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His Art Reflected His Life
Like much of Baldwin’s writing, the story of “Sonny’s Blues” is analogous of the Negro condition in America. The story is about expression—the freedom and the ability to do so in a circumstance whose very foundation is rooted in the degradation, denial and systematic destruction of a people, its culture and its languages. James Arthur Baldwin (August 2, 1924--December 1, 1987), a prolific 20th century writer, is just one of several of the Negro intelligencia that is able to harness English, the language of Negro Western oppression, and use it effectively to tell the truth about the American Negro as an individual, as a group and as a victim of an institutionally oppressive regime. I view Baldwin’s writings as critical of American racism and I also see him as an effective cultural critic. This particular story digs deep into the mindset of the American Negro during the Civil Rights and Jim Crow eras. I believe I would do the story justice by viewing it through a culturally critical lens. From my observation, Baldwin uses his craft to paint a poignant picture of Negro life in the fictional story of two brothers, struggling in their own way to simply be in their most unique form of personal expression. In doing so, the very craft that Baldwin uses to harness that oppressive language, uplifts and empowers not only the writer himself, but gives positive validity to the life and struggle of a people and their many unique forms of expression.
The Power of Baldwin
“Sonny’s Blues” is a story about two brothers who choose very different paths in life in order to achieve the pinnacle of self-expression and acceptance. In doing so, they take a peek into one another’s worlds and learn to accept and appreciate one another for who they are. In Baldwin’s telling of the story, it creates a sense of catharsis, an atmosphere of healing and acceptance for the writer, in that he gets to express his own condition through his genius of storytelling. It creates the same condition in the reader in that one’s eyes are opened by the revelation of the truth of the characters’ plight and epiphany and thus, a deeper level of understanding of the American Negro’s struggle. If the work is accepted by the general public, as many of Baldwin’s works were, healing and understanding come two-fold: by the reader developing an understanding of a people’s condition and the moving to action as a result of that understanding and by the writer in that he is able to express himself or herself fully and completely without inhibition. To put it blankly, Baldwin has such a mastery of the language and such great passion that he can move even his strongest critics to emotion and response.
One Man's Plight Reveals a Greater Suffering
The younger brother of the narrator, Sonny, is a struggling artist and a painfully addicted drug addict/dealer who has been caught in a drug raid. The narrator is reading about it in the papers in an underground, dark subway train. This image has many symbolic layered aspects of Negro life in America. In one sense, the Negro is invisible—whose life and truest existence is unseen and unacknowledged by the larger racist society. However, in that invisibleness, the Negro is able to learn to adapt and survive—to thrive and create his/her own unique identity safe and apart from the prying eyes and subsequent judgments and dismissals of the “Whites.” Sonny’s personal business is flashed on the front pages for all to see, including his family and he becomes a burdenous source of shame for the narrator. Sonny’s problems have not only gotten progressively worse, but his brother gets to witness Sonny’s shame from a distance in the “safety” of anonymity and conformity. In doing so, he silently shares Sonny’s shame and bears the responsible feelings of an older brother. This also speaks to an emotional intensity that exists within the narrator—an intensity that he is able to bridle through his cunning articulate verbalization. He is also able to control this intensity in order to maintain acceptable decorum in the eyes of others.
“It was not to be believed and I kept telling myself that, as I walked from the subway station to the high school. And at the same time I couldn’t doubt it. I was scared, scared for Sonny. He became real to me again. A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra. It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less. Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream.” (Baldwin 58).
The narrator couldn’t understand why Sonny, a gentle and bright person with equally decent parentage as himself, would want to become a musician—the most unstable and seediest of professions. My God, how would he support himself? A family? What about respectability within a brutal and unforgiving racist society? The narrator, being the primary caretaker of young Sonny after the death of their mother, tried to fulfill her wishes and take care of his younger brother. He wanted to put Sonny on a stable path, but he did not know that Sonny was already in the throes of drug addiction as a result of the pain and moral decay that was around him within the streets of Harlem. Sonny was looking for a way out of it all, he hated life in Harlem. Sonny’s chosen profession also reflects an emotional instability within. He seeks to harness that “wildness” in order to stay “above the cracks”—to stay alive. This chasm between the brothers’ personalities can represent a separation of the classes and modes of thought and existence within the Negro race itself. W.E.B. DuBois called this “twoness” of nature a “double consciousness.” On one hand, the Negro seeks personal and cultural authenticity—a sense of self and free expression within a land, a language and a way of life whose very foundations were formulated and built on the notion of African-American slavery and denigration and were also alien to the African immigrant/slave. Yet, on the other hand, the African-American must make some conforming strides within the racist confines of American society in order to sustainably co-exist within it.
W. E. B. Dubois
“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, —a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” (DuBois 8-9)
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—to a large degree, the Negro has to stifle any true forms of self-expression and be forced to portray him or herself as “agreeable “enough to co-exist within the larger society. The narrator chooses the way of his father, an austere authoritarian portraying a tough outward veneer all the while hiding and lamenting the pain of loss and oppression his entire life. The narrator lives in a world most Negroes live in—they have a deep-seated distrust and fear of Whites, all the while fearing any level of rejection from them, as well. In the process of learning to shield true intentions and feelings in order to “get along,” the learned behavior spills over into other aspects of everyday existence for the Negro. A person’s existence becomes sort of “schizophrenic” and certain habits are formed to ease internal pain and keep from going “mad” in a sense. Therein lays the concept of DuBois’ theory of “double consciousness.” In Sonny’s case, as in so many, he resorts to drug use in order to cope with the reality of racism and its effects on him personally.
“’But we just agreed,’ I said, ‘that there’s no way not to suffer. Isn’t it better, then just to—take it?’ ‘But nobody just takes it,’ Sonny cried, ‘that’s what I’m telling you! Everybody tries not to. You’re just hung up on the way some people try—it’s not your way!’” (Baldwin 75)
Sonny is what one would consider to be emotionally sensitive. He is deeply and painfully affected by the world around him. He sees drugs as a temporary escape from the pain of the conditions that exist around him in Harlem as a result of societal racism and oppression. Within the jazz scene, Sonny has role models that draw him in, not just with their talent and genius, but also their struggles with racism and addiction. In spite of their troubles, they have achieved greatness, acceptance and the ability to achieve the privilege of unbridled expression. Within the confines of jazz, Sonny is around people who are like him and he is understood and accepted through the language of music by his “new” family. They teach him to cultivate his “voice” and encourage his free expression—they don’t seek to change or stifle it. The narrator, by the end of the story, realizes that Sonny had to break the ties with his “blood” family in order to create inroads with the new one. Sonny had to do this in order to keep from going mad—for his own survival.
Music as Language
Baldwin also gives license to the concept of the art of music being a language unto itself—a word for the wordless, a voice for the voiceless. Deeply steeped in African-American tradition is the art form of improvisational music. When the African slaves came to the shores of the U.S., they were stripped of their culture and most, if not all forms of cultural expression. The drum, being an integral part of African folk dance and spiritual worship was strictly forbidden. African slaves, however, were afforded some forms of self- expression through their inclusion within certain American mores, like the Christian church and other forms of European artistic expression. Some of the old African mores were not entirely stifled, however. African slaves kept some traditions alive by passing them down from one generation to the next—eventually creating culturally unique art forms. The art form of jazz is a culmination of African and African-American musical traditions coupled with European instrumental and stylistic influences. The jazz art form is a uniquely American form of music and it possesses strong Negro musical undertones. The “blue note” sound and the use of the drum are just a couple of those undertones.
“It was in the United States only that the slaves were, after a few generations, unable to retain any of the more obvious of African traditions. Any that were retained were usually submerged, however powerful their influence, in less recognizable manifestations. So after only a few generations in the United States an almost completely different individual could be born and be rightly called an American Negro.” (Jones 13)
In relation to the story, Sonny is drawn into this world of jazz. He found familiarity within it; he made it his home, as so many others before him. He was embraced by it because of who he is and could embrace it for the very same reason. The seedy underworld of the jazz clubs and the availability of the quick fix was a perfect storm of escape and abject terror for Sonny. In it, Sonny finds the freedom of true expression and momentary sensory escape he craves—all with no judgment and far from the prying eyes of his family, community and the power structure. However, that unchecked and unbridled emotional powder keg of pain that Sonny tried to ease eventually got the best of him and the constant threat of annihilation by that penchant for “the fix” constantly looms over his shoulder. The narrator, when he attended one of Sonny’s gigs, found within this atmosphere, no judgment, complete freedom, happiness and also “proper” guidance—everything that Sonny needed from a family that would understand him and raise him properly. “I was introduced to all of them and they were all very polite to me. Yet, it was clear that, for them, I was only Sonny’s brother. Here, I was in Sonny’s world. Or rather: his kingdom. Here, it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood.” (Baldwin 78) Most importantly, Sonny was able to mold and cultivate his voice, his message, and his blues along these lines. By doing so, Sonny’s message of pain and triumph was able to come across palatably and genuinely toward his skeptical older brother. The narrator’s unconditional acceptance of Sonny and his passion allowed him to access and begin to feel and experience his own personal pain.
“Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that we could never be free until we did…I saw my mother’s face again, and felt for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet…I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and felt my own tears begin to rise.” (Baldwin 79-80)
Religion as Expression
Baldwin makes several religious references within the text, as well. Much of the religious allusions aid the moralistic undertones and themes of much of his writing. Baldwin spent a portion of his teenage years as a youth minister. He later confessed in an interview that he, in so many words, saw religion as an illusion. He used religion, initially, as a vehicle for escape from the abuse of his stepfather, a preacher, as well. Being an activist and prolific writer, one can surmise that Baldwin may have seen his talent, as well as his need for self-expression, as tools on which to teach moral lessons.
“I never heard a single command from you, yet the demands you made on me, the challenges you issued to me, were nevertheless unmistakable, even if unenforced: that I work and think at the top of my form, that I stand on moral ground but know that ground must be shored up by mercy, that ''the world is before [ me ] and [ I ] need not take it or leave it as it was when [ I ] came in.'' (Morrison)
In the text, Sonny’s struggles may have been a fictional account of the story of any(Negro and/or gay) man living in America at the time. It was the story of any Negro artist or musician who traversed in the artistic underground that Baldwin himself came to know and eventually had to flee the country to evade for the sake of his own sanity and survival. That makes the lesson or “sermon” that Baldwin has to teach all the more realistic and can be understood universally through the genius of his technique. Through the narrator’s lens one can witness all the attempts at his (narrator) denial of the obvious; Sonny’s emotional intensity, and his blues. Sonny’s intensity threatens to unravel the coolness and steadiness of the narrator although he himself battles with hidden unchecked emotions. The narrator sees much of himself in the world and people around him but is able to cover himself and his real emotions with the use of his language and demeanor. To me, this highlights not only a moralistic tone, but perhaps the theme to the story, as well. Language and expression can serve some higher purpose or be treated like a loaded gun. Baldwin’s message is healing. That healing comes through learning to be larger and more loving and accepting of others despite language barriers of any kind. It is only then that we find the keys to our own healing and completeness. Now, how’s that for a good Sunday morning sermon!
A Portrait of Himself
Baldwin is able to articulate the African-American experience because it is part and parcel, his own experience. The true story of his life resonates in many of his writings. In “Sonny’s Blues”, the lives of Sonny and his brother, combined, tell the tale of Baldwin’s life as a young man trying to find himself amid parental abuse, racism, homophobia and expatriatism. Baldwin’s personal story relates to so many African-Americans during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras. Also, like so many African-American writers of his day, he is able to use his craft to carefully and clearly articulate the Negro experience in America. Another prolific Negro writer and friend of Baldwin’s was Richard Wright. Wright served as a mentor to young Baldwin and they were friends even after Baldwin’s flight from the U.S. As a young man growing up in Harlem, Baldwin became a teenage youth minister in order to escape the torment and abuse of his stepfather. He consequently left the pulpit because he questioned the validity of his motives for making the choice in the first place. He later met an African-American painter named Beauford Delaney and made Greenwich Village in New York City a home away from home. It astounded young Baldwin to see a Negro as an artist and it also inspired him to hone his own craft. During his time in Greenwich Village, Baldwin came to terms with his sexuality. Not soon after, Baldwin left the country in order to keep from “losing himself” in such a way that he had seen so many others do before him who bore the adage of being Negro and gay. He also fled in order to become more than just a label when it came to his talent. To him, life in the United States as a Negro, gay man would have limited his ability to be seen as “universally” articulate and to create on such a level. Ironically, Baldwin began his writing career publishing short stories. “Sonny’s Blues” delves into the mindset of the Negro in terms of self-expression in relation to family, community and larger society—a society that stifles any unique form of self-expression by the sweeping and stifling generalizations and labels placed upon the Negro by that society. “’Sonny’s Blues,’ from that collection (short stories), is one of Baldwin’s strongest psychological dramatizations of the frustrations of African-American life in our times. Like Wright’s autobiographical books, Baldwin’s work is an inspiration to young writers struggling to express their experience of racism.” (Charters 57)
In summation, “Sonny’s Blues” is a fictional adaptation of the real, deep-rooted experience of the American Negro. It is also a fictional account of some of the life experiences of the author, himself an American Negro. Baldwin cleverly attacks the constructs of racism in American society by using himself and his life experiences as a model on which to build his arguments and create his stories. By doing so, he is able to combine the mastery of his craft, his flawless technique and his boundless passion to effectively deliver a message of universal acceptance, morality and freedom to a racism weary world.
- Allen, Jr., Ernest. On the Reading of Riddles: Rethinking DuBoisian “Double Consciousness.” Copyright 1996. New York and London: Routledge. Retrieved from http://www.umass.edu/afroam/downloads/allen.riddles.pdf
- Charters, Ann. The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Copyright 2011 by Bedford/St. Martin’s
- DuBois, W.E.B. Souls of Black Folk: An Electronic Classic Series Publication Copyright 2006-2014
- Jones, LeRoi (Amiri Baraka). Blues People: Negro Music in White America. Copyright 1963 by LeRoi Jones.
- Morrison, Toni. James Baldwin: His Voice Remembered; Life in His Language. Copyright December 20, 1987, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 27, Column 1; Book Review Desk. Retrieved from http://www.newyorktimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin-morrison.html
- Pavlic, Ed. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin. Copyright October 31, 2010. Retrieved from http://quarterlyconversation.com/the-cross-of-redemtption-uncollected-writings-by-james-baldwin.
- Reuben, Paul P. “Chapter 10: James Baldwin. “PAL: Perspectives in American Literature—A Research and Reference Guide. (November 3, 2011). URL: http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap10/baldwin.html
- SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Sonny’s Blues.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2007. Web. 5 Mar. 2014
How Well Do You Know Baldwin?
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.
- What was the name of Baldwin's first book?
- The Amen Corner
- Go Tell It on the Mountain
- In what book did Baldwin deal with the topic of homosexuality?
- Giovanni's Room
- The Fire Next Time
- Go Tell It on the Mountain
- Giovanni's Room
© 2014 Dana Ayres