Term Paper: African-American Duality of Identity: Literary

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[. . .] (enotes, 2004)

Sonny's Blues" was first published in 1957 and was collected in Baldwin's 1965 book, Going to Meet the Man. It is noteworthy that in addition to his considerable literary education, Baldwin became a street preacher early in his life, and religious themes appear throughout his writings. Thus, his experiences, although strongly grounded in the African-American experience do not entirely parallel the kinesthetic experiences of Sonny, or the rather nerdy narrator brother of "Sonny's Blues." When the tale begins, the narrator learns only from a newspaper that his younger brother, Sonny, has been arrested for dealing heroin. The narrator learns about his brother from book learning, rather than the street or real experiences because he has become so isolated from his community and its language.

Baldwin, in contrast, never dealt heroin but he 'dealt' religion upon the streets of Harlem and never received a formal education like the narrator, preferring to educate himself in literature and experience and world travel, particularly in Europe, where he said he felt somewhat freed from the oppressive notions of race, and having to come to grips with his racial identity in America.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the narrator is taking the subway to his high-school teaching job. At the end of the school day, he states that the laughter of his students reminds him of his youthful anger and the anger of his brother. Upon leaving the school, the narrator comes across an old friend of Sonny's standing at the gates of the school's playground. Through talking to this man, and listening to the language of blues in a nearby black bar, the narrator reconnects somewhat to his old brother, self, and memories of childhood. (Reilly, 1974)

Also in "Sonny's Blues," Baldwin uses the image from the book of Isaiah of the cup of trembling featured in that particular Biblical tale to symbolize the suffering and trouble that Sonny has experienced in his life. At the end of the story, while Sonny is playing the piano, Sonny's brother watches a barmaid bring a glass of Scotch and milk to the piano, which 'glowed and shook above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling.' As Sonny plays, the cup reminds his brother of all of the suffering that both he and Sonny have endured. His brother finally understands that it is through music that Sonny is able to turn his suffering into something worthwhile." (enotes, 2004) The redemptive narrative of religion is transposed, in "Sonny's Blues," onto the African-American experience. The two dueling brothers find harmony at the end of the tale, and thus create a sense of harmony between the author's dual senses of self.

James Baldwin grew up in the city's Harlem section, the center of black intellectual and cultural life in America although he eventually renounced the ministry and moved to Greenwich Village, where he met Richard Wright and many other important writers and artists of the time. Wright's tale of the African-American as an invisible man directly seems to parallel Sonny's experiences at the beginning of the story. At the beginning of the story, Sonny is an athletic star, a body rather than a mind, in the eyes of both himself and the world, and also his brother's eyes. By reconnecting with his schoolteacher brother, Sonny becomes complete. By becoming one with his brother's music rather than his brother as a name in a media outlet, another arrested Black man dealing heroin, the narrator momentarily becomes complete. By listening to the language of the blues both men feel a sense of harmony. However this sense of connectedness, of fused identity as bodies and minds in Baldwin's own sense of himself as a man and an African-American was to prove more elusive to the author than it was for the protagonists he created in "Sonny's Blues."

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues." Going to Meet the Man. 1965.

Bigsby, C.W.E, Introduction to The Black American Writer, Vol. 1, Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1969.

James Baldwin." Enotes website. Biography obtained at http://www.enotes.com/sonnys-blues/.August 15, 2004.

Reilly, John M., '"Sonny's Blues': James Baldwin's Image of Black Community," in James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Keith Kinnamon, Prentice-Hall, 1974. [END OF PREVIEW]

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