As an African American writer involved in the Civil Rights Movement, James Baldwin was primarily concerned with the discrimination against the African American community and used one of the most influential tools of all times – literature – to carry his political message. In his short story Sonny’s Blues, James Baldwin uses drugs and jazz music as both literal concepts and metaphorical images to portray the suffering of African Americans and the ways to overcome this suffering. The author uses the love and conflict between Sonny and his brother, Sonny’s conflict with the law, and his relationship with Creole to deliver this message.
The Love and Conflict Between the Brothers
One of the ways, which J. Baldwin uses to deliver his message about the suffering of African Americans and music and drugs as the two different means to overcome this suffering, is the depiction of the relationship and conflicts between the two brothers, the narrator and Sonny. It can be clearly seen in the story that the brothers live in a disadvantaged community: the inhabitants of Harlem are financially unstable, often addicted to drugs or are in a conflict with the law in some other way, frustrated with their way of living, and see no exit from such a life but death. Nevertheless, the dwellers of the neighborhood try to help each other, treasure family values, and donate to the church. Thus, the author presents the two ways of coping with hard circumstances: a negative one (drugs) and a positive one. This duality is reflected in the relationship between Sonny and his brother. At first, Sonny seems to have selected the negative way (doing drugs, not going to school), which triggers a serious conflict with his brother. However, expressing himself in playing jazz is another way, and Sonny is supported on this way by his brother. Therefore, J. Baldwin manages to demonstrate a broad, significant social issue through the description of the relationship and conflict between two individuals.
Conflict with the Law
Another way, in which conflicts in the story are used to deliver the message from the author to his readers, is the depiction of the conflict between Sonny and the official law. It can be considered that this motif should be understood not only literally but also figuratively. Sonny is physically locked in prison while the African American community is trapped in the “prison” of poverty, lack of education, and the contempt and neglect of the official law and the political system. J. Baldwin allows a reader to sense the feeling of being trapped, with all frustration and desperation that it brings. The duality of the ways to overcome suffering (drugs and jazz) can be noticed here as well. Sonny is trapped in Harlem, with all its horrors and disadvantages, and starts doing drugs to escape from this kind of life. Taking the negative way to deal with suffering brings him no good. However, having taken the positive way (playing jazz), Sonny truly escapes from Harlem, both physically and emotionally, and becomes freer than his brother, despite the clean criminal record and a respectable job position of the latter. Even though it is not a full release – Sonny is still poor and discriminated against – such an ending promises a bright future to the African American community, given that they choose the right way.
The Relationship with Creole
The third means of delivering the message in Sonny’s Blues is the portrayal of the relationship between Sonny and Creole. It can be stated that his role in the story is much more than a father figure for Sonny. Firstly, along with other habitués of the club, Creole makes the narrator understand that he is in the “Sonny’s world” now. Secondly, Creole and Sonny have some kind of a music conversation: not only does Creole replace the lost father for Sonny, but he also speaks the language that Sonny comprehends – music. Thirdly and the most importantly, it is Creole who tells Sonny to stop holding back and urges him to let himself play freely. Creole helps Sonny to comprehend himself clearly, get a sense of belonging, and find a way of expressing himself. Thus, Creole is supporting Sonny on his way of gaining redemption through music. Having introduced Creole, J. Baldwin received a means to demonstrate the progress, which Sunny has made on his way of overcoming the suffering. The fact that Sonny needs his advice and support while playing the first set but plays freely and openly during the second one can be understood as a metaphor. Sonny has found his right way to overcome suffering; initially, he needs some aid on the way, but then he can do it by himself.
Sonny’s Blues does a perfect work to transmit a reader to the postwar New York.
Being a Civil Rights activist, James Baldwin used literary tools skillfully to make a reader take the suffering of the African American community to heart. Along with political protest, such literary works as Sonny’s Blues have definitely contributed to the achievements of the Civil Rights movement.