If Beale Street Could Talk, the film adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, has hit Australian cinemas.
Touted as a romantic drama, it is a beautiful and hauntingly painful story that forces us to examine whether “love can survive the hate a society gives its own people”.
For me, what was most striking about this movie was not the injustice that the lead character, Fonny (a young African American man) faced, for as the movie aptly points out, injustice is an all too familiar and ever-present feature of Black life and Black love.
In the opening scene Baldwin observes:
Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighbourhood of some American city, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.
The real legacy of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ for me was the positions available to the Black man. While impressed by Regina King’s depiction of Tish’s mother, which has received widespread acclaim, it was the narrative possibilities available to the Black men on Beale Street that caught my attention, owing both to their familiarity and peculiarity.
Now, I don’t live on Beale Street in some American city, but I do live on Struggle Street and I know Black men like these, along with the struggle of Black love surviving in a society which despises it.
Yet, their peculiarity lay in the fact that all of the Black male characters were good men, or least well-intentioned. I cannot recall ever watching a movie where all the Black men were good guys, in fact, there are few movies where Black men can be good at all.
Don’t get me wrong, the Black man on Beale Street isn’t romanticised as innocent and virtuous. They are not perfect or pure, but their love for each other is. And it is their love for their family that drives their decision-making and is the heart and soul of this movie.
For the Indigenous man on our Beale Street— or rather ‘Struggle Street’ —who is both Black and First Nations, whether they are an #IndigenousDad, or a spouse, there is little room in our nation’s imagining for them to be good or loving.
Make no mistake, Kerri Anne Kennerly and Joe Hildrebrand’s claims about anonymous Aboriginal women and children in “the outback” were not actually about Aboriginal women and children. Contained within their ‘won’t someone think of the children?’ virtue-signalling, was a particular knowledge claim about Aboriginal men. Neither Kerri-Anne or Joe named Aboriginal men, but they need not.
To speak of Aboriginal women and children “cowering in their huts” is to invoke the Aboriginal male perpetrator. We met him during Lateline’s series of stories about Mutijulu, we met him in Cathy McLennan’s fictional Salt Water; and we met him in Peter Sutton’s Politics of Suffering.
Bill Leak had a whole series of cartoons devoted to the horror and apparent hilarity of the Aboriginal male who bashes his woman, boasts about it, and doesn’t know the name of his own children. The irony was not lost on most of us, given it tends to be white men who refuse to name and claim their Aboriginal offspring. But the Aboriginal male perpetrator has been as useful to the ‘settler’ as the Aboriginal domestic and stockman. It works for them, and it too works upon us if we’re not careful.
And that remains a real danger confronting Black bodies and Black communities; the ways in which these fictions speak to our souls. For me, as an Aboriginal health researcher it is unethical to remain silent about this kind of daily gendered violence that Black men and Black communities experience, the violence of dehumanisation.
Inala Wangarra research project
A team of researchers at The University of Queensland partnered with Inala Wangarra, an Indigenous community development organisation operating on ‘Struggle Street’, and we sought to examine the stories of Indigenous masculinity as told by Black men in the Brisbane suburb of Inala, a socio-economically disadvantaged urban Indigenous community.
Supported by the Lowitja Institute, this research project followed a group of young Indigenous men going through a community-led ‘rites of passage’ process to explore how they and the men around them talk of Indigenous masculinity.
What we heard when Black men talked were not stories of perpetrators, of pathologised dysfunction or an infatuation with the tropes of white patriarchy. We heard stories of men having to ‘act hard’, having to be strong and having no choice but to stand up for oneself: The articulation of a strong Black masculinity centred on a strong sense of brotherhood and belonging that sustained men in these tasks and in speaking back to power.
We heard men articulate a masculinity that was distinctly Indigenous, one that was less concerned with good and bad representations and more with ‘representing’. Representing where one comes from in terms of connection to Country and to community and to family; representing to honour the past, sustain the present, and nurture the future.
What was all too familiar about the things that Indigenous men talked of on ‘Struggle Street’ and that with which ‘Beale Street’ spoke, was an articulation of Black masculinity that was both relational and vulnerable. Indigenous men spoke about being better for one’s children, about being a better version of one’s own father, about being respectful, about providing and guiding and about showing your children that “it’s okay to hurt”.
Indigenous men spoke of a masculinity that proclaimed their humanity, and just like the Black men on Beale Street, the fact that they were able to do so in a social world that continued to deny them this humanity speaks so very loudly to the real power of the Black man.
Dr Chelsea Bond is one half of the Wild Black Women radio program (with Angelina Hurley) on Brisbane’s 98.9FM. She is an academic and writer, focusing on content about Black women, for Black women. Follow Chelsea @drcbond
Catch Wild Black Women with their regular segment on The Point tonight, 8.30pm on NITV (Ch. 34)