35.2 | Florien Kijlstra

How Beale Street Talks and Whispers: The Political Soundscapes of James Baldwin’s Novel

Through the critical application of Angela Leighton’s recently published sonic framework Hearing Things: The Work of Sound in Literature (2018), this article shows how in his novel If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) James Baldwin uses sound to compose a socio-political soundscape of racist control and Black resistance. Contrary to what Leighton’s suggestive side-lining of Black writing as mainly voice-based might suggest, Baldwin’s work showcases how sound within Black writing can break from homogenizing and restrictive narratives of Black identity construction, endorsed by quiet neglect and a hyperfocus on jazz and blues and spoken word as the main sonic vehicles of Black expression. Baldwin’s text illustrates sound’s vast and powerful discursive possibilities in depicting Black identity construction and in conveying the complexities of the Black community’s marginalized condition in the United States of the 1970s.