Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin
The main character in a book is in most cases given the opportunity to have in common some shared similarities with other characters in a story. It is important for one to consider and appropriately interpret ways in which a character tends to relate with other characters within a story. James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is a story that critically implores it to the socioeconomic issues that affected African American families in the 1950’s more so in urban centres such as the Harlem Projects in New York. This narrative revolves around a nameless father, brother and teacher who deeply reflects on experiences and stories told to him in the past in as he tries to bridge the between him and his brother. James Baldwin, being regarded as one of the most respected pre civil rights movement writers in the US, expresses a depth of knowledge as to the life in projects in America’s major cities during the 1950’s (Trimmer and Warnock, 170). In this book, he definitively reveals the degree of racial conflict, personal identity, personal suffering, unemployment, as well as the complex nature of motivating agents in the projects.
Overview of “Sonny Blues”
It is rather easy for one to relate to the core issues emanating from the “Sonny Blues” short story as the characters vividly reflect on past experiences all through this wonderfully written book. At the same time, it is important to point out that characters portrayed in literature at times lack the ability to relate or not relate with the circumstances enveloped in the setting provided for in a story. The reader is also in a position to judge the characters therein based on their actions and relations with other characters in a book based on his experience as a teacher (Trimmer and Warnock, 167). It quite often that readers query the objectivity with which a character perceives another whether they are; quick to judge, place other characters in known stereotypical profiles or conceive characters within the book in a premeditated manner of thinking.
The narrator in this short story is Sonny’s older brother and is a former soldier, father, husband and teacher. Sonny is a brilliant young man whose youthful life is interrupted by a stint in prison after being convicted for dealing and using heroin. The story begins with the narrator attempting to come to terms with what could have possibly gone wrong with his younger brother as he reads of his arrest in the morning newspaper. Sonny had before his arrest moved away from the Harlem projects, joined the navy in an apparent attempt to rid himself of his sickly neighbourhood in the Harlem projects.
The plot develops quickly, showing that the narrator is a rather judgemental individual who believes in predicting outcomes affecting others in society along common societal stereotypes. Personal suffering, a common theme in this book is brought out strongly from the very first page of this story. The narrator tells of the anguish that he feels inside as he deeply ponders on what could have brought about such a chain of events that led to the imprisonment of his younger brother, Sonny. As he goes about his daily tasks which involve teaching, he cannot help but notice how faces in his class remind him of his brother when he was about their age and connect them to such unfortunate incidences as have befallen his brother(Baldwin, 843). The story then continues to unfold through the reflections of the narrator, as he flashes back through to his child hood days. The projects were always a place where most of the inhabitants experienced different forms of personal suffering which were least hurting when they were in a communal gathering and through sharing their personal experiences. ”Sonny blues” provides an insight as to how unemployment is one of the greatest causes of personal suffering in the projects. This is partly due to the African American children’s lack of personal commitment to the cause of education and its significance to the future of a child (Standley and Burt, 36). Other reasons can be linked to a failure by the African American communities to place a great deal of importance as to the role of education in the future of their children based on perceived racial prejudices. This in itself reflects a high degree of racial prejudice at the time and more so the time during when Sonny’s parents were much younger, probably in their late teens or early twenties. Sonny’s father in this story is said not believe that anything good could come out of the world they lived in though he always hoed that something good would actually come to fruition(Baldwin, 843). The narrator’s mother painfully recalls an incident which caused a lot of anguish to her husband and their father which illustrates the level of racial prejudice that was prevalent at the time. This story within a story in itself depicts how much the narrator’s mother understood that looking out for one another was a way with which then narrator as Sonny’s elder brother could help sonny as he personally tries to adjust to being a productive member of the society.
Unfortunately, this dear advice does not make sense to the narrator until his youngest daughter dies of Polio and the personal anguish he once again feels as well as the personal loneliness he acknowledges causes him to write a letter to Sonny while still in prison. The communication between the two helps Sonny to open up to the narrator on the guilt he has for falling victim to heroine abuse “I was trying to remember everything I’d heard about dope addiction and I couldn’t help watching Sonny for signs” (Baldwin, 840). Sonny portrays that his understanding of how drug abuse has caused a lot of anguish to his brother and his family and his quest to reform to a better person.
This in a way helps the narrator to make meaning of all he experienced as he grew up and more so come to terms with what the story his mother told him of his father’s brother and the need for him to be there for Sonny after his father died. When Sonny is due to be released from prison, his brother is there to take him home and a drive through the park helps him to understand that he and his brother actually had the same view of the place where they grew up “The moment Sonny and I started to the house I had a feeling that I was simply bringing him back into the danger he had almost died trying to escape” (Baldwin, 840). At this moment there is a common bon through personal suffering (Standley and Burt, 46). Later on, while at the narrator’s home, there is a dialogue as to the effects of heroine and why some people feel that it is a means with which one can escape the harsh realities of the life in the Harlem projects. Sonny invites his brother to a night out, something that the narrator agrees to. It helps him come to terms that instead of being a teacher to his brother and teaching him the ways that will help him towards self sustenance and personal independence there is the need for moral support to Sonny from his brother to enable him pursue his dream. This take I, the reader back to the point in the story where Sonny tries to explain to the narrator how much he wanted to be a musician, a profession the narrator did not have a lot of respect for.
Sonny had neglected his education and constantly failed to attend school in favour of hanging out with musicians in the funky parts of Harlem and this is how he got to his drug addiction. It was the lack of moral support from his brother that led him to look for it elsewhere. Sonny though feels sad that he had to go that way but his quest to reform helps him to come to terms with his brother. At the show in a place referred to as the village, the narrator expresses the inner peace he feels as he watches Sonny among other people with the same passion for music as Sonny does “then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen” (Baldwin, 863). At this point he reflects on the need for music to soothe the soul as it provides a medium for people to express feelings as well as express common issues that they face in a particular social setting. The narrator aptly terms the music played by Sonny and members of his band as Sonny’s blues, which help everyone in the venue to relate to life in the project in Harlem ideally capturing personal suffering, racial conflict, personal identity, personal suffering and unemployment in the book as well as in the music.
Baldwin, James. Collected Essays, Volume 2, Volume 98 of Library of America. New York: Library of America, 1998.
Standley, Fred and Burt, Nancy. Critical Essays on James Baldwin. Critical Essays on American Literature Series. New York: Hall, 1988.
Trimmer, Joseph and Warnock, Tilly. Understanding Others: Cultural and Cross-Cultural Studies and the Teaching of Literature, eds. Illinois: NCTE, 1992.
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