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Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin Essay

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Updated: Jul 7th, 2020


The reading of James Baldwin’s short story Sonny’s Blues leaves few doubts as to the fact that one of story’s foremost motifs is light vs. darkness. In its turn, this can be explained by the particulars of author’s biography as someone who was brought up in the religious family, sublimated in Baldwin’s strive to provide a symbolical meaning to story’s semantic content.

Apparently, the references to darkness in Sonny’s Blues are meant to symbolize the essence of Sonny’s drug addiction; whereas, the references to light are meant to prompt readers to think of Sonny’s story of reconciliation with his brother in terms of Christian ‘redemption’.

Nevertheless, there is also another aspect to Baldwin’s utilization of earlier mentioned motif – author’s realization of the sheer unnaturalness of African-Americans’ low social status through fifties and sixties. By making continuous references to this particular motif, author wanted to expose the actual reason why these people often end up being underachievers. In my paper, I will aim to explore the soundness of this thesis at length.

Analytical part

Baldwin’s utilization of light vs. darkness motif starts at the very beginning of the story: “I stared… in the swinging lights of the subway car… and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside” (1). By saying that, narrator reflects upon his own deep-seated anxieties of someone who was born and raised in the ‘ghetto’. Apparently, even though he was able to gain social prominence as a teacher, narrator never forgot its own humble origins.

This is exactly the reason why, while watching Harlem’s Black boys in the midst of socializing with each other, narrator never ceases being aware of the nature of intellectual oppression, they have to deal with on daily basis: “These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then… All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives… and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness” (Baldwin 1).

The context of this particular referral to darkness, on the part of narrator, reveals the nature of African-Americans’ oppression as such that is not only being concerned with these people suffering from poverty but also from the fact that American mainstream Medias of the time used to portray such state of affairs as perfectly natural.

Hence, the symbolic sounding of narrator’s following remark, in regards to Sonny friend’s physical appearance: “The bright sun deadened his damp dark brown skin and it made his eyes look yellow and showed up the dirt in his kinked hair” (Baldwin 2) – apparently, narrator wanted to emphasize once again that, while being exposed to the ‘light’ of America’s racialist mass-culture, African-Americans simply could not avoid being degraded.

Nevertheless, given Baldwin’s strong sense of religiosity, it does not come as a particular surprise that the majority of narrator’s referrals to light connote positiveness, as these referrals symbolize the process of African-Americans gaining self-confidence. For example, while elaborating on how he felt when struggling with his drug-addiction, Sonny states: “I feel like a man who’s been trying to climb up out of some deep, real deep and funky hole and just saw the sun up there, outside” (Baldwin 5).

Yet, being rather a good psychologist, Baldwin was fully aware of the fact that the process of socially and racially underprivileged ghetto-residents striving to make the best out of their lives could never be too easy, as the very essence of racially secluded living in the ghetto predisposes people to succumb to depression: “Cab moved uptown through streets which seemed, with a rush, to darken with dark people” (Baldwin 7).

According to narrator, this is exactly the reason why it often proves impossible for ghetto-residents to attain social prominence through education – while trying to affiliate themselves with light, even the brightest kids from the ‘hood’ have no choice but to continue to exist in darkness, in allegorical sense of this word.

In its turn, this causes them to experience a certain cognitive dissonance – the harder they try to make the best of their lives; the more acute appear their inferiority-related anxieties: “When light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. He knows that every time this happens he’s moved just a little closer to that darkness outside” (Baldwin 9).

Thus, there are clearly defined humanist undertones to Sonny’s Blues, as the story that provides readers with the insight on why, despite having a potential to become society’s outstanding members, many African-Americans nevertheless end up descending to society’s ‘rock bottom’.


As it was implied in the Introduction, in order for the readers to be able to fully understand Baldwin story’s message, they need to be aware of the significance of light vs. darkness motif, deployed throughout story’s entirety.

The reason for this simple – the understanding of this motif’s implications, on the part of readers, is being quite indispensible within the context of them gaining an insight onto the very root of African-Americans’ clearly unprivileged social status. I believe that this conclusion is being fully consistent with paper’s initial thesis.


Baldwin, James. Sonny’s Blues. PDFCAST.Org. 1957. Web.

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IvyPanda. "Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin." July 7, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/sonnys-blues-2/.


IvyPanda. 2020. "Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin." July 7, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/sonnys-blues-2/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin'. 7 July.

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