Sonny's Blues by James Baldwin, 1965

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by James Baldwin, 1965

"Sonny's Blues," first published in 1957, was collected in James Baldwin's Going to Meet the Man in 1965. It is one of Baldwin's most skillfully crafted works of short fiction, and one of his most revealing. The story reflects his preoccupation with problems of identity—particularly racial identity—but examines those problems both in the context of the experience of the African American in the United States of the mid-twentieth century and in the more universal framework of human experience, regardless of time or place.

That larger context is suggested toward the end of the story as the two principal characters—Sonny, a blues musician, and his brother, a high school mathematics teacher seven years older than Sonny—watch a street revival meeting on Seventh Avenue in New York. Sonny associates the power of the street singer's hymn with the suffering she must have experienced. His brother (never identified by name) replies, "But there's no way not to suffer—is there, Sonny?" Sonny agrees, one of the few things the two brothers—separated by more than age—can agree upon.

The view that suffering and sorrow are inevitable is, of course, the tragic view of life. About the time he was writing this story Baldwin—recently returned to the United States from a decade of expatriotism in Europe—commented in Nobody Knows My Nameon what he calls the Old World vision, "a sense of the mysterious and inexorable limits of life, in a word, of tragedy." But he also asserts that the American artist has the task of fusing the vision of the Old World with that of the New World, "a sense of life's possibilities." And that's precisely what is happening in this story, for this is not a story of defeat but one in which the principal character, Sonny, finds hope and meaning in tragedy and inspires others to that view.

With a Hawthornean eye, Baldwin uses images of darkness throughout "Sonny's Blues" to suggest a certain feeling experienced by his characters. Young children are "filled with darkness" as they listen to their parents talk on Sunday afternoons of "the darkness outside." Teenagers, aware of "the low ceiling of their actual possibilities," begin to discover "the darkness of their lives" even as they seek escape from it in the darkness of movie theaters. The darkness of the road Sonny's uncle was killed on (struck by a car filled with white men) stays with Sonny's father for the rest of his life. The streets on which Sonny grew up seem to darken as he passes through them; they convey their mood to him.

The feeling experienced by these characters—all African American—is deep and heavy, akin to melancholy and depression, impossible to explain, just there. It's called the blues, a mental and emotional state arising from recognition of limitation imposed by racial barriers to opportunity.

One can try to escape the blues. The teenagers attempt to stifle the inner darkness in the fantasy world of the movies; the adults in the housing projects turn away from the windows that disclose the ominous shadows of the streets and watch television. Those who try to escape on the streets find themselves "encircled by disaster." In his adolescence Sonny succumbs to the streets and ends up hooked on dope and imprisoned. For Sonny's father and uncle, it was liquor. Both Sonny and his brother try to escape through military service. Sonny's brother believes his college education and respectable job as a teacher will eliminate the blues.

But Sonny and his brother need to learn that "there's no way not to suffer." The difference between them is that Sonny's brother decides submissively to "take it," and Sonny decides to "do something to give it meaning." That's when Sonny begins to play the piano, initially with enthusiasm, eventually with consuming passion. He takes no lessons. He plays from the soul. The improvisational rhythms he creates reflect the darkness in him. Through the power and beauty of Sonny's music, Baldwin reveals the intimate relationship between the blues as a state of mind and as a musical tradition in African American culture. Sonny has found a way not to escape the blues but to give it meaning. Moreover, as an artist he has found a way to transcend tragedy; he not only uses the blues as an outlet for feeling and as an expression of his states of mind, but he also shares and communicates those feelings and in the process makes his music into an affirmation of life.

While the story focuses mostly on Sonny's development as a blues musician and, through Sonny's music, on his brother's gradual acceptance of his African American identity, it also displays the many forms that expression of the blues takes in the lives of ordinary African Americans: a boy on the street whistling a tune that is "cool and moving" and "pouring out of him" is whistling the blues; a barmaid dances the blues to the music of a jukebox; the old folks talk the blues after Sunday dinner; Sonny's mother hums the blues as she murmurs an old church song; she verbalizes the blues in a moving account of the death of his uncle; the uncle played the blues on his guitar; Sonny's cool walk is an expression of the blues; even Sonny's brother whistles the blues to keep from crying after an altercation with Sonny.

At this point Sonny's brother is a brother in name only—he doesn't even know who Charlie Parker is. To become a true brother he must accept his heritage of suffering rather than attempt to escape from it. This he does in the concluding scene in a dimly lit nightclub on a dark street as he listens for the first time to Sonny playing the blues. In the music he hears he sees his mother's face and that of his little girl who died of polio. The powerful incantations of Sonny's art reach his soul, and for the first time he listens to the dark voice within. "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. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness."

—Joseph Flibbert