In what way is race featured in the artistic expression of Sonny’s plight?"Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Certainly, the setting of Harlem figures greatly into the suffering that Sonny experiences as he is "trapped in the darkness which roared outside" him.  The dark imagery threads through Sonny's memories of Harlem, a place where the houses, the music, the dark are filled with menace:

The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about.  It's what they've come from.  It's what they endure. The child knows that they won't talk anymore because if he knows too much about what's happened to them, he'll know too much too soon, about what's going to happen to him.

When Sonny's brother picks him up, they drive between

the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance....toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood....houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster.  Some escaped the trap, most didn't.  Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap.

The brother lives in "a parody of the good, clean, faceless life."  The same things happen as when he was a child.  The experience of Sonny and his brother is the black experience in Harlem:  trouble and confrontation, darkness, despair.

Sonny's plight is his attempt to escape the suffering of his environment and experience.  When he cannot avoid this suffering, he takes heroin so that he can feel in control.  But, doing so is the trap, for he only adds to his blues.  Like the woman in the street singing, Sonny must suffer in order to give expression to the blues he plays in his effort to escape the darkness of Harlem.