Beale Street Love
by Langston Hughes
It's unclear exactly who the speaker is in this poem, but we do know that the sixth line is spoken by Clorinda. The speaker of the rest of the poem, however, remains a total mystery. We hear "a" and "the," but never "my" or "his" or "hers," so we don't even know the gender. Great. Where do we go from here?
We might assume that this speaker is talking about a specific couple that he knows; after all, we do get the very specific name Clorinda. Maybe he's their friend, or a neighbor, and he has witnessed Clorinda's abuse.
But then again, he seems to be talking about more than just one specific couple. Perhaps he is describing just about any couple you might meet on Beale Street. After all, we never get the name of the male abuser; he's just a disembodied fist. Maybe this speaker has witnessed a lot of relationships like Clorinda's on Beale Street. It's not "Their love is a fist." It's "Love is a fist." He's making a generalization.
Whatever the case, the speaker is keeping a safe distance from the situation. But you can bet he knows just what's going on. He's an attentive guy, and he does not seem to like the way that love is playing out on Beale Street. Not one bit.
As for Clorinda, our second speaker, we may know she is female, but we don't know much else. We do know that she is abused by her husband or boyfriend, most likely. She probably hasn't had the easiest go of it. Life for a black woman in Memphis in the early 20th Century wasn't easy. Dealing with racism, sexism and poverty is no easy task.
What's really fascinating about Clorinda as a speaker is – go figure – what she says. You might expect a battered woman to beg for her batterer to stop, but not Clorinda. She tells him to hit her again. Unfortunately, there are so many ways to read this that Clorinda remains as much a mystery as ever. Does she, for some reason, take part in her partner's violence? Is she issuing a threat, telling her batterer that if he hits her again, she'll do something drastic? Is she complicit in her abuse, or defiant? How we see Clorinda hinges on how we answer these questions.