Misery, Music and Redemption in Sonny's Blues
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“Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin was the centre of much debate in the 70’s when America was rising from the ashes of racism but was still held quite firmly in its grip. The setting of the story is in Harlem, USA which was the centre of the black community and was referred to as the ghetto. James Baldwin has described Harlem in many ways, each being affected by his own experiences when he lived there.
The various themes used in the short story reflected not only the observations made by Baldwin in his early years but also the events that took place in his life and the manner that he was affected by them. The recurring theme of the story is that of perpetual torment and darkness.
The story revolves around two brothers and their struggles which stem from a difficult childhood in Harlem and the strained relationship that they have with each other. The story begins from the scene where the narrator (i.e. the older brother) reads news of the younger brother’s arrest for drug abuse (Baldwin 1). The older brother starts to worry and fear for Sonny. As Baldwin said, “I couldn’t believe it: but what I mean by this is that I couldn’t find any room for it anywhere inside me. I had kept it outside me for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to know.”
The narrator feared that he himself had failed as an older brother in the duty of protecting Sonny which had been bestowed upon him by his deceased mother.
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The two brothers having broken ties come back to terms when the narrator contacts Sonny after the death of his daughter. It is in Sonny’s reply that he realizes how absent he had been in Sonny’s time of need. The narrator who isn’t named throughout the story seems to cover his own failures and struggles with that of Sonny’s and it is with their return to Harlem that he too comes to terms with the events of his childhood and not only those of Sonny. The age gap of seven years that he seems to recognize at first seems to fade when he realizes how similar their experiences had been and how ignorant to Sonny’s situation he had been.
Baldwin said:”… as I covertly studied Sonny’s face, it came to me that what we both were seeking through our separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind”.
The story continues to highlight the internal struggles of the two brothers and the major role played by music in the redemption of Sonny’s soul. This redemption is shown in the final performance of the story when Sonny gets on stage and opens his heart to his brother through music. The story also highlights the communication gaps that arise between strained relationships and the importance of speaking them out or venting them.
“For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard”.
The recurring theme in many of Baldwin’s stories was that of the search for one’s identity and the internal battles on the way to finding it (Reilly 56). “Sonny’s Blues” not only tackles the identity of Sonny but also that of the Black community and Harlem. The transition of the country from being chronically racist to tolerant has been lightly touched along with the stagnant state of Harlem. Baldwin describes the state of Harlem’s transition as oly physical. The jutting buildings and architectural developments taken place have been described as a “parody of the good, clean, faceless life”.
The universal state of being, as explained by Baldwi,n is that of continual torment and misery. Is it really possible to redeem one’s soul and identity through jazz music? How much of a bearing did Baldwin’s own experiences have on the depiction of Harlem in the story?
Black literature has had varied roles in what constitutes the body of American letters; however, outweighed that of the testimony, from the initial to the narrative songs later.
Sonny’s Blues: A Search for Identity
The existentialist state of being in constant misery as explained by Baldwin, especially characterized by the experiences of the two main characters in Harlem has been the centre of much debate. Baldwin explains Harlem as a trap which was impossible to escape and those who thought they had escaped were mistaken. This is shown when Sonny joins the navy in an attempt to escape from Harlem but upon his return he found that not only was Harlem unchanged but the opportunities of obtaining Heroin were also still there and that there never really was an escape from Harlem because it had become a part of their being. Baldwin tries to put forward a universal state of being of the people through the journey of the two characters. Baldwin explains the perpetual state of torment as part of a journey which must be undertaken by every individual in the search for their identity. In order to undergo that journey one must understand his/her losses, where he/she has been before and where he/she has been led. This journey of suffering is what leads to the acquisition of wisdom.
“But I can’t forget – where I’ve been. I don’t mean just the physical place I’ve been, I mean where I’ve been. And what I’ve been” (Baldwin 33).
Redemption through Music
Jazz music has played a significant role in Sonny’s life and is symbolic as a mean of communication in the story. Since his early years after his mother’s death Sonny has been looking for a way to communicate with his brother but encounters with a barrier and doesn’t know how to get his feelings across. Sonny is shown to be a private being who can only express himself through his music. When the older brother leaves for the army, Sonny plays the piano in earnestness.
“I sensed, from so many thousands of miles away, that Sonny was at that piano playing for his life”.
The significance of Jazz in this story is that Sonny wants to play Jazz which is not classical but new. The Jazz signified in this story is worldly and common rather than elitist. This allows Sonny to become one entity with the music that he understands and knows (Reilly 59). The music is like him, is affected by the feelings that inflluence the musician. It is through this artful expression of his music that a soul can be redeemed and even though the journey does not end, the suffering dims. The story of suffering is not a new story but rather the story of every being in the universe. Similar to the music, it is filled with the pains of one’s heart and tells the story of the musician’s life. When explaining the blues Baldwin (38) said, “They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to fiind new ways to make us listen.”
This shows that other than the need for expression of one’s sorrow the most important thing for the sufferer is to be heard. Baldwin believed that music had not only redeemed Sonny but many others in the black community as shown in the final scene when all came together under Creole as he showed them the way to express themselves through music and to tell their stories collectively. Another example was the roadside band which Sonny was listening to. Sonny exclaims later on in the story.
“While I was downstairs before, on my way here, listening to that woman sings, it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through – to sing like that. It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much”.
Sonny had heard her story through her music and had recognized the suffering that she had gone through. The singer signifies the rest of the black community and how the collective community also had found music to be their savior.
Baldwin has been rather unforgiving in his descriptions of Harlem in the story. He refers to it continually as a trap and the need for escape from the place. These feelings expressed by Baldwin in “Sonny’s Blues” stemmed from his own experiences as he was born and raised in Harlem. When Baldwin wrote “Sonny’s Blues” he was living in France and made several quick visits from Paris to Harlem. It was these visits that were resonated in the drive to the narrator’s house in the story and his reflections on the neighborhood (Boyd 132). Perhaps Baldwin believed that he too had escaped the darkness of Harlem by moving to France but was still in doubt about whether he had truly escaped or not. The amputated part which remains behind as mentioned in the story was also significant of Baldwin’s own feelings towards the place. The two characters in the story signify two parts of Baldwin’s personality. One was the narrator who seemed to have escaped from Harlem but was in doubt and the other Sonny who was still stuck in Harlem and was sure that he would never be able to escape the phantoms of his past. Baldwin was met with criticism by Harlem newspapers which were outraged at their negative portrayal. Baldwin retaliated by saying that anyone who didn’t see Harlem as he saw it was self-delude.
Sonny’s tale of misery and redemption signifies such feelings of all individuals. Baldwin claims that everyone is fighting an internal battle which is the journey to finding one’s self. Even though Baldwin’s claim of the search for one’s identity may be agreeable one cannot imagine it to be as miserable as depicted by him. Man may be in a state of suffering but that suffering may not be constant or significant to that of every individual. Baldwin’s piece is a beautiful depiction of the state of the black community in USA in the 70s and has been lauded as one of the greatest pieces of black literature. The part played by music, especially jazz which was popular within the black community at that time has been glorified more than just music. It has been explained as a savior when all other methods fail. Baldwin tries to explain how one’s whole life can be breathed into music. Music reigns in places where words simply fail.
Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others.