I reflect on the place of If Beale Street Could Talk in the
corpus of Baldwin’s writings, and its relationship to Barry
Jenkins’s movie released at the beginning of 2019. I consider also what
the arrival of the movie can tell us about how Baldwin is located in
contemporary collective memories.
The escalation of systematic, if random, violence in the contemporary world frames the
concerns of the article, which seeks to read Baldwin for the present. It works by a
measure of indirection, arriving at Baldwin after a detour which introduces Chinua Achebe.
The Baldwin–Achebe relationship is familiar fare. However, here I explore not the shared
congruence between their first novels, but rather focus on their later works, in which the
reflexes of terror lie close to the surface. I use Achebe’s final novel, Anthills of the
Savanah, as a way into Baldwin’s “difficult” last book, The Evidence of Things Not Seen,
suggesting that both these works can speak directly to our own historical present. Both
Baldwin and Achebe, I argue, chose to assume the role of witness to the evolving
manifestations of catastrophe, which they came to believe enveloped the final years of
their lives. In order to seek redemption they each determined to craft a prose—the product
of a very particular historical conjuncture—which could bring out into the open the
prevailing undercurrents of violence and terror.