Is "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin about redemption or is it about escapism?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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A narrative of human suffering's role in both the African American experience and the human condition, "Sonny's Blues" is, indeed, both about escapism and redemption. James Baldwin tells the story of two brothers who come to know each other through the commonality of their dark environment of the "killing streets" of Harlem which they try to escape in their individual ways, and their personal suffering and redemption.

For the narrator, the avenue of escape is to become educated and be a teacher; however, he now lives in a housing project, "a parody of the good, clean, faceless life" because he still dwells in Harlem.  Sonny tries to escape through his music and heroin and is caught. As the narrator observes of the street singers, "the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them" and it makes "something real" for Sonny. Yet, he is not redeemed by it because he cannot share it, much like his brother who, having suffered the loss of his daughter, now perceives his trouble as having made Sonny's real.

After coming to live with his brother after his release, Sonny listens to some street singers, one of whom touches him with her singing that, he says, can only come from having truly suffered. And, because Sonny knows that he must share his music, too, since he has suffered and must release it, as well, he invites his brother to accompany him where he will "play for his life."  At the club in Greenwich Village, the brother sits in the dark and observes that when the music enters a person, he hears "personal private, and vanishing evocations."  As he sits in the dark of the nightclub, the narrator observes Sonny, and he then realizes the creator of the music hears something more:

But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too for that same reason.  And his triumph when he triumphs is ours.

In his "light" of recognition of Sonny's and his redemptions, the narrator--who sits in the dark--understands that meaning depends upon sharing one's thoughts and feelings.

Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free, if we would listen, that we would never be free until we did.

With others listening, Sonny gives back his suffering that "passes through death [so] it can live forever." Envisioning the "cup of trembling, the cup of fury from the Lord" mentioned in Isaiah 51, the narrator perceives the cup of Scotch and milk in the indigo light as symbolic of the trouble he and Sonny have shared and have been thus redeemed from their personal darknessses through the act of listening and sharing.

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