Essays and Criticism
Racial Issues in "Sonny's Blues"
Each of us wants to live a life where we feel fulfilled and joyous. A few of us accomplish this with seemingly little effort; others struggle on their journey through periods of self-doubt, rejection, depression, or the blues. James Baldwin was no different; yet while he struggled toward his own individual fulfillment, he began to feel a driving need to tie the idea of individual effort and fulfillment to the black race. In fact, according to C.W.E. Bigsby, editor of The Black American Writer, the central point of conflict in much of Baldwin's writing is to show that "the job of ethnic renewal [lies] in individual fulfillment rather than racial separatism or political revolution."
Putting emphasis on the individual is also a way to portray blacks as unique "members of a community with its own traditions and values," according to Irving Howe in Dissent. In part, this emphasis stems from racial bias against blacks. It also stems, however, from the realization that with the Harlem Renaissance, the black "writer has come to appreciate the relevance of his own experience to a nation searching for its own sense of identity and purpose," according to Bigsby. For these reasons, the times and community in which Baldwin grew up become important. They contributed to his need to find how "the specialness of [his] experience could be made to connect [him] to other people instead of dividing [him] from them."
Baldwin's early experiences became...
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Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues": The Scapegoat Metaphor
In James Baldwin's only book of short stories, Going to Meet the Man, "Sonny's Blues" stands out as the best, most memorable. This story is both realistic and symbolic, part autobiography and part fiction. So memorable is "Sonny's Blues" that a student once put it at the top of a list of thirty stories read for a course in fiction. She commented, "The story haunts you; its beauty continues in your mind long after the original reading and discussion." The story's haunting beauty comes from our participation in the scapegoat metaphor that creates the intricate tracery which holds the story together, forming a graceful spiral, a pattern of correspondences which informs and entices as it helps us to be free.
The scapegoat metaphor is developed through several images, the most important of which is music, with its links to suffering and brotherhood. But we are only dimly aware of this scapegoat pattern until we see the final, startling biblical image of the scotch and milk drink, "the very cup of trembling," which follows Sonny's playing of the blues and which clarifies the story's meaning. This "cup of trembling," then, is at once the Old Testament cup of justice and the New Testament cup of Gethsemane, or mercy. The Old Testament allusion to the "cup of trembling" leads directly to the scapegoat metaphor and the idea of pain and suffering of a people. The New Testament story of hope is carried in Sonny's name which suggests Christ symbolism and leads...
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James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues": A Message in Music
In "Sonny's Blues" theme, form, and image blend into perfect harmony and rise to a thundering crescendo. The story, written in 1957 but carrying a vital social message for us today, tells of two black brothers' struggle to understand one another. The older brother, a straight-laced Harlem algebra teacher, is the unnamed narrator who represents, in his anonymity, everyman's brother; the younger man is Sonny, a jazz pianist who, when the story opens, has just been arrested for peddling and using heroin. As in so much of Baldwin's fiction, chronological time is upset. Instead the subject creates its own form. Musical terms along with words like "hear" and "listen'' give the title a double meaning. This story about communication between people then reaches its climax when the narrator finally hears his brother's sorrow in his music, hears, that is, Sonny's blues.
The story begins when the narrator learns of Sonny's arrest in a most impersonal manner—by reading the newspaper. Yet this rude discovery sounds the initial note in these two brothers' growing closeness. The shock of recognition forces the narrator to confront his past refusal to accept the miserable truths around him. For too long, he admits, he had been "talking about algebra to a lot of boys who might, every one of them ... be popping off needles every time they went to the head." He completes his own first lesson in understanding and takes his first step towards Sonny when he begins to hear his...
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