Each of us wants to live a life where we feel fulfilled and joyous. A few of us accomplish this with seemingly little effort; others struggle on their journey through periods of self doubt, rejection, depression, or the blues. James Baldwin was no different; yet while he 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. In fact, 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.”
Putting emphasis on the individual is also a way to portray blacks as unique “members of a community with its own traditions and values,” according to Irving Howe in Dissent. In part, this emphasis stems from racial bias against blacks. It also stems, however, from the realization that with the Harlem Renaissance, the black”writer has come to appreciate the relevance of his own experience to a nation searching for its own sense of identity and purpose,” according to Bigsby. For these reasons, the times and community in which Baldwin grew up become important. They contributed to his need to find how “the specialness of [his] experience could be made to connect [him] to other people instead of dividing [him] from them.”
Baldwin’s early experiences became integral to his writings. The eldest of nine children, he was born in 1924 in Harlem to a preacher and his wife. At that time, Harlem was the country’s largest black community. It was home to many blacks who had come North to escape the severe repression of the Jim Crow laws in the South. According to Baldwin, Harlem was a “dreadful place… a kind of concentration camp,” where at the age of ten he was beaten by two police officers because of the color of his skin. It was also the place where his mother said no child would ever be safe. At the age of 24, Baldwin needed to get away from “the dehumanizing society of New York” to avoid becoming engulfed by “the fury of the color problem.” He accepted a literary prize that included a monetary stipend in 1948 and went to France to write.
Apparently the escape was worthwhile. Baldwin worked at finding the individual within himself after he had a breakdown and spent some recuperative time listening to the blues music of Bessie Smith. Within the next few years he produced the critically-acclaimed Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1953 and the controversial Giovanni’s Room in 1956. Although one of the reasons Baldwin had escaped to Europe was to avoid being categorized as a “Negro writer,” events occurring at this time in the United States made him think the time had come to accept the label. He saw the U.S. Supreme Court rule that segregation was illegal in the case of Brown vs. The Board of Education in 1954, and he also saw Rosa Parks arrested for not moving to the back of a bus a year after that. Then in 1957, he heard of the race riot in Arkansas that occurred after nine black students began attending an all-white school. As a member of an ethnic and cultural community that was experiencing rapid change, Baldwin felt obligated to return to the United States.
Baldwin published “Sonny’s Blues” the year he returned. The story contains evidence of the conflict Baldwin faced: between following an individual path and maintaining or renewing ethnic ties. According to John Reilly in James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays, “the discovery of identity is nowhere presented more successfully than in the short story of ‘Sonny’s Blues’.” The story concerns two estranged brothers and their quest to find fulfillment. Their relationship undergoes change as they tentatively reach an understanding and begin to talk with one another again.
“Sonny’s Blues” powerfully shows the growth of Sonny’s older brother, the narrator, who had responded to his racial status by fitting in with the status quo. The narrator is an algebra teacher in a New York high school. His success in assimilating into the white-dominated society separates him from his brother and a world that”filled everything, the people, the houses, the music, the dark, quicksilver barmaid, with the menace [that] was their reality.”
On the other hand, his younger brother Sonny lives outside of the accepted white society. Sonny is initially portrayed as the family failure, the kind of character that Baldwin so easily criticized in his early essay “The Protest Novel.” Rather than fulfilling himself by assimilating into the mainstream culture and following the American Dream, he chooses to immerse himself in the blues world and become a heroin addict. It is within this portrayal of how individuals react to and deal with their circumstances that we see Baldwin looking both at individual importance and ethnic renewal.
Baldwin weaves images and concepts from his past into the story. He writes of a neighborhood quite reminiscent of his own. The students in the story are “smothering in these houses, [coming] down into the streets for light and air and [finding] themselves encircled by danger.” The brothers’ parents consider their environment unsafe, but then too the father says,”Ain’t no place safe for kids, nor anybody.” Like Sonny, he also uses the blues—an African-American folk music genre that originated in the South—as a key metaphor. (Metaphors are devices used in writing to show how something totally unlike something else may in fact share similar characteristics.) In “Sonny’s Blues,” the blues become the instrument that, as one critic says, helps rebuild relationships, either of the self or with others. The relationship being repaired belongs to Sonny and the narrator. In Baldwin’s own life the blues were his mainstay during his breakdown. The music helped connect him to who he was. Thus, Baldwin uses the blues in this story to show us an individual’s road to fulfillment. As Howe says, however, it is also used to depict the “living culture of men and women … who share in the emotion and desires of common humanity .. . as evidence of [Black] worth … moral tenacity, and right to self-acceptance.” The music becomes, therefore, a device to explain individual fulfillment and extend it to identify a culture.
When Baldwin writes of the narrator’s students “living as we’d been living then, … growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities,” he reminds readers of the realities for American blacks in the 1950s. When he describes in detail the revival scene on the sidewalk, he demonstrates a tradition with value in that same community. At the end of the story, when both brothers are in the nightclub and Creole steps aside to let Sonny solo, the narrator overcomes his isolationist position and feels a sense of empathy and community with his brother. He allows himself re-entrance into his culture while he listens to what Sonny plays: “He began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. 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. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, James Baldwin, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
Jennifer Hicks, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.