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African-American Duality of Identity:
Literary Criticism of the short story "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin
James Baldwin's face, with its piercing eyes and craggy forehead, is a frequently depicted image upon anthologies and volumes of African-American literature and criticism, particularly post-colonial criticism that emphasizes the alienated sense of self and national identity frequently experienced by Blacks in America during the 1960's when Baldwin wrote some of his greatest works, including the short story "Sonny's Blues." Baldwin was an African-American, a child of the Southern states of America, a homosexual, and also an expatriate from America. He lived a great deal of his life in France and Turkey and stated that he was happiest living away from America. Yet most of his works attempt to come to grips with the African-American experience.
All of these influences upon the author's identity can be seen in "Sonny's Blues." Most particularly, Baldwin's sense of postmodern alienation as an African-American, a homosexual, and a self-taught intellectual strikes the strongest chord throughout the short story. For all of Baldwin's multiplicities of identity were fundamentally 'other' or alien and estranged from the society in which he dwelt.
Of course, "Sonny's Blues" is a fictional work. James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" relates a tale of two brothers. But this sense of duality conveys Baldwin's own sense of inner duality, as an Black intellectual in a community denied full literacy and the expression of literature through the public stage and of a homosexual man in a hyper-masculine subculture of the African-American community of his day. Baldwin did not fit the conventional masculine Black stereotypes of his day in confirmation to ideals of heterosexual desire. The duality of the two brothers, the two main characters, mirrors Baldwin's own duality of inner nature as a Black homosexual man.
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." This statement indicates how as early as 1969, when Bigsby wrote, long before post-modernism became fashionable in academic circles of African-American study, there was a sense that Baldwin considered his own individual development as an author, and individual self-exploration for Black Americans was key to living a life of fulfillment and joy, in answer to racial crisis of national self-doubt.
True, as Baldwin 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 on a political level. Yet he never lost sight of the fact that his own individual self paralleled the struggles of his day. As he grew older, he grew more political and radicalized in his Black identity, but the early Baldwin in particular stressed understanding the estranged sense of self as well as expanding one's own political consciousness as key for young African-Americans.
In fact, according to the narrator himself, of "Sonny's Blues," the narrator is an African-American whom has become fairly assimilated into white society, much as Baldwin was to the extent that he had left his past, working class origins behind him and become the lover of white men, and become inculcated into the literary culture of his day. But even this individual, whom is actually more assimilated than Baldwin himself, still recognizes that his life is limited by racism.
The narrator looks upon his brother Sonny with a mix of pity, frustration, and a kind of admiration. Rather through seeking to master the language of a society and a culture that has attempted to oppress his people, Sonny has never even attempted to become assimilated. Instead, he has found his voice through jazz music, through the blues and through bebop. Through this Sonny "finds an outlet for the deep pain and suffering" that his status as permanent outsider to American society confers upon him as a Black man. At first, because Sonny channels his suffering into music, especially bebop jazz and the blues, forms developed by African-American musicians, it might seem as though Sonny is the 'superior' individual of the two brothers. However, neither brother, because both exist in a state of permanent estrangement from society, is really entirely happy with African-American life and their respective alienated statuses. To be an…[continue]
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