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The Black Ghetto as a dominant element of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”

The Black Ghetto as a dominant element of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”

In James Baldwin’s short story called “Sonny’s Blues,” through different tastes in music, lifestyles, occupations and life philosophies, the narrator and his younger brother Sonny represent the two opposite parts of the African-American community in the 1950s, before the Civil Rights Movement had any significant achievements in the social life. Thus, while the protagonist may be easy to understand for most readers as the bearer of white community’s values, Sonny is more enigmatic both for his brother and the reader. The personalities of the characters, as well as the main ideas of the Baldwin’s work are emphasized by some particular details. Indeed, Baldwin’s short story uses setting as a powerful tool for conveying certain messages to the reader.

The setting of the story depicts a middle class African-American family living in Harlem, which tells a lot about the position black people occupied in the middle of the XX century, despite their accomplishments such as stable respectable jobs and army service. The two brothers react differently to segregation and racial discrimination: while the elder brother accepts the values of the respectable middle class, the younger one refuses from the imposed ideas. In this case, understanding of the setting is crucial; without it, the reader might hook up with conventional mores of the protagonist and have trouble understanding the underpinning for Sonny’s blues and its consequences, such as drug addiction. Baldwin’s accurate depiction of Harlem, the blues music, and the young brother’s surroundings give insights into Sonny’s worldview, and eventually his brother, as well as the reader, has an opportunity to understand him better.

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In the story, the author gives a truthful depiction of what limitation racial discrimination has imposed on people of African-American origin. Thus, in the beginning, Baldwin writes, “[children’s] heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (42). Not having the same conditions as white people, young African-Americans had to put up with their artificially limited possibilities in life. They could not live where they chose, they could not study what they wanted, and they could not work the way they wanted. The paradox of life for African-Americans in the 1950s is condensed in the following description of the narrator and Sonny’s environment: “Vivid, killing streets of [their] childhood” (Baldwin 42). Juxtaposing the two opposite adjectives, the author emphasizes how conflicting life felt for African-Americans at that period. Although African-American children are as cheerful and full of life as other children, their lives are limited by segregation and racial discrimination.

In his explanation of the way African-Americans felt at the time, Baldwing introduces the theme of darkness. The narrator recalls his family’s Sunday dinners, when all the relatives came over and he noticed how eventually “every face looks darkening, like the sky outside” (Baldwin 48). John M. Reilly explains that at this point in the story, Baldwin juxtaposes the darkness outside with the darkness on the faces to “identif[y] sources of his [icy dread]”, experienced by people under their social strain (Reilly 57). Both grown-ups and children felt some heaviness even if they did not voice it; it was impossible to conceal it. Furthermore, the mother more clearly outlines the darkness as a menace when she tells about their father’s young brother, who was hit-and-run by a car full of white people (Baldwin 50). Similarly to how this young man met his death under the wheel of a car full of white people under cover of night, many African-Americans were covered by the darkness of racial prejudice, which affected them in a negative way, often leading to death.

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As mentioned earlier, the two brothers represent different styles of African-Americans dealing with the racial situation in the country: while one accepts the status quo, another finds his own, less conventional way. The narrator adapts and assimilates to the pressure, accepting the values of the white middle class. He has got a stable job as an algebra teacher at a local school in Harlem and provides for his family. Through these settings, as well as his reactions to Sonny’s behavior, the protagonist reveals how conventional his values and opinions are. For example, when he describes how Sonny stayed with his wife’s family, the narrator assumes that it is “natural” not to understand Sonny’s infatuation with music and be tired of his constant playing: “the sound didn’t make any sense to her, didn’t make any sense to any of them – naturally” (Baldwin 54; italics mine). Furthermore, the narrator confirms his alliance with middle class conventions when he says, “people can’t always do exactly what they want to do” (Baldwin 52).

Comparing to the narrator’s, Sonny’s way to carry his everyday life is different. Kicking and thrashing against racial barriers, Sonny is unable to come to terms with ‘the glass ceiling,’ finding the only comfort in escaping: he takes drugs as a solace. Some people can bravely accept the hard realization of their social limitations, but Sonny was unable to do it, as his wild artistic soul refused to live without freedom. However, his conventionalist brother cannot embrace the complexity of Sonny’s soul and views drugs only as a means of destruction, unable to comprehend why Sony wants to kills himself. To this question, a stunned friend of Sonny replies: “He don’t want to die. He wants to live. Don’t nobody want to die, ever” (Baldwin 51). Later, Sonny explains that drugs help him stay alive against harsh life conditions and the narrator realizes that his assumptions about Sonny’s suicidal tendencies were not true. Trudier Harris explains, “Heroin to Sonny is just as addictive and potentially escapist as is the religion in which the women are vested. Both are crutches; both allow the “users” to transcend suffering and try to survive in this world” (107).

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When Sonny realizes the destructive effect of drugs on himself and his life, he finds another means of comforting and expressing himself, music. In the story, Baldwin places a special emphasis on blues and its role in lives of African-Americans. Through introducing various original styles of music, African-Americans were able to assert themselves amidst the very unfavorable social conditions. However, eventually some of their accomplishments merged with the white culture, as was the case with jazz. It explains why Sonny snaps at his brother’s presumption that his jazz is going to be like Louis Armstrong’s: at that period, Armstrong’s jazz had become ‘white’ and African Americans had found another musical form to assert their identity. According to Reilly, the blues and bebop “became an expression of a new self-awareness in the ghettos by a strategy of elaborate non-conformity” (57). As soon as the elder brother sees Sonny’s passion for blues and realizes what music is for Sonny, he gets a better understanding of his brother’s motifs and the way the black community copes with social difficulties. As blues make suffering its focal point and draws inspiration from it, that type of music should be viewed as crucially important for oppressed people as a way to assert their identity while the social circumstances rob this of this opportunity.
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The analysis of the setting portrayed in “Sonny’s Blues” is extremely important for a complete understanding of the story and the author’s attempt to show the ways the black community used to survive before the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. One the one side, the reader should understand how poisonous the influence of the environment of Harlem was on black people; one the other side, one should realize the invigorating power of the blues music as a means to console African-Americans and an opportunity for them to vent their frustration and anger. Without the reader’s awareness of the story setting, Sonny’s battle might look flat and one-dimensional.

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