Discussion Topic

The use of dark and light imagery in relation to racial implications in "Sonny's Blues"


The use of dark and light imagery in "Sonny's Blues" highlights racial implications by contrasting the oppressive environment of Harlem (darkness) with the hope and potential for change (light). This imagery underscores the struggles and aspirations of African Americans, emphasizing the pervasive challenges they face and their enduring resilience and hope for a better future.

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Where is dark vs. light imagery used in "Sonny's Blues"?

You might like to consider the way in which the narrator explicitly refers to darkness as being the dominant mode of his brother's way of living towards the beginning of the story after he reads about his brother's arrest in the paper. Consider the following description that we are given of the younger generation and the way that they are living lives "filled with rage":

All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to other darkness, and in which they now, vinditctively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone.

The narrator thus himself defines Sonny as living a life of darkness, but he himself realises how this darkness is something that he himself has experienced and continues to experience because of, for example, the death of his child. It is therefore incredibly symbolic that at the end of the story, Sonny is shown to be playing his music, which gives relief from this darkness, in an "indigo light," showing the opposition between the two states of darkness and light.

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How are light and darkness used throughout "Sonny's Blues", particularly in relation to racial implications?

The images of light and dark begin in the first paragraph of “Sonny’s Blues,” with the swinging lights of the subway car contrasting with the darkness outside. The narrator’s own face appears “trapped in the darkness,” a significant image, even though anyone who looked at the window would see his or her face in the same position.

For the narrator’s students, “the darkness of their lives” is coupled with “the darkness of the movies.” The latter darkness presents a direct contrast between the Black students sitting passively in the dark and the predominantly white actors, brilliantly lit, on the screen. This contrast at the beginning of the story is balanced at the end by the fact that it is Sonny and his fellow black performers of the Blues who share the spotlight in the dimly lit club.

The musicians as well as the drug addicts of Harlem come out at night, and it is always clear that these people, the vast majority of whom are black, are out of place in the daylight. This is first remarked in the appearance of Sonny’s old friend:

The bright sun deadened his damp dark brown skin and it made his eyes look yellow and showed up the dirt in his kinked hair.

Although the first image in the subway contrasts the light inside with the darkness outside, as the story progresses it becomes clear that the dichotomy between light and dark is not so simple. Neither interior nor exterior spaces are consistently dark or light. Instead, the Black people in the story are driven to the dark spaces at the margins, never taking center stage under the spotlight until Sonny’s blues performance at the end.

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In "Sonny's Blues," how do images of light and darkness, and characters' dark skin affect the white world?

Most significantly, the images of darkness and light contain the symbolic meaning of the environment in which Sonny and the narrator have grown up.  For instance, in one flashback, the narrator recalls how the parents sat in the evening as the darness grows, as "every face looks darkening" and the "child moves a little closer to the darkness outside."  In another instance of flashback, the narrator recalls how the young boys live in two darknesses:

The darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness...

That other darkness is what Sonny lives in and feels--the darkness of drugs, and the "storm" that lies within him which he can only get out by playing the blues, and playing to those who truly listen.  The narrator finally understands Sonny as he sits in the dark corner of the nightclub:

For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.  There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.

In the denouement the narrator perceives the drink of Scotch and milk on top of Sonny's piano as glowing with light and shaking like the chalice of suffering that Sonny has experienced.  Finally, then, the narrator understands his darker side, who is Sonny.

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In "Sonny's Blues," how do images of light and darkness, and characters' dark skin affect the white world?

There are so many images of darkness and lightness in "Sonny's Blues." I think there are such images on every page in the story, and I will provide a few.  As to the effect of the characters' dark skin on the white world, there are not many explicit references to this in the story because, for the most part, the setting gives us African-American characters who are interacting in an African-American setting, Harlem.

In the very first paragraph of the story, while the narrator is going home on the subway, he refers to the "swinging lights" of the car and the faces of everyone "trapped in the darkness that roared outside" (20.)

In the third paragraph, the narrator refers to Sonny's face as "bright, and open, there was a lot of copper in it...(20.)

Moving along to a later section of the story, the scene the narrator describes in which he last saw his mother alive, he says, "the night is creeping up outside...," and speaks of "darkness growing against the windowpanes... (28).  He refers to "the darkness coming and the darkness in the faces...(28.)  Then the description shifts.  He says,

"In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light....And when light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. He knows that every time this happens he's moved just a little closer to that darkness outside (28-29).

In this passage, Baldwin is alluding to the darkness of the African-American world of that time and place, when the darkness of being African-American was certainly a consequence of the effect of the color of dark skin on the white world.

Another example of the effect of the color of the African-American on the white world, is the scene in which the narrator's mother describes how the narrator's uncle was run down and killed by a group of drunken white men, who surely would never have done this to a white man.

If you go through the story slowly, you will see references to lightness and darkness that may or may not be obvious to you because the words "light" or "dark" are not being used.  For example, Baldwin uses the word "indigo" (44), which is very deep, dark shade of blue.  Also notice what a nice touch this is, in keeping with the title of the story, which is about two kinds of "blues," music and sadness.

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