James Baldwin is a novelist, publicist, playwright, and human rights defender. Born to a priestly stepfather, he was the oldest of nine children. Baldwin never knew his father and partly suffered from it. Nevertheless, he followed in his stepfather’s way and helped him in the church until he graduated from high school. As the writer grew older, he became increasingly aware that his stepfather’s sermons were at odds with what was going on in the streets of Harlem and, more importantly, with his stepfather’s attitude at home. After graduating from high school in the Bronx, Baldwin moves to Greenwich Village, where his literary career begins. Having spent his childhood and youth in Harlem, one of the most disadvantaged areas of New York, Baldwin begins to write about his views and understanding of what is going on around him. His first pieces of journalism are imbued with a spirit of rejection of the racism that reigns around a young man; one such creation is the short story Sonny’s Blues. The author recounts the terrible plight of colored youth in Harlem, the exact Harlem with which Baldwin’s work and early years are associated.
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The first thing the reader may notice is the title of the book. The word “blues” in the title suggests that it will be a native Black jazz form, but this word in English also means sorrow, sadness, suffering (Johansson 21). This definition in the title is essential because the work itself is compositional in the canons of the blues and the improvisation combined with the sadness and complexities of life for young Harlem residents.
The main plotline is the relationship between the two brothers and their mental connection. The high school algebra teacher on whose behalf the narrative is told learns that his younger brother Sonny, a gentle, kind, sensitive boy, has been arrested for heroin use (Baldwin 123). The pain for his brother does not make the storyteller forget for a moment the dozens of other Black people, his students, the children of Harlem. Then Sonny gets out of the penal colony, and the brothers meet. The author interrupts the difficult first minutes of an unglued conversation with a story about the new buildings of Harlem, descriptions of which will frequently appear in the literary work.
The residents did not like the new buildings in Harlem: evictees from demolition districts moved to other houses, but all in the same ghetto. They rarely went back: in the interest of private companies, rents were much higher than before. And these new joyless houses were built there because Black people did not deserve to live in another neighborhood. For the author and his characters, Harlem is a sprite that entangles people and then spits them out, bleeding, broken, crippled, unhappy.
Harlem becomes one of the characters in this story, linking Sonny and his brother to identity and defining their relationship. Sonny invites the narrator to listen to him play the piano in a nightclub. The narrator accepts the invitation because he wants to understand his brother better. At the club, the narrator begins to appreciate Sonny’s music to respond to all his suffering. He also thinks about her students, what they will become in this town, what fate awaits them. As his students approach adulthood, they realize how limited their opportunities will be there in Harlem. Time goes on, and these streets don’t change – dirty, impoverished, full of hate and poverty. People, like hooked fish, twitch with the last of their strength, suffering for their lives. Each in a different way, but by exposing this pain – it will be the same for all of them.
Throughout the story, the author shows how Harlem shapes and mirrors the lives of Sonny and his family. This district is like a bad company that prompts one to do things that he will be ashamed of later, but he cannot climb out without loss. The narrator and Sonny are participants in such “company” and represent two different ways of responding to what is happening. Baldwin shows that past pain cannot be denied: it will always be there. However, it has to be accepted because a human should be ready to cope with all aspects of life: joy, sadness, and love. Sonny, for his part, is not looking for ways to accept. For him, the answer to suffering may lie in the darkness of Harlem, not in avoiding it. In breaking down the barriers between the two brothers, Baldwin shows that there is always hope and potential for healing in the advancing darkness of the past.
James Baldwin is undoubtedly the most famous African-American writer in the United States and one of the foremost American literary figures. In his works, he often returns to the image of his homeland, Harlem, which becomes the central theme of his career. Sonny’s Blues’ story is one of those that most vividly conveys the experience, the darkness, and hopelessness of life. Here one can see his artistic handwriting, his ability to blend in with his characters, and, at the same time, to stand beside the reader and observe them. In doing so, his characters’ pain is his pain, their grievances are his grievances, their joy is his joy. Instead of finding separate ways out of the darkness, the characters and the author improvise together, creating a new kind of light.
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Baldwin, James. Sonny’s blues. Ernst Klett Sprachen, 2009.
Johansson, Marie Seljehaug. An Investigation of Empathy in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” MS thesis. UiT Norges arktiske universitet, 2019.