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Music and African-American Life in "Sonny's Blues"Essay

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James Baldwin, "Sonny's Blues"

James Baldwin's role as a public intellectual in the Civil Rights era cannot be understated. As an example, we might consider this particular anecdote, which is from Jon Wiener's 1988 interview with the novelist Gore Vidal, who was related to Jacqueline Kennedy and thus spent time with President John F. Kennedy:

JW: What is the joke that you heard Kennedy telling about James Baldwin?

GV: He called Jimmy Baldwin "Martin Luther Queen." He thought that was wildly funny. That's very Kennedy. The worst epithet that the Kennedys had for a man was that he's a "woman." (Vidal 109)

It is worth noting first that, like James Baldwin, Vidal was gay and out of the closet even in the pre-Stonewall era: therefore Vidal is not endorsing this homophobic joke about James Baldwin by the President of the United States, he is merely reporting it. But let us consider the full import of the anecdote -- besides the dark shadow it casts on President Kennedy, it also informs us that even JFK knew who James Baldwin was, and was aware of his opinions and indeed his politics. Baldwin was in a very important sense a Civil Rights activist, but he did so by being a writer. By being both gay and African-American in the nineteen-fifties, Baldwin was, in some sense, the ultimate outsider. Yet it is worth noting that he used even his novels to advance Civil Rights causes: Baldwin's 1956 novel Giovanni's Room was a scandal upon its initial publication due to its frank treatment about the lives of gay men in a decade when homosexuality in the United States was still largely illegal and was regarded by psychiatrists as being a mental illness. Interestingly Giovanni's Room is a novel without any black characters: Baldwin seems to have consciously approached the novel in terms of the central issue of homosexuality in a way that allowed him to escape from the issue of race. But obviously Giovanni's Room provided the reason that President John F. Kennedy would know details about James Baldwin's homosexuality in the early 1960s, although it was Baldwin's political writings that made him a genuine voice that Kennedy was obliged to listen to. Baldwin's book on race in America The Fire Next Time was initially published in its entirety by the New Yorker magazine during Kennedy's presidency -- giving the entire book a wide readership among the opinion-making classes in America. However to a certain degree Baldwin was able to liberate his own voice, and find a way to be articulate about the painful and difficult social problem of race in America, by being so profoundly on the margins: by being both black and gay in the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties, Baldwin was necessarily marginalized, and like other African-American artists before him (such as Richard Wright, whose work Baldwin took very seriously even when he disagreed with it artistically, or Josephine Baker) Baldwin ultimately expatriated himself to France for many years -- as though he needed distance from America itself to compose himself and speak articulately about the problems, particularly racial and Civil Rights problems, of America. However, it is important to note that despite Baldwin's importance as a public intellectual, he considered himself to be primarily a writer of fiction -- so in considering Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues," which was first published in 1957 in the summer issue of the Partisan Review (a leftist political magazine originally founded by the Communist Party) it is important that we recognize the story for its artistry even as we can analyze its themes, which do have larger implications about the issue of race in America, or look for a political message in its tale of drug addiction and jazz music.

The unnamed narrator of "Sonny's Blues" -- let's call him Teacher -- is a schoolteacher. The story is therefore reflected through his consciousness, which is a refined one: Teacher speaks with grammatical correctness at all times, which contrasts with other characters like Sonny's heroin addict friend, who drops words like "ain't." And basically all the story consists of is Teacher's reflections about Sonny, his career as a jazz musician, and his drug abuse. We should probably note that Teacher's reflections about Sonny might also be interpreted as a sort of cultural commentary about the late nineteen-fifties: the story mentions by name Charlie "Bird" Parker, the legendary jazz saxophonist, as being a musical idol of Sonny's. It was common knowledge in the nineteen-fifties that Charlie Parker was a heroin addict, as were numerous other jazz performers of the era, both black (like Billie Holiday) and white (like Chet Baker), but in the case of several high-profile black jazz performers like Parker and Holiday this heroin addiction was a matter of the public record when they were arrested -- indeed Johann Hari's recently-published study of the origins of the American War on Drugs notes that the prosecutions of Parker and Holiday for possession of heroin were a combination of publicity stunt and racial profiling, where the Federal Bureau of Narcotics promised Congress it would target not "the good musicians, but the jazz type" (Hari 1). This is important to "Sonny's Blues" because Baldwin's story is basically about an incident that is very similar to these legendary events in popular culture, when famous jazz musicians were arrested for heroin possession: Parker had just died as a result of his heroin and alcohol addictions in 1955 when Baldwin published "Sonny's Blues" in the Partisan Review two years later, so it is clear that he intends the reader to link the story with an actual pop-culture tragedy that happened in real life. Likewise the story's climax entails Sonny being asked to play a Billie Holiday song, "Am I Blue," again linking his arrest for drugs to that of an actual jazz celebrity. Baldwin clearly expects the reader to understand Sonny in the context of these famous jazz musicians. But when Teacher receives the news in "Sonny's Blues" that his own brother has been arrested for heroin possession, he says nothing and does not attempt to contact his brother. Communication between the two is not re-established until later in the story, when his brother Sonny writes him a letter, chiding him for keeping his distance.

Instead Teacher measures the news against his pupils: "I was sure that the first time Sonny had ever had horse, he couldn't have been much older than these boys were now" (Baldwin 123). For Teacher, this particular age -- the moment when he thinks Sonny started using "horse" aka heroin -- is one where "boys…were growing up in a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities." (Baldwin 123). This is perhaps intended to give some hint as to Teacher's interpretation of Sonny's descent into heroin use, but it also puts into perspective the fact that if Sonny fooled Teacher, so might his students fool him too, and thus the "boys…might, every one of them for all I knew, be popping off needles every time they went to the" bathroom (Baldwin 123). But Baldwin's idea of the low ceiling is, in fact, a metaphor for the restricted opportunities for African-Americans like Sonny during the Civil Rights era. Baldwin is far too wise, however, to offer a facile explanation for why people might use heroin, but since Teacher is narrating this story, we must instead note that Teacher essentially equates heroin addiction with suicide. Indeed Teacher will immediately encounter Sonny's addict friend outside the school, and makes this explicit when he asks the friend about Sonny "Tell me…why does he want to die? He must want to die, he's killing himself why does he want to die?" (Baldwin 126). However the metaphor of the low ceiling is the other vague explanation that occurs to Teacher as to what might be happening to a boy at the age when Sonny first tried heroin, and the description of the "quicksilver barmaid" also presents us with essentially a version of the same idea behind the low ceiling imagery. As the barmaid dances to some "black and bouncy" popular music, she smiles, and Teacher notes that "when she smiled one saw the little girl, one sensed the doomed, still-struggling woman beneath the battered face of the semi-whore" (Baldwin 125). Both poverty and possible addiction -- she works serving alcohol, although Baldwin does not tell us if her face is "battered" by alcoholism or by men -- have blighted the barmaid's life, but when she was a little girl and had not yet encountered the "low ceiling" that teenage boys also discover, she had a capacity for joy and optimism that are only now recaptured when she experiences music. This offers a foreshadowing of Teacher's ultimate reckoning in the story with the importance of music in his brother's life. But at this point it is merely a profound understanding of the barmaid's predicament, and a statement of the function and value of African-American secular culture.

Yet the barmaid's… [END OF PREVIEW]

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