Sonny's Blues Essays and Criticism
by James Baldwin

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Racial Issues in "Sonny's Blues"

(Short Stories for Students)

Each of us wants to live a life where we feel fulfilled and joyous. A few of us accomplish this with seemingly little effort; others struggle on their journey through periods of self-doubt, rejection, depression, or the blues. James Baldwin was no different; yet while he struggled toward his own individual fulfillment, he began to feel a driving need to tie the idea of individual effort and fulfillment to the black race. In fact, according to C.W.E. Bigsby, editor of The Black American Writer, the central point of conflict in much of Baldwin's writing is to show that "the job of ethnic renewal [lies] in individual fulfillment rather than racial separatism or political revolution."

Putting emphasis on the individual is also a way to portray blacks as unique "members of a community with its own traditions and values," according to Irving Howe in Dissent. In part, this emphasis stems from racial bias against blacks. It also stems, however, from the realization that with the Harlem Renaissance, the black "writer has come to appreciate the relevance of his own experience to a nation searching for its own sense of identity and purpose," according to Bigsby. For these reasons, the times and community in which Baldwin grew up become important. They contributed to his need to find how "the specialness of [his] experience could be made to connect [him] to other people instead of dividing [him] from them."

Baldwin's early experiences became integral to his writings. The eldest of nine children, he was born in 1924 in Harlem to a preacher and his wife. At that time, Harlem was the country's largest black community. It was home to many blacks who had come North to escape the severe repression of the Jim Crow laws in the South. According to Baldwin, Harlem was a "dreadful place ... a kind of concentration camp," where at the age of ten he was beaten by two police officers because of the color of his skin. It was also the place where his mother said no child would ever be safe. At the age of 24, Baldwin needed to get away from "the dehumanizing society of New York" to avoid becoming engulfed by "the fury of the color problem." He accepted a literary prize that included a monetary stipend in 1948 and went to France to write.

Apparently the escape was worthwhile. Baldwin worked at finding the individual within himself after he had a breakdown and spent some recuperative time listening to the blues music of Bessie Smith. Within the next few years he produced the critically-acclaimed Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1953 and the controversial Giovanni's Room in 1956. Although one of the reasons Baldwin had escaped to Europe was to avoid being categorized as a "Negro writer," events occurring at this time in the United States made him think the time had come to accept the label. He saw the U.S. Supreme Court rule that segregation was illegal in the case of Brown vs. The Board of Education in 1954, and he also saw Rosa Parks arrested for not moving to the back of a bus a year after that. Then in 1957, he heard of the race riot in Arkansas that occurred after nine black students began attending an all-white school. As a member of an ethnic and cultural community that was experiencing rapid change, Baldwin felt obligated to return to the United States.

Baldwin published "Sonny's Blues" the year he returned. The story contains evidence of the conflict Baldwin faced: between following an individual path and maintaining or renewing ethnic ties. According to John Reilly in James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays, "the discovery of identity is nowhere presented more successfully than in the short story of 'Sonny's Blues'." The story concerns two estranged brothers and their quest to find fulfillment. Their relationship undergoes change as they tentatively reach an understanding and begin to talk with one another again.

"Sonny's Blues" powerfully shows the growth of Sonny's older brother, the narrator, who had responded to his racial status by fitting in with the...

(The entire section is 4,485 words.)