Many authors use personal experience as inspiration for their works: James Baldwin is no exception. Baldwin's acclaimed novel If Beale Street Could Talk can be considered autobiographical in the sense that this story mimics many scenarios of his life. Baldwin's hometown of Harlem, New York is the location of this novel and where his testimony begins. James Baldwin conceals autobiographical experiences within If Beale Street Could Talk.
The first similarity paralleled between Baldwin and the character Tish is their romantic relationships and obstacles of love. Baldwin had several romantic relations with men (Boekverslag). The act of homosexuality was highly frowned upon in his time. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness and an act against God or Mother Nature which was punishable by hospitalization, isolation, and medication (Colvard) Baldwin stated, "Everybody's journey is individual. If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love witha boy. The fact taht many Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it does about homosexuality" ("James A. Baldwin's Quotes") Although Baldwin alienatied himself from much of society by advocating for homosexual tolerance he continued to search for love, ultimately leaving the closed-minded United States. . In Switzerland at age 24, Baldwin's relationship with a seventeen year old boy, Lucien Happersberger, alienated him from even more of the world. After three years, Happersberger left Baldwin and married a woman, conforming to societal expectations ("James Baldwin (writer)")
Similarly, Tish, the female lead in If Beale Street Could Talk, pursues forbidden love, but with a jailed man, Alanzo Hunt, also known as Fonny (Baldwin 1). While in prison on false rape charges, Fonny refuses to submit to homosexual acts. Fonny's rejection consequently gets him beat up and put into isolation (Detwelier). Fonny's physical isolation and denial of homosexuality parallel that of Baldwin's relationship with Happersberger. The physical isolation can be seen as Baldwin's emotional isolation due to the departure of his partner. Fonny's denial can be converted to the fact that Happersberger split from Baldwin and married a female; therefore, being considered heterosexual.
Along with forbidden love, Baldwin and Tish share similar family experiences. In Baldwin's novel, Fonny's distressed family struggles to free their wrongly accused son from prison. Ultimately, Fonny's father commits suicide, only to cause enough stress to push Tish into labor of her and Fonny's unborn child. Similarly, in 1943, Baldwin's father perishes only to cause labor pains in his wife, triggering the birth of his last son, James Baldwin's youngest sibling (Detweiler).
One astonishing factor of Baldwin's writing is his voice. Baldwin speaks from Tish's point of view in this novel. Many argue that it is difficult for a male to accurately portray a female, let alone the emotional and physical feelings of a pregnant female. Joyce Carol Oates of the New York Times contradicts that statement and exclaims that: "Tish's voice comes to seem absolutely natural and we learn to know her from the inside out. Even her flights of poetic fancy--involving rather subtle speculations upon the nature of male-female relationships, or black-white relationships, as well as her articulation of what it feels like to be pregnant--are convincing."
Although If Beale Street Could Talk is a novel of discrimination and injustice within society, there is also an underlying theme: Baldwin's past. It is through Tish, Fonny, and each of their families that Baldwin elicits his past experiences such as his forbidden affairs, the death of his father, and living in impoverished conditions in New York. If Beale Street Could Talk is not only a ground breaking novel of pregnant teens, it is a secretive autobiography hidden from the public eye.