How is "Sonny’s Blues" significant in terms of encapsulating themes in American culture?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that one of the most significant aspects of Baldwin's short story's thematic relevance is what it says about the youth of American society.  Baldwin takes on a topic that is not immediately associated with American culture.  For Baldwin, the question becomes how a nation that is as financially secure as America reconcile the fact that a large section of its youth population experiences a lack of opportunity and an almost blighted existence.  It is a condition that the narrator finds unsettling:

When he was about as old as the boys in my classes, his face had been bright and open, there was a lot of copper in it and he'd had wonderfully direct brown eyes, and great gentleness and privacy.  I wondered what he looked like now.  He had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment downtown, for peddling and using heroin.

The narrator speaks to an aspect of American culture that might not be openly discussed.  How can a nation be considered a world leader when so many of its children, "bright and open," succumb to lives of crime and vices such as drug use?  This is a significant aspect of the short story as it strikes at the essence of Sonny's predicament, something that the narrator alludes to with lines such as "Some escaped the trap, most didn't." This is significant in terms of encapsulating a reality in American culture.  Sonny's predicament is not isolated.  The narrator recognizes clearly that Sonny is really no different than any other child.  In any advanced society, social growth is predicated upon the next generation being able to outdo their predecessors.  For Baldwin, what Sonny endures is no different than millions of youths in American culture.

Another aspect of the short story that has direct connection to American culture lies in Sonny's salvation.  Sonny finds his voice in music, in the arts. This becomes clear when the narrator describes his little brother on stage:

Sonny's fingers filled the air with life, his life.  But that life contained so many others... 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, and what burning he had made it his, and 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 be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.

Sonny does not find his voice in business, as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and does not find his voice in molecular biological research.  He finds his voice in the arts, in the creative expression that music affords him.  Baldwin makes the case that music saves Sonny, gives him a voice that he translates into his "blues, our blues.  Given the challenges that American culture faces with its youth being lost and forlorn, the question that emerges is how many of these creative avenues are afforded to all of our children?  Sonny's predicament is resolved through the power of his music, a creative force that can counter a world that is "hungry as a tiger."  Baldwin's example of Sonny explores how American culture must seek to provide well rounded educational opportunities to its children from all background and narratives.  In a culture that prides itself on "law and order" through the building of prisons, harsh criminal sentencing, and widespread use of the death penalty, Sonny's case prompts reflection.  How American culture deals with its at- risk youth is of vital importance and relevance.  Sonny's narrative shows that such kids can be saved.   When this is evident, greater chances emerge for kids like Sonny to be saved, rather than condemned.

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