In his review of If Beale Street Could Talk, Mark Kermode praises the film for finding universality in its presentation of a story of a very specific time and place. Kermode suggests that it is this very specificity which allows the film to be universal, or, rather, a particular sort of specificity, the detailed drawing of the characters’ specific emotions. The idea that emotions have a universality that allows them to transcend the positions of the individuals experiencing them is a common one (I’ve used it myself), but we should be wary of erasing the specificity of experience in the supposed universality of emotion.
In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman writes about “the danger of a too-easy intimacy” in narratives that attempt to mobilise empathy. The problem is that the supposed efficacy of empathy rests on the transmissability of emotion, but what this transmission enables is that the emotions can be felt by the person empathising; the feelings of those empathised with then have only a secondary status, their efficacy contingent on the effectiveness of empathy. Harman is writing about empathy in anti-slavery literature, and so is interested in empathy in the context of unequal power relations, and particularly in the specific power relations involved in chattel slavery, where those being empathised with have the legal status of property. It is the social relations built on this legal fact that condition the activity of empathy and reveal its harmful aspects, because the fungibility of feelings that enables empathy depends on and reinforces the fungibility of black people in a slave economy in which they are treated as property.
Given, then, the way in which the interpretive framing of empathy with which many critics have approached If Beale Street Could Talk is bound up with anti-blackness, it is striking to me how clearly the film rejects the easy universalising of experience. Tish tells us how, having grown up with Fony, “there had never been any occasion for shame between us. We were a part of each other, flesh of each other’s flesh”. Yet, when they have sex for the first time, their bodies do come between them. Tish undresses, and her nakedness means something different this time. Suddenly, the easy sharing of flesh is not easy; it is a risk. The collectivity of affect is not an ontological common ground – it is a construction, an effort, and a hazardous one.
The hazards of sensual sharing are made clear in one of the most quietly powerful scenes in If Beale Street Could Talk. Tish work on the perfume counter is a department store, and her job is to, bodily, provide the ground for customers to experience the sensual effects of the perfume she is selling. Here, the sensory is caught up in multiple orders of power, but most acutely race, as Tish’s Black body becomes an instrument for a range of satisfactions by the white male customers.
Here, we can see Fanon’s critique of colourblind phenomenology in Black Skin, White Masks:
In the white world, the man of color encounters difficulties in the development of his bodily schema…. I know that if I want to smoke, I shall have to reach out my right arm and take the pack of cigarettes lying at the other end of the table. The matches, however, are in the drawer on the left, and I shall have to lean back slightly. And all these movements are made not out of habit but out of implicit knowledge. A slow composition of my self as a body of a spatial and temporal world – such seems to be the schema. It does not impose itself on me; rather, it is a definitive structuring of the self and of the world – definitive because it creates a real dialectic between my body and the world….
Below the corporal schema I had sketched a historico-racial schema. The elements that I used had been provided for me not by “residual sensations and perceptions primarily of a tactile, vestibular, kinesthetic, and visual character”, but by the other, the white man, who had woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories…. Assailed at various points, the corporeal schema crumbled, its place taken by a racial epidermal schema.
Far from sensation being a universal medium, Fanon tells us, sensation is itself underpinned and structured by race. If that’s the case, sensation cannot simply ground universalism, at least, not without importing the kind of “universalism” that makes whiteness the universal. Instead, sensation would have to be material used in a process of unwinding the exclusions which structure it – as I said above, any commonality that comes from feeling will be a difficult and hazardous construction.
This reminds me of the discussion of feminist commonality in Lugones and Spelman’s “Have We Got a Theory for You! Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism, and the Demand for ‘the Woman’s Voice'”. The article asks what motivation white/Anglo women could have for engaging in feminist theory with women of colour, and concludes that “the only motive that makes sense to me for your joining us in this investigation is the motive of friendship.” They discuss and reject other motivations, including self-interest:
But self-interest does not seem to me to be a realistic motive, since whatever the benefits you may accrue from such a journey, they cannot be concrete enough for you at this time and they not be worth your while…. Also, why should women of color embrace white/Anglo women’s self-betterment without reciprocity? At this time women of color cannot afford this generous affirmation of white/ Anglo women.
Coming into Hispano, Black, Native American worlds out of obligation puts white/Angles in a morally self-righteous position that is inappropriate. You are active, we are passive. is inappropriate. You are active, we are passive. We become the vehicles of your own redemption…. Out of obligation you should stay out of our way, respect us and our distance, and forego the use of whatever power you have over us.
the motive of friendship remains as both the only appropriate and understandable motive for white/Anglo feminists engaging in the task as described above. If you enter the task out of friendship with us, then you will be moved to attain the appropriate reciprocity of care for your and our wellbeing as whole beings, you will have a stake in us and in our world, you will be moved to satisfy the need for reciprocity of understanding that will enable you to follow us in our experiences as we are able to follow you in yours.
There are two moments in If Beale Street Could Talk which we could understand in terms of this reciprocity and care. The first is when Levy is showing the (potential) loft space to Tish and Fony; what’s interesting about this is that care and reciprocity are shown, and built, through shared work, or rather a shared performance of work, as Levy and Fony pantomime installing a fridge in the fantasised apartment. The other moment is more troubling and more risky, when Tish’s mother attempts to persuade the woman who accused Fony of rape to revise her testimony. Here, the two women have to navigate their different but shared or perhaps shareable traumas, and while Tish’s mother is not successful in her attempt to clear Fony’s name, some commonality between the two women is indeed constructed.
Of course neither of these cases are quite like the ones discussed by Lugones and Spellman, as they concern commonality between members of different racialised groups, rather than between white people and people of colour, but they do illustrate what I have been suggesting is a central point of the how sensation is presented to us in If Beale Street Could Talk: that it is not a ground of commonality, but an opportunity and a demand that we do the work and take the risk of constructing this commonality.