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“Sonny’s Blues” is a story written by James Baldwin, which focuses on two black brothers living in Harlem. The work was published in 1954, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, which makes race a central subject of the book. It is primarily focused on the life of black adults and adolescents in the mid-20th century. Through exploring the characters’ lives, the author reflects on the notions of drug use, hopelessness, and escape in the context of the black community.
Drugs are among the key topics discussed in work since the narrator’s brother, Sonny, has recently been arrested for using heroin. Kowalska explains that “Sonny’s Blues” explores the dynamics associated with drug use and offers readers an insight into the chosen subculture (1). The author shows that drug use among adolescents and young adults is a significant problem of the black community and that it stems from disrupted adolescence (Kowalska 2).
Indeed, the images of adolescents described by Baldwin stress their early maturity through negative behaviors, including swearing, smoking, alcohol use, and drug use. Early in the text, the narrator hears school students talking and laughing in the hallway and notes: “It was not the joyous laughter which – God knows why – one associate with children. It was mocking and insular, its intent was to denigrate” (Baldwin 18). These images of adolescence serve to highlight the damage brought on children by their environment.
The depiction of drug and substance use serves to emphasize the suffering experienced by black people in Harlem. This is evident because the discussion of drugs and alcohol in work is associated with themes of death, grief, and suicide (Kowalska 2).
When the narrator meets Sonny’s friend, who is also a drug addict, he mentions that “if [he] was smart, [he would] have reached for a pistol a long time ago” (Baldwin 20). Another instance of death and grief being associated with self-destructive behaviors can be seen when the narrator recalls his father’s brother’s death (Baldwin 29). These instances show both the causes and the effects of substance use in the community. On the one hand, people use drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with grim reality. On the other hand, drug and alcohol use creates more problems for them and supports the cycle of personal suffering that exists in the community.
The lack of opportunities for the future is also a prominent topic connected to disrupted adolescence and childhood. The fact that the narrator is a school teacher serves to emphasize this idea by placing him close to the young black population. Despite trying to teach adolescents, the narrator acknowledges that it is unlikely for them to find decent jobs and live a happy life in the future. Baldwin writes: “They were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (18). The context of the work is of particular importance here because, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prevented discrimination based on race and color, black people had limited work opportunities in the United States.
The history of slavery and segregation meant that it was usually impossible for them to become integrated into society, and they faced prejudice and discrimination in all aspects of life. For children and adolescents, this created a sense of hopelessness and desperation. They had a poor motivation to succeed in school because it would not have made a difference with regards to future opportunities, and Baldwin acknowledges it in his work (18).
The author also establishes that the lack of opportunity is real for all black people, regardless of how educated, kind, or good they are. This is particularly evident in Sonny’s image and the narrator’s discussion. Reilly explains that the narrator always believed his brother to be a “good kid,” and this thought made him think that there was nothing to worry about (231). After the news of his brother being arrested for using heroin, it is evident that the narrator’s thoughts were delusional and that being a good kid cannot pave the way to a brighter future for black adolescents. This part of the work is important because it creates a foundation for the author’s exploration of whether or not it is possible to escape the life experienced by Harlem’s black community.
Incidentally, the theme of escape is prominent in work, and it manifests itself in various ways, both obvious and obscure. The first time when the narrator mentions escape is when he passes by the streets of his childhood: “It must be said, perhaps, that I had escaped, after all, I was a school teacher” (Baldwin 24). Indeed, becoming a school teacher was an achievement for a black man in mid-20th century America.
However, the description of living conditions provided by the author alludes to the fact that the thought of escape for any black person is delusional. Baldwin writes, “it looks like a parody of the good, clean, faceless life – God knows the people who live in it do their best to make it a parody […] The big windows fool no one, they aren’t big enough to make space out of no space” (25). The narrator’s thoughts contradict his previous statement as if he is fooling himself by thinking that he could ever escape. Despite becoming a teacher, he is surrounded by the same issues, people, and houses as when he was a child. This reinforces the thought that academic and career achievements will not help one to escape from the reality faced by black people in Harlem.
Whether or not escape is possible at all is a question that arises at different points in “Sonny’s Blues,” and for every character, escape is different. Sonny’s friend that the narrator meets in the beginning views suicide and death as the only paths to escaping. His reality is hopeless, and it is evident from his words, “can’t much help old Sonny no more” (Baldwin 20). Age, drug use, and sociological situation create a parallel between this character and Sonny, which means that he also believes that there is nothing that can help him escape. Death is seen as a smart choice here because it would provide an escape from the suffering that the character has experienced.
Sonny’s story, on the other hand, offers a different answer to the question of escape. Sonny finds his escape in music, which helps him to overcome addiction and brighten up reality. Sherard confirms that for Sonny, music was the only means of surviving through the suffering that he experienced as part of the black community (692). It was similar for many other black people at the time, which is why blues is seen as a primarily African American music genre.
In a way, music helps Sonny to reconnect with the collective identity of black people in a positive way, thus ridding him of the drug addiction and allowing him to find meaning in life. Sherard states “Sonny’s Blues” incorporates Baldwin’s arguments on the necessity of African Americans’ awareness of their cultural norms and identities (693). Hence, while the narrator sees escape in living in the same circumstances and environments as white people, Sonny’s hope is in forming a strong positive connection with his culture.
Finally, it is critical to note that the narrator, too, finds hope and escape towards the end of the story, although not in the way that he would expect. Nelson shows that the narrator’s journey from ignorance to understanding and acceptance is what grants him escape in the end (28). It is true that at the beginning of the work, the narrator attempts to ignore and distance himself from the struggles faced by other members of the community.
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His ignorance was probably the main reason why he failed to maintain contact with his brother: he wanted to believe that as a good kid, Sonny would face no trouble. However, when he is confronted by the reality of his brother’s drug addiction, he is forced to accept it. As Nelson explains, the narrator’s journey to self-discovery is rooted in recognition of Sonny’s anguish and suffering (28). By reconnecting with his brother, the narrator also finds a way to accept reality, with both its positive and negative aspects. For him, acceptance is the key to escape, and the work confirms this idea.
All in all, the themes of drug use, hopelessness, and escape are prominent in Baldwin’s story. The issues explored by the author reflect his view of life in a black community and are primarily defined by the context of the work. Through portraying both positive and negative aspects of living in a black community, the author opposes the notion of hopelessness and allows both main characters to find an escape from their suffering.
Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Jazz Fiction Anthology, edited by Sasha Feinstein and David Rife, Indiana University Press, 2009, pp. 17-48.
Kowalska, Eva. “Troubled Reading: ‘Sonny’s Blues’ and Empathy.” Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, Comparative Linguistics and Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1-6.
Nelson, Emmanuel S. “James Baldwin’s Vision of Otherness and Community.” MELUS, vol. 10, no. 2, 1983, pp. 27-31.
Reilly, John M. “‘Sonny’s Blues’: James Baldwin’s Image of Black Community.” Critical Insights: James Baldwin, edited by Morris Dickstein, Salem Press, 2010, pp. 230-238.
Sherard, Tracey. “Sonny’s Bebop: Baldwin’s Blues Text as Intracultural Critique.” African American Review, vol. 32, no. 4, 1998, pp. 691-705.