What was the struggle of racism in "Sonny's Blues" and why?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" was published in 1957, three years after the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education; however, it was not really until the Civil Rights Act of 1960 signed by President Eisenhower that desegregation started to have some impact since several states had defied the previous rulings. On May 24, 1963, James Baldwin himself assembled a group of black leaders who met with Attorney General Robert Kennedy to discuss race relations. He had grown up in Harlem, which he described as a "dreadful place . . . a kind of concentration camp" because it was "dehumanizing."  

So, in the setting of the 1950s, as the brother who is the narrator declares, the streets of his childhood have not changed although housing projects are now there. "Those who got out always left something of themselves behind," he also observes. Perhaps this "something" is a part of the spirit in the person. When the brother brings Sonny to his house, he has "the feeling that [he] was simply bringing him back into the danger from which he had almost died trying to escape." The narrator recalls the story of his uncle, whom his mother describes as being much like Sonny. One night, as he started to cross the road with Sonny's father, some white men who had been drinking heavily came racing down a hill in a speeding car that ran over him as his brother watched helplessly. The narrator's mother has told her son this tragic tale because he has a brother, too. "And the world ain't changed," she said. His mother tells the narrator that he may not be able to prevent anything, but he must let his brother Sonny know that he is there for him.  

It is not until the narrator suffers after his little girl dies that he understands Sonny's sufferings. "My trouble made his real," the narrator states. He decides to let Sonny know that he now "is there for him," and he joins Sonny at "a joint in the Village," a sort of refuge for Sonny where he can play music and express what is in his troubled soul. At this night club "what is evoked in him" is felt and understood by others who listen. Sonny's friend Creole, who plays the fiddle, opens the world of suffering as he plays the blues; Sonny, then, picks it up and he tells how he has suffered on the piano keys. On top of the piano, there is a light glowing that the narrator recognizes. "It glowed and shook above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling," a symbol of the troubles that Sonny has experienced, troubles that his brother now shares and understands.

jmj616 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Sonny's Blues," by James Baldwin, is about two brothers who grew up in the black neighborhood of Harlem, NYC, in the 1930's-1940's.  The story contains a good deal of description of the challenges that confronted these boys and their friends.

The narrator of the story is the older brother, who has gone to college, become a math teacher, married, and started a family.  His younger brother, Sonny, is a jazz musician.

As the story begins, Sonny has been arrested for "peddling and using heroine."  Although the narrator is surprised about his brother, he realizes that kids can turn "hard, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem."

He describes the life of black kids in Harlem:

they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low celing of their actual possibillities.

In other words, racism limited the potential for these boys to succeed in life and to escape from the harsh conditions in their ghetto neighborhood.

Sonny tries to escape through music and drugs, a combination which rarely works.  The narrator has tried to succeed and escape in a more conventional way, through education and assimilation.  But even he has only been partly successful.  Although he has a decent job, he lives in a housing project that is "really just like the houses in which Sonny and I grew up."