What does the "housing projects jutted up out of [the streets] now like rocks in the middle of a boiling sea" mean/symbolize in "Sonny's Blues"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

James Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues" is a story about suffering. The citation mentioned above is from a significant paragraph in this story. These housing projects "jutted up" out of what Baldwin calls the "killing streets." These "killing streets" are the "boiling sea" in which the young find themselves growing up.

After Sonny comes back to New York, he and his brother ride in a cab through the city past Central Park toward the inner city. As both brothers look out the windows of the cab, they seek a part of themselves that they have left behind because no man can ever lose all that he once was. This past has been "a boiling sea," a sea of fear, resentment, hope, and despair. The environment in which Sonny and his brother grew up is one that can pull them under, just as one is pulled under the "boiling" sea off the "rocks" of stability and hope.

This survival in a "boiling sea" is the challenge presented to Sonny upon his return home. Through his music and through communication with his brother, Sonny is led from the darkness of his past use of drugs and conflict with his brother into the light. At the nightclub in the last part of the story, Creole shows both brothers the way out of the stormy sea of their confusion and conflict. There, sitting in a dark corner of the club, the narrator listens to the sounds of Sonny's soul reflected in his jazz, and he realizes that through this music Sonny can impose order and rise out of the boiling sea of his environment and his dark past. The brothers rescue themselves through music, the solace for their suffering souls.

Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The housing projects in the story, like public housing in many cities, are isolated places, even though they might be in the middle of a city; they are isolated by poverty and usually by race. The image this gives us is of danger all around and no means of escape, which is reinforced in the same part of the story, in which Baldwin speaks of the boys being "surrounded by danger" (7) and being like animals who have to gnaw off a limb to get out of a trap.  These are mean streets, "vivid, killing streets" (7). And whether one stays on the rocks and is subjected to the stormy and rough waves or tries to get off the rocks and leave, it's a very risky business, life-destroying for many.  Reading even a bit more into this passage, I think it also conveys an image of a good place for a shipwreck, running aground these rocks, with sailors lost, a ship destroyed, and no means of getting away.  Anyone who has been placed in a project like this could very well feel shipwrecked.  This is a dark image, contributing to all the darkness in the story. 

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Sonny's Blues

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