"?
"I was walking through streets I had never seen before."What does Tish mean when she says the line above?
What do you think Fonny will tell Tish?
What can we infer about Fonny based on the detail that he has "slept in the park sometimes"?
Greenwich Village is a neighborhood on the west side of Lower Manhattan in New York City. The picture below shows what Greenwich looked like during the 1970s, which we can infer is likely around the time this novel takes place. (This annotation contains an image)
Note this reference to Romeo and Juliet. If you have not yet read the famous Shakespearean Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, just be aware that the play tells the tale of two destined lovers (Romeo and Juliet) who, because of a family feud as well as myriad complications, are unable to be together. Ultimately, the fighting and conflict leads both Romeo and Juliet to end their own lives.
What does the word "pad" mean in the context of this scene and sentence?
Notice the quick shift in focus here. Tish was sharing with us a flashback from when she and Fonny first went to his "pad." Watch the following video on flashback and pay attention to the author's use of this technique as you continue to read. (This annotation contains a video)
Why does Joseph interrupt Tish here?
Mrs. Hunt just previously claimed to have been "running myself sick" in response to Fonny's arrest; however, here she admits she has "not had time to get downtown." What is your reaction to these lines? Do you think Mrs. Hunt truly cares about Fonny's incarceration?
A character foil is a someone who contrasts with another character to highlight specific qualities of the other person. Can you determine who the foil is in this novel?
Consider the Hunts and the Rivers. In what way(s) might these families be foils? Identify at least three specific differences between the way the Rivers family treats one another to the way in which the Hunts treat one another. Why might the author want us to recognize this contrast?
The author is using figurative language here. What do you think the author means when he describes how the "men then went away from us, sitting perfectly still"?
Continue to note the intense contrasts between Fonny and Tish's families. What else do you learn of their differences in this scene?
Identify one of the central reasons that Mrs. Hunt is angry about Tish's pregnancy.
What do you think Tish means by this line? How do you think Mrs. Hunt will react?
What are Tish's mom and sister actually doing when they are "making believe that they were playing gin rummy"?
Consider how Fonny and Tish may compare to the famous Shakespearean characters of Romeo and Juliet, as suggested earlier in the novel. Specifically, read the following excerpt between Romeo and his priest after he proposes to Juliet. Do you see any similarities between Shakespeare's characters to Fonny and Tish? (This annotation contains a link)
Refer to the previous annotation to read the short scene from The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Briefly summarize the scene in your own words and evaluate how it connects to the characters and conflicts in If Beale Street Could Talk. Provide at least one example from each text to support your response.
What does the highlighted simile suggest about Fonny and Tish's relationship in this moment?
What causes Ernestine to smile here?
Have you noticed how Tish, when narrating, refers to her mom as "Sharon"? Why do you think she does this?
How would you describe Fonny's response in defending Tish to her family in the highlighted section?
What does the detail that Fonny was "trembling" suggest about how he is feeling here? Why do you think the author included this detail?
What do you think Sharon means by the highlighted line? In what way has Fonny "proven himself" in coming to talk to Tish's family here?
Consider the following quote from American writer William S. Burroughs: "There is no intensity of love or feeling that does not involve the risk of crippling hurt. It is a duty to take this risk, to love and feel without defense or reserve." What do you think this quote means, and how might this quote connect to what Tish expresses in the highlighted line?
What information suggests that Tish is no longer sharing a flashback and is now showing the reader events in the present time?
Who do you think Mrs. Rogers could be? Watch the following video on internal and external conflict and, as you continue to read, determine how Mrs. Rogers fits into the overall plot and conflict(s) of the novel. (This annotation contains a video)
Review the highlighted paragraph. Based on the clues provided, what can you infer is the reason that Fonny was arrested and put in jail?
Notice the repetition of the word "time." Why does the author emphasize this word? What is the effect of this repetition?
How is Mr. Hayward characterized thus far? Considering both direct and indirect characterization, what is your opinion of him?
How do you know that the author has returned to a flashback here?
What new theme seems to emerge in this section of the novel? Refer to the highlighted paragraph for clues.
Why do you think the author shows us this part of the conversation? Do you think the author is providing hints about what problems Fonny may encounter when he tries to prove his innocence?
The highlighted lyrics are from Billie Holiday's song "My Man." Watch the following video clip of Ms. Holiday singing the song, which originally debuted in 1938. (This annotation contains a video)
Refer to the previous annotation to read the poem "Your Laughter" by Pablo Neruda. Summarize, in your own words, the central idea(s) and emotions of Neruda's poem. Next, identify how the poem connects to Fonny in Tish. Provide at least one example from each text to support your response.
What do you think causes Tish and Fonny to suddenly laugh "without moving a muscle"? Consider this in comparison to the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's poem "Your Laughter." What similarities and differences do you see between the two texts? (This annotation contains a link)
Once again notice the abrupt shift from flashback to present tense. How does this shift shape your feelings and reaction to the events in the novel?
What is Fonny implying with his statements in the highlighted lines?
The author employs the same metaphor of the Sahara once again. Why do you think he revisits this image? (This annotation contains an image)
What words best characterize Sharon's tone in the highlighted lines?
"I now began to wonder about the meaning of this word."To what "word" does Tish refer in the line above?
Considering the central themes of racism, justice, and prejudice, it is notable that Tish compares the subway car to a slave ship. What point might the author be trying to make with this comparison?
Santurce is a District in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (This annotation contains an image)
Take a moment to consider how Mrs. Rogers accusations cause both internal and external conflicts in the novel. For your response, choose one specific character and evaluate the internal and external conflicts that he or she must now confront because of Mrs. Rogers' claims against Fonny.
The highlighted sentences are an important concept. The author wants to point out the harsh injustices faced by African Americans. Do you think these types of injustices still exist today? The New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services studied felony sentencing outcomes in New York courts from 1990 to 1992 and discovered that one-third of minorities were ordered to serve to longer sentences than white individuals who had committed the same or similar crimes. To find out more and to view the resource for this information, visit the following website: (This annotation contains a link)
What does Tish mean when she says "It will be in the water for a while yet"?
What might be the author's purpose in providing the reader with such detailed descriptions of these men?
Based on the description in the highlighted paragraph, what can you infer about Haywood?
Consider how hard everyone is working... What motivates each of these characters to work "overtime," "double time," and so forth?
In what way might Sharon be planning to use this photograph?
Sharon is about to embark on this journey all alone. In fact, many of the characters seem to be forced to face their conflicts alone (independently). Examine the 1899 painting "The Gulf Stream" by Winslow Homer, and consider how this painting may connect to some of the characters in the novel. (This annotation contains an image)
Refer to the previous annotation to view the painting by Winslow Homer. What does this painting represent? Choose one character from the novel and identify, using three specific examples from the book, how the painting represents the character's experiences or struggles thus far.
Avenue of the Americas, or generally called Sixth Avenue by New Yorkers, is a major road in New York City (Manhattan). (This annotation contains an image)
What is the significance of the officer calling Fonny "boy"?
Hans F. Hansen once said “It takes nothing to join the crowd. It takes everything to stand alone.” How does this quote apply to this woman who spoke up for Fonny? What could have happened if she, like everyone else in the store, remained silent?
Which of the following details suggest that Pedrocito is only joking, and not actually angry, with Fonny here?
Why do you think Officer Bell wants to go after Fonny? Why do you think Fonny was able to predict that this would happen?
Why do you think Tish was later told the check has been "misplaced"? What does that tell you about Pedrocito's character?
The novel, thus far, has been told from Tish's first person point of view. Since Tish does not go to Puerto Rico with Sharon, has the point of view suddenly shifted? Pay attention to the point of view and search for clues as you continue to read.
Why does Sharon feel it is important "to make friends with Jaime"?
Why would Sharon want to look "elderly"?
What is your interpretation of the highlighted line? How can Sharon see him yet "at the same time, she doesn't"?
What might be the best explanation as to why Sharon wants Mr. Alvarez to look at her?
In what way might seeing Fonny and Tish's photograph be persuasive? Do you think this is an effective strategy?
Are you surprised that Mr. Alvarez says no to Sharon? Why do you think he refuses to take the photograph and accept Sharon's request?
Tish claims that if she quits her job, she will "be making the six o'clock visit forever." What does she mean by this line?
Muhammad Ali is an American boxer and generally considered to be the greatest heavyweight boxer in history. (This annotation contains an image)
Consider the use of indirect characterization in this scene between Tish and her dad. What words best describe Tish's father here?
In what way is Tish "alone, with Fonny, my baby, and me" even though Fonny is in jail?
Watch the following video on symbolism and consider how Tish makes the connection that both Fonny and the baby "want(s) out." Do you think the baby may be a symbol in the novel? Why or why not? (This annotation contains a video)
What detail suggests that Sharon is feeling nervous here?
Consider the following poem "Come Lord and Lift" by T. Merrill and consider how the theme of this poem may apply to the characters from this novel. (This annotation contains a link)
Refer to the previous annotation to read the poem Come Lord and Lift. Summarize the poem's central message and identify how this poem may apply to one of the characters in the novel.
Notice how Sharon calls Mrs. Rogers "Daughter" and continues to carefully watch for her reactions. Why does Sharon do this?
Identify the type of conflict that occurs in the highlighted paragraphs.
What does the word hot most likely mean in the context of these highlighted lines?
As the author brings us to the conclusion of the first part of his novel, consider how he has effectively established feelings of tension and suspense throughout his text. Watch the following video on tension to gain more insight into this literary technique. (This annotation contains a video)
How does this closing line serve to create tension and suspense? Identify two other specific ways (or moments in the novel) wherein the author established suspense in the reader.
How does the author intensify the sudden focus on Fonny?
Consider how much time must have passed if the baby is due "soon." How long do you think Fonny has been in jail?
Consider the various weaknesses in the prosecution's case against Fonny. Do you think Hayward can win the trial?
Evaluate the highlighted paragraph. What can you infer that Fonny and Tish still have despite all of their struggles?
What do you think Sharon means with this statement?
Evaluate the highlighted line. Which of the following statements could best replace the phrase "flipped her wig" as it is used in the context of this sentence?
Consider the complex conflicts that Joseph and Frank face in this scene. Can you identify both internal and external conflicts that these two fathers are coping with here?
Why might Tish find it "wonderful" that Fonny "ceases clinging to hope"?
What does Tish mean when she says "It was almost time"?
The fact that Adrienne is "scared" and worried about her father suggests that she
In what way do you think Tish still sees Fonny as "beautiful" despite the fact that "They beat him up"?
The ending of the novel is ambiguous, meaning it is up for the reader to determine or predict what happens to the remaining characters. To help make more sense of the complex events in the novel, take a moment to consider the novel's title, which refers to a 1916 song "Beale Street Blues" by American composer and lyricist W.C. Handy. Read the lyrics to the song by visiting the following website: (This annotation contains a link)
In addition to reading the song lyrics to "Beale Street Blues," you can also listen to the song (performed by Louis Armstrong) in the following video: (This annotation contains a video)
Refer to the two previous annotations to read and listen to the song Beale Street Blues. Evaluate why the author chose to use this song as the title to his novel. How does the song apply to the characters and themes in the book? Provide at least two specific examples to support your analysis.