Best Literary Sex: If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

BEST LITERARY SEX is a new Weird Sister series paying homage to the hottest, most memorable sex scenes in our favorite books.


I couldn’t have been more than twelve or so when I first got my hands on If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin’s gut-punching 1974 novel about Tish and Fonny, young lovers struggling to fight a racist and corrupt justice system in 1970s New York. It had been placed in the mahogany bookshelf in the living room, right above the double rows of Encyclopedia Britannica. I remember flipping through it, scanning the pages until my eyes caught the passage about Fonny’s “sex stiffening and beginning to rage against the cloth of his pants.” In an instant, I had stumbled upon my first literary sex scene. I’ve come across a few since those days but, my gosh, there’s nothing quite like the first time.

I took the book back to my bedroom, absconded with it like stolen money, to read the pages that followed. In them, Tish explicitly describes losing her virginity to Fonny:

I screamed and cried against his shoulder…He moved back, but not quite out…then he pulled me against him and thrust in with all his might…A singing began in me and his body became sacred—his buttocks, as they quivered and rose and fell, and his thighs between my thighs and the weight of his chest on mine and that stiffness of which stiffened and grew and throbbed and brought me to another place. I wanted to laugh and cry.

Can you imagine a twelve-year old black girl from Brooklyn reading about being fucked so good it felt like teetering on the verge of death? About being awashed in lust and love to the point that it felt as if you were drowning? And when breath finally filled your lungs, you couldn’t tell whose it was? Here were naked bodies—black bodies—in simultaneous fits of agony and ecstasy.

Good Lawd, I still get goose bumps.

After picking the book up again for the first time in twenty years, I know now what lovin’ like that feels like—freedom. Coming together in unconditional love; it’s boundless. I think of Fonny before he was framed and caged for a crime he did not commit. Beautiful black Fonny. Free Fonny. With his future plans as a sculptor and his Tish. And the wind gets taken out of me ‘cause freedom for black folks is always fleeting. In the forty years since the book was published, we’re still grappling with the effects of mass incarceration. We certainly don’t need the Justice Department to tell us what we’ve always known in Ferguson and Baltimore and Staten Island and Chicago, and communities all around this country—that black folks are routinely and systemically targeted by police.

So in the novel, when Officer Bell goes after Fonny for protecting Tish from sexual assault at the hands of a stranger, I think of black love and how it’s always been an affront to white supremacy—whether you’re childhood sweethearts from Harlem or the first black couple in The White House. And then I think of me. Twelve year-old me in my bedroom in Brooklyn. A few years shy of a first kiss but secretly reading about Fonny giving all that good-good to Tish. 


Camille Wanliss is a writer from New York. Her short stories and essays have appeared in ClutchDrunken Boat, Kweli JournalThe Feminist Wire, and The Indypendent. She is the founder of, a site that aggregates opportunities for writers of color.

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