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A story with a universality of theme, James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" brings to light two sides of the African-American experience, the black who has assimilated into white society and the black who remains an outsider. For both, there are limitations; thus, the central theme is suffering, a major trope of the African-American experience.
Because of this universality of theme, Baldwin feels no need to give some of his minor characters names since they are a part of Sonny and his brother's suffering and desires. And, with its Biblical implications, the character Sonny--the son of man--is the representative for suffering. Moreover, after Sonny's brother experiences the death of his little girl, he communicates with Sonny because now his own suffering has made Sonny's real.
United in suffering, Sonny and his brother watch the street where "every face looks darkening." One day there is a street revival carried on by "three sisters in black, and a brother." As the narrator watches, he describes how each woman address the others as "Sister," and in the
the music seemed to soothe a poison out of....[their] belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last.
Sonny tells his brother of the woman who sings,
"...it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through--to sing like that. It's repulsive to think you have to suffer that much."
He also tells his brother that there is inside him a storm. When he finally
gets with it and plays it, you realize nobody's listening. So you've got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.
Inviting his brother to come to the ngihtclub where he has been invited to play, the two man walk down a dark street in downton Harlem. As they enter, a voice and "an enormous black man "erupted out of all the atmospheric lighting, piacing an arm around Sonny's shoulder. As the musicians begin to play, the amosphere on the stage and the room begins to "change and tighten." The narrator notes that most people hear only "private, vanishing evocations," but those who create the music hear something else as they are
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....
Then they all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell from his face....
Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.
In their universality of suffering, all the people can be free through Sonny's music, Sonny's blues. Sonny's brother states that for him the drink the waitress brings Sonny glows and shakes above his head "like the very cup of trembling." He is in communion with Sonny; he feels his experience, and out of this shared experience, meaning emerges. Because the narrator is united to Sonny who is, in turn, united to others, the blues carry a message, not only of suffering, but of understanding the suffering of the African American. No proper names are needed for this wonderful unity .
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