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James Baldwin and "Sonny's Blues"
African-American James Baldwin (1924-1987) was born in Harlem in New York City, the son of a Pentecostal minister (Kennedy and Gioia 53). Much of Baldwin's work, which includes three novels and numerous short stories and essays, describes conflicts, dilemmas, obstacles, and choices faced by African-Americans in modern-day white-dominated society, and ways, good and bad, that African-Americans either surmount or fall victim to racial prejudices, stereotypes, temptations and inner conflicts. Baldwin's best-known work, the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1957) describes a single day in the lives of several members of a church in Harlem (Kennedy and Gioia). James Baldwin is also the author of two other novels, Giovanni's Room (1956) and Another Country (1962), both of which deal with homosexual experience, and a collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955) (Kennedy and Gioia).
In the short story "Sonny's Blues (1957), Baldwin's narrator is an unnamed high school algebra teacher, the guilt-laden older brother of the title character, Sonny, who is an accomplished blues pianist but also a heroin addict. As the story opens, the narrator has learned earlier that morning, from the newspaper, that Sonny was arrested last night for possessing and selling heroin. The news causes the narrator, as he leaves school for the day, to begin to recall his and Sonny's childhoods, teenage years, and young adulthoods, and also vividly reminds him of his own strong feelings, inculcated in him by their late mother, of brotherly responsibility toward Sonny. By the end of "Sonny's Blues" the narrator resolves some of his conflicts with Sonny when he goes, at Sonny's invitation, to hear him and other musicians play at a Harlem bar. There he sees not only the extent of Sonny's musical talent, but also, perhaps more importantly, that Sonny now has a new, much closer, "family" (his fellow musicians). Despite their mother's dying wish, the narrator sees he can no longer protect Sonny from his chosen musical profession, his heroin addiction, his choices in life, or himself. As Gina Vafiadis states:
At the end of the story they seem to find a common bond through Sonny's music. This is a bit ironic because never before did Sonny's brother ever have an interest for his music. At this last event all the pieces come together for both of them. For one, through the music all the pain that they had felt like the death of Grace and Sonny's addiction, came out. For once the narrator really gets into Sonny's world and in return
Sonny's brother comes to an understanding. Through Sonny playing the blues, the narrator comes to an understanding of what has happened in Sonny's life and his own. ("Response Paper to 'Sonny's Blues'")
It is my own opinion that in the end both brothers "win" to an extent, though neither "wins' absolutely or decisively (i.e., completely gets his own way). Perhaps Sonny "wins" more than the narrator: the older brother finally comes to terms, albeit uneasily, with the limitations of his influence on Sonny's career, habits, or lifestyle. For his part, Sonny receives his long-cherished wish to have his brother's acceptance, if not his blessing.
"Sonny's Blues" is set in Harlem in the late 1950's. The action, seen through the narrator's eyes, occurs throughout the brothers' lifetimes (together and apart), but particularly during the past few years. The exact time period from beginning to end, in terms of weeks, months, or years, is never clearly stated by the author. Through both chronological narration and flashback (but mostly flashback) we learn how the narrator has married, acquired a family, and become a teacher. Sonny, on the other hand, has quit school, joined the Navy, and then returned home to become an accomplished pianist but also a junkie. We then learn of the death of the narrator's two-year-old daughter from polio, and of how the narrator's grief creates renewed sympathy in him for Sonny's past and present difficulties. That in turn leads him to reach out once again to Sonny after as long estrangement. Near the end of the story the narrator realizes clearly, for the first time ever, his own distinct separateness from Sonny, his flesh and blood. He sits listening to Sonny play, and peering through the smoke-filled darkness of a Harlem piano bar, filled by now with the very essence of Sonny, his talent, and his music. A glass of scotch and milk he has ordered for Sonny sits precariously atop the piano, and as Sonny plays, the drink shakes "like the very cup of trembling" (Kennedy and Gioia 76). The biblical reference is perhaps a metaphor for how Sonny's addiction, represented symbolically by the drink which contains elements of both nourishment (milk) and destruction (alcohol, similar in its addictive properties to heroin) could tumble down on Sonny and his piano (i.e., his talent) at any time. At the same time, however, the narrator realizes at last that despite their mother's dying wish, he is not, and can never become, his brother's keeper.
Clearly, the "moral center" of the narrator, who is an extremely conventional character compared to his brother, is job, family, duty, and responsibility. He is a clean-living, law-abiding citizen whose life has not been marred, as his brother's has, by addiction or (more recently) conflict with the law. He had hoped to attract his younger brother to his same "moral center." When he cannot, however, that center becomes unbalanced until he finally realizes, even then reluctantly, that he has set himself an impossible task. Baldwin implies near the end of this story that the narrator's own "moral center" then rebalances itself, though it is likely destined to remain forever more precarious than before, for Sonny has opened his eyes to other possibilities of how to live and give one's life meaning.
In the final scene, as the narrator sits listening to Sonny play inside the darkened and smoke-filled bar:
. . . they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. . . . I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting.
. . . The world waited outside, hungry as a tiger, and . . .trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky (Kennedy and Gioia).
Initially the position the narrator takes vis-a-vis Sonny is that of an older, wiser, and arguably better person, who simply wants his wayward younger brother to see (ideally sooner rather than later, and when that does not happen, they grow estranged) the error of his ways. After his little daughter Gracie's death, however, the narrator understands loss in a way he has not understood it before, and yearns to reconnect with Sonny: "And I didn't write Sonny or send him anything for a long time. When I finally did, it was just after my little girl died . . ." (57). As Tracey Sherard concurs, "The narrator is only really able to listen [to Sonny's music] after the loss of his daughter . . ." (Sonny's Bebop 1). At that point, his position becomes one more of compromise. Near the conclusion of the story, he has slowly and painfully reached a position vis-a-vis his younger brother of understanding, acceptance, and even a measure of pride. Perhaps most importantly, he comes to terms with and accepts the vast differences between them in terms of values, priorities, talents, interests, desires, and outlook. That is the narrator's condition of possibility for letting his own long-standing guilt go, and for also rediscovering, by finally coming to appreciate his brother's music, long-forgotten parts of his own cultural identity as an African-American. As Thorell Tsmondo suggests, "thus, as his brother applauds Sonny's masterfully inventive…[continue]
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