Essays and Criticism
Racial Issues in "Sonny's Blues"
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...
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Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues": The Scapegoat Metaphor
In James Baldwin's only book of short stories, Going to Meet the Man, "Sonny's Blues" stands out as the best, most memorable. This story is both realistic and symbolic, part autobiography and part fiction. So memorable is "Sonny's Blues" that a student once put it at the top of a list of thirty stories read for a course in fiction. She commented, "The story haunts you; its beauty continues in your mind long after the original reading and discussion." The story's haunting beauty comes from our participation in the scapegoat metaphor that creates the intricate tracery which holds the story together, forming a graceful spiral, a pattern of correspondences which informs and entices as it helps us to be free.
The scapegoat metaphor is developed through several images, the most important of which is music, with its links to suffering and brotherhood. But we are only dimly aware of this scapegoat pattern until we see the final, startling biblical image of the scotch and milk drink, "the very cup of trembling," which follows Sonny's playing of the blues and which clarifies the story's meaning. This "cup of trembling," then, is at once the Old Testament cup of justice and the New Testament cup of Gethsemane, or mercy. The Old Testament allusion to the "cup of trembling" leads directly to the scapegoat metaphor and the idea of pain and suffering of a people. The New Testament story of hope is carried in Sonny's name which suggests Christ symbolism and leads to the New Testament message of the "cup of trembling" as the cup of Gethsemane which Christ drank, symbolizing the removal of sins for all who believe and hope for eternal life through belief in him. Sonny's name echoes this special relationship. Sonny, the scapegoat, is the hope of his particular world.
The power of guilt and suffering is revealed in Sonny's tenuous relationship with his own brother and in his immediate empathy with the revivalists; it has been foreshadowed in the anguish of the young friend who still feels a connection with Sonny. Through these people's responses we come to understand that brothers—literal or metaphorical—rescue, redeem, bring righteous anger, and act as scapegoats to open up the world of suffering; the friend begins this for Sonny's brother, the revivalists for Sonny, and Sonny for his brother and for us.
Further, the scapegoat metaphor is strengthened and enriched by the metaphor of shared suffering carried through music—either by a young boy's whistle, by the revivalist's hymns, or finally and most significantly by Sonny's hot piano on which he plays the blues. The blues metaphor also involves suffering and the sharing of suffering that supercedes race and time and cements us all together within our shared humanity. Sonny's music—the blues—has power to transform both his and our pain; through his sharing, Sonny becomes the ultimate scapegoat.
The term "scapegoat" means "sharing of pain"; it implies a true understanding of another's suffering. According to Webster's New World Dictionary, the scapegoat, the caper emissarius, or azazel, was originally "a goat over the heads of which the high priest of the ancient Jews confessed the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement, after which it was allowed to escape." More secularly and popularly, the scapegoat is "a person, group, or thing upon whom the blame for the mistakes or crimes of others is thrust."
Baldwin, himself, defines for us the scapegoat metaphor when he asserts "That all mankind is united by virtue of their humanity." He writes elsewhere, "It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one's own: in the face of one's victim, one sees oneself." In another context, Jack Matthews, in Archetypal Themes in the Modern Story, asks "When is a person not himself?" He answers, "When he reminds you of someone else and you can't see the living presence because of the remembered image. Or when, through accident or muddled design, he begins to embody our own secret fears. In psychology, this is termed projection; in a story or folktale, it is a celebration of the Scapegoat theme." Thus the literary scapegoat, through his own personal suffering or by his metaphorical sharing of his own sorrow, may allow us to see into life and into ourselves and thus vicariously transfer our guilt and pain through him and his suffering.
In this story music is the thread that accompanies and develops the brotherhood/scapegoat metaphor. For in his music Sonny reveals both his suffering and his understanding of others' pain. His music becomes a mystical, spiritual medium, an open-ended metaphor simultaneously comforting the player and the listener and releasing their guilt and pain. No words could have expressed so well what Sonny's music conveyed effortlessly. For, according to Cirlot [in A Dictionary of Symbols], "Music represents an intermediate zone between the differentiated or material world and the undifferentiated realm of the 'pure will' of [German philosopher Arthur] Schopenhauer." The power of this emotional transfer is seen in the brother's response. For through Sonny's music his brother comes to understand his own life, his parents' experience, his daughter's death, and his wife's grief. The brother recapitulates his own, Sonny's, and the family's suffering here at the end of the story. But as [Danish philosopher Soren] Kierkegaard says, in Repetition, "Repetition" replaces "the more traditional Platonic term anamnesis or recollection." This is "not the simple repeating of an experience, but the recreating of it which redeems or awakens it to life, the end of the process ... being the apocalyptic promise: 'Behold, I make all things new.'" Sonny's awakening is done through his blues, and its effect is revealed through the brother's sudden understanding, conveyed in the final image of the Scotch and milk drink, "the very cup of trembling." This central biblical image reverberates with life and reinforces the scapegoat metaphor. This recreation of life is also what the blues are all about. We come full circle.
The scapegoat metaphor is first presented very quietly when Sonny's childhood friend offers to become a scapegoat, insisting upon his symbolic action when he tells Sonny's brother, ''Funny thing, ... when I saw the papers this morning, the first thing I asked myself was if I had anything to do with [Sonny's arrest for using and selling heroin]. I felt sort of responsible." The young man offers to take the blame for Sonny's fall, but his hesitant plea is offensive to the brother who, like us, does not understand the symbolic significance of the act. For, instead of accepting and sharing the man's guilt, the brother becomes angry at the friend's panhandling. He feels superior to him and rejects his offer and his sympathy.
Just prior to this meeting with the old friend a boy's whistle echoes through the school yard. The whistle is "at once very complicated and very simple, it seemed to be pouring out of him as though he were a bird, and it sounded very cool and moving through all that harsh, bright air, only just holding its own through all those other sounds." But this music creates a central abstract image, a tone poem carrying the sadness and guilt of the brother, a simple yet complicated sounding of pain.
This first subtle pairing of music with guilt and pain sets the tone for the story. This young man, this emotional "brother," cannot comfort Sonny's brother, but paradoxically his sincere concern increases the brother's understanding of Sonny's problems. Further, this sad young man illustrates the community's desperate need for a savior as well as setting up the scapegoat metaphor. For the brother sees in the friend as in a mirror the great sadness and courage of Sonny. He says, "All at once something inside...
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