Essay: james baldwin sonnys blues story

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[. . .] 37). Similarly, the father had “heard the wood of the guitar” when his brother died, having been run over deliberately by a car full of white men taking amusement in their killing (Baldwin, 1957, p. 29). When Sonny practices the piano at Isabelle’s parents’ house, they experience it as “torture,” (Baldwin, 1957, p. 36). Sonny also recognizes that the singing at the revival meeting comes from a place of suffering, must come from that dark place, but that it is somewhat “repulsive” that is the truth (Baldwin, 1957, p. 41).

As much as music is linked to suffering, music also holds the keys to salvation and human connection. Music drives Sonny to live his life to its fullest potential, in spite of his emotional struggles and his addiction. It is the only thing Sonny wants to do, and it is a matter of “life or death” for him (Baldwin, 1957, p. 36). The first time the narrator notices the way his brother walks, he sees in his step a musicality, a rhythm that gives him life. The narrator also notices how “the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them,” referring to how the revival singers would just be ordinary bitter, cynical folk were it not for the music that gave their souls expression (Baldwin, 1957, p. 39). At the end of “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator experiences first hand the transformative power of music by sitting in on one of his brother’s jams. Baldwin spends several pages of his short story describing the effect the music has on the narrator, who recognizes the way music is a conversation without words, a pure dialogue of the soul. Music is that which is true and meaningful in life: capturing its innate chiaroscuro, its natural moral ambiguity, and the joy that can punctuate the inevitability of suffering. Compared with his conservative brother, Sonny recognizes more the reality of moral ambiguity. American society hides dark secrets beneath its veneer of freedom and liberty. Music as powerful as jazz and blues cannot be made in the absence of suffering, for it is the emotional content of the songs that make them truly universal and able to touch the souls of all who listen.

The narrator’s frequent flashbacks underscore the way the past affects the present and future, particularly by showing that Sonny was a lot like his father. “Sonny was the apple of his father’s eye,” which caused his father to be “frightened for him,” and also to fight with him in order to protect him (Baldwin, 1957, p. 26). Since the dad died, the narrator has assumed the role of the father figure and acts mainly to protect Sonny but in an antagonistic way. Sonny craves support and understanding, not criticism and judgment. He seeks solace in the jazz community because he is among those who understand him. Sonny also shares with his father a need for personal privacy, which is why it takes so long for the narrator to penetrate his brother’s mysterious persona (Baldwin, 1957, p. 26). The narrator learns that music is the key to understanding Sonny, and that sitting quietly and listening to the music rather than continually passing judgment is the key to helping Sonny find his sense of inner peace with or without the drugs he has become dependent on to “keep from shaking to pieces,” (Baldwin, 1957, p. 40).

By commingling imagery of religious experience, music, and being high on drugs, Baldwin offers a transcendent and profound insight into the human experience generally, and into the African American experience specifically. Baldwin also anchors his poignant insights with concrete, relatable, common life experiences including the grief over losing loved ones, the tension between siblings, the double consciousness of being Black in America, and the way drugs and drug abuse impact individuals and their families.

References

Albert, R.N. (1984). The jazz-blues motif in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” College Literature 11(2): 178-185.

Baldwin, J. (1957). Sonny’s blues. http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/wooda/2B-HUM/Readings/Baldwin-Sonnys-Blues.pdf

Reilly, J.M. (1970). “Sonny’s Blues”: James Baldwin’s image of black community. Negro American Literature Forum 4(2): 56-60. [END OF PREVIEW]

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