James Baldwin is one of the greatest writers of the Civil Rights era. His words are like beautiful lyrics that attract readers from all walks of life. He knows how to choose the right words to describe a complex problem. He paints an image with a few strokes, and he does not need to write down several paragraphs to explain his point. In just a few words he can describe the issue at hand. For example, he described the socio-economic issues surrounding his little community with only a few words.
Consider the following line: “their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (Baldwin 123). There was no need to say more, as the reader immediately understands the kind of economic and social struggles teenagers are contending on a regular basis. His writing style is truly a marvel. Therefore, it is hard to analyze what was written.
The reader wants to go along with the ride, eager to know the end of the story. However, a closer examination of the story will reveal that this is a modern version of the story of the prodigal son who came back to save his older brother.
The fact that Sonny was the black sheep of the family was obvious even in the story’s opening paragraphs. He fits the usual image of the prodigal son, because he was the youngest child and he was carefree. He stands in stark contrast to his older brother, because he was the born leader.
In the beginning of the story the readers were told that law enforcement officers apprehended Sonny because of his drug habit. He was locked up, but the older brother knew about his circumstances through a common acquaintance. The older brother learned that Sonny had to go through a certain type of rehabilitation process. It was also the same person that prepared the reader to the eventual return of the prodigal son.
The story unfolded without giving any clue that the black sheep of the family, the drug addict, and the less successful brother was the one who will someday liberate the older brother from bondage. However, this message was not clear to those who were reading the story. All eyes were focused on the sins of Sonny. Conventional criticisms of the story echo the same reaction. All eyes bored down on the sins of Sonny. The following is a typical reaction from literary experts:
Like the sinners in the book of Isaiah, Sonny had sinned; he has, indeed, drunk from the cup of trembling. And like the people of Jerusalem in the Old Testament story, Sonny has suffered God’s fury, but is now free from affliction. The glowing glass on the piano above Sonny, his personal cup of trembling, has become, in effect, a shining halo above Sonny’s head; his sinning and suffering and redemption, in some way, have sainted Sonny (Tackach 117)
Once again the discussion goes back to the original assertion that Sonny was the prodigal son who eventually became the savior of his older brother. As mentioned earlier, Sonny’s future role in the life of his older brother was not obvious. It is because of statements like the following: “Yet, when he smiled, when we shook hands, the baby brother I’d never known looked out from the depths of his private life, like an animal waiting to be coaxed into the light” (Baldwin 127).
In this statement, Sonny was depicted as a scared animal. This is not the typical quality of a knight in shining armor. A rescue expert is someone who is courageous. A savior is someone who is confident to rescue people from a burning building. But self-confidence was not a major attribute of Sonny. Therefore, the readers are waiting for the older brother to step in, and save Sonny from a drug-crazed life.
In the early stages of the story’s development no one will suspect that Sonny’s absence, and his tough experience in the rehabilitation center made him wise beyond his years. But at the start, the only wise person in the room it seems was his older brother. The readers are made to believe that Sonny had nothing substantial to offer.
His youth was his problem, because his older brother was far advanced in terms of experience as a teacher and family man. Statements like the following created significant contrast between the two men. His older brother said, “The seven years’ difference in our ages lay between us like a chasm: I wondered if these years would ever operate between us as a bridge” (Baldwin 128). The seven-year gap seems an insurmountable challenge to overcome. It seems that Sonny was no match to his older brother when it comes to wisdom and maturity.
Although Sonny was seven years younger than his older brother, he was wise beyond his years, because of his dreadful experience in the rehabilitation center. He also matured because of his music.
His ability to play the piano is not only because of an inborn talent. It is also because he had this inner sensitivity, and the ability to see the world using a different set of lenses. It is this gift that enabled him to penetrate the high walls of pride and self-sufficiency that his older brother had created in order to survive in a world full of chaos and tragedies.
Sonny’s advantage was his ability to use music to cut through the lies, hate, and hypocrisy. Music is an important component of Sonny’s story. It was a powerful force that will transform his older brother’s outlook in life. Baldwin prepared the audience for the unveiling of Sonny’s power to transform and heal through his music.
However, this power to change lives was not obvious in the beginning of the story. The reader’s reaction mirrors the reaction of the older brother whenever he is confronted by something that he is not ready to embrace and understand.
The older brother seems to project the image of a person who looks down on others, especially African Americans who were unable to triumph over the evils in their society. It does not mean that he does not appreciate music, however, his idea of acceptable musicianship is classical music.
The rest are poor copies of the genuine article. This was made clear when he had a hard time appreciating the skill of a young man who had an extraordinary talent when it comes to whistling tunes. The older brother described the experience through the following statements:
One boy was whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple, it seemed to be pouring out of him as though he were a bird, and it sounded very cool and moving through all that harsh, bright air, only just holding its own through all those other sounds (Baldwin 123)
At this point Baldwin attempts to prepare the readers to the power of music. However, it was not yet clear how it could create a significant difference in the lives of the main characters. The older brother had no clue that Sonny’s power lies in his music. This was made clear when he saw a young black woman dancing to the music coming from a jukebox, and the older brother exclaimed:
And I watched her face as she laughingly responded to something someone said to her, still keeping time to the music. When she smiled one saw the little girl one sensed the doomed, still-struggling woman beneath the battered face of the semi-whore (Baldwin 125).
The older brother was quick to judge the woman as a semi-whore. His judgmental attitude was darkened by the music that was played in the background. His stereotypes blinded him to the beauty that was around him. Finally, Sonny was strong enough to confront the older brother. The conversation they had before they went to the bar was the start of the healing process. For the first time, the older brother realized that he did something wrong. Consider the following conversation between the two brothers:
But we just agreed, I said, that there’s no way to suffer. Isn’t it better, then, just to – take it? But nobody just takes it, Sonny cried, that’s what I’m telling you! Everybody tries not to. You’re just hung up on the way some people try – it’s not your way (Baldwin 143).
The older brother was unable to speak after the said conversation. He realized that he looked down on other people. He believed that his way was the only way. He realized that Sonny was correct when he rebuked him about his narrow view about life. When he admitted his failure to accept Sonny’s view about life, the older brother began to realize other things.
The older brother was able to make the admission: “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or her corroborated, are personal; private vanishing evocations” (Baldwin 146).
When the older brother opened his heart and his mind, he was able to hear the salvation message coming from Sonny’s piano (Byerman 369). He was able to forgive himself (Murray 356). He was able to let go of his daughter who died because of a terrible sickness. He is now ready to become a good father, and he is now ready to bring happiness back into his family. He is now able to make his wife smile once again.
In the beginning, Sonny’s role as the prodigal son turned savior was not clear to the readers. Sonny was seen as the black sheep of the family. He was the sinner and the older brother was the righteous one.
However, it became clear at the end that the older brother desperately needed help. Nevertheless, he received assistance from an unlikely source. Sonny made him understand why he was suffering. He was suffering because he could not accept other people’s behavior, especially the way they deal with suffering. When he realized his mistakes he was free and he was saved.
Baldwin, J. Sonny’s Blues. New York: Klett Sprachen, 2009. Print.
Byerman, K. “Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity in Sonny’s Blues.” Studies in Short Fiction 14.4 (1977): 367-372. Print.
Murray, D. “James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues: Complicated and Simple.” Partisan Review 24.3 (1957): 327-358. Print.
Tackach, J. “The Biblical Foundation of James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues.” The Renaissance Journal 59.2 (2007): 109-117. Print.