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    Embracing Heritage and Community in Sonny’s Blues, a Short Story by James Baldwin

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    In “Sonny’s Blues”, James Baldwin crafts a short story set in Harlem, a historically African American neighborhood in New York City. Despite the cultural revival known as the Harlem Renaissance, which emerged and bloomed in the 1920s, the neighborhood remained impoverished and demoralized in the temporal setting of when “Sonny’s Blues” takes place in the 1950s. The author’s birthplace and home for much of his young life, Harlem plays a significant position in the short story. Harlem is depicted as an “entrapment” on which the narrator and his bother both struggle to escape. The concept of “imprisonment” is set to display the “motif” in “Sonny’s Blues'”; not only is one brother physically jailed during the story but the narrator reiterates the word “trapped” when describing the brothers’ neighborho0d.

    The general displays of the story are the brothers being trapped in a ghetto crammed with anger. Visualizing the housing projects, they are described as “rocks in the middle of a boiling sea” (112), an apocalyptic description of the anger that overshadows Harlem. A pattern that symbolizes “anger” throughout the story explains: from the narrator’s students to a furious man at the street revival, to the narrator’s father. In one part of the story, Sonny wonders how the absolute state of pressure from all the “hate” doesn’t explode, tearing apart the neighborhood (135). However, “Sonny’s Blues” is not recounted by Sonny, but by his brother, the unnamed speaker/narrator. Overall, this story is not limited under terms of Sonny’s music but rather about how the idea of music leads to a rapprochement between two brothers who are at odds with each other. From the speaker or narrator’s perspective to tel the story, it allows readers to focus on the growing sense of brotherly love and not solely on Sonny alone. Using an unnamed character also allows the reader to place himself/herself in the narrator’s position to deeply connect on how we journey through the story.

    In the narrator’s state of nostalgia shifts back and forth in time as he is informed of Sonny’s locking up, reminisces extensively about their shared past, and then moves back into the present for the story’s turning point or climax. In all varying Scenarios, the reader’s sense of chronological time is disrupted by the way each event is naturally staged to be immediate or have a pressing response to it. The struggle the brother’s both face throughout their lives comes into relief, as does the tension that was built between them. Ultimately, music plays a tremendous and complex role in “Sonny’s Blues”. The most obvious, perhaps, is the allusion in the title which has a seemingly odd variance: Sonny is characterized as a jazz musician but not a blues musician; however, Baldwin’s understanding of the “blues” is much broader: the narrator explains that the blues are the stories “of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph” (139). Thus in playing jazz, Sonny is still playing the blues. Both blues and jazz are significant African American musical forms and sound that influences the story’s focus on community.

    With relevance and unity to the “musical” concept, Sonny is not the only character who uses the blues to express his feelings because James Baldwin’s perception of the blues formulates the same essential structure: it begins with a lost/anxious man, follows the two brothers growing together, and ends with a moment of salvation. This helped shape Baldwin’s short story in paralleling Sonny’s musical use of the blues. For both men the “blues” are a means for fully expressing themselves. Throughout the story, Sonny struggles to communicate with his brother who refuses to hear and approve of him, thus shows the rejected approach shown by the “narrator” when confronted by his brother’s passion for music and his desire to leave Harlem. The only absolute moment the narrator truly hears Sonny’s outcry was during their conversation after witnessing the beautiful singing of one of the women in a “street revival”. This small act of beauty and honesty allowed them to communicate with each other again. In a more dramatic outpour of “authenticity” from Sonny’s feelings occurred when the narrator finally listened to his brother playing; his music allowed the narrator to understand his struggles and it is only through music he will be able to make others understand him.

    Though rarely overwhelmingly mentioned, racism is scoping through a belittled presence throughout the story. Baldwin describes Harlem as a community being shaped by systemic racism. The feeble projects are the result of segregationist housing policies; the limited opportunities available to the narrator’s students, the result of discrimination. The suffering placed in the souls and hearts of the community is in large part due to racism as stated by the narrator: “he will inherit the darkness that haunts his parents. The most intricate depiction of racism was the death of the narrator’s uncle; his violent death, being run over by a car full of drunken white men, traumatizes the narrator’s father and worries his mother that a similar incident could happen with Sonny.

    The nature of this story’s theme can be “salvation” as approached by the narrator’s moment of redemption was shown by an act of heavenly, yet painful grace. Given the time of its writing and publication, “Sonny’s Blues” has a wider in depth implication. The story evolves around the importance of embracing heritage and community that was reflected upon the political struggles faced by the African American community. Only understanding and identifying with his true colors of heritage, he was able to feel the unspoken love. This can be a moral lesson to all who go through times of hardships.


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    Embracing Heritage and Community in Sonny’s Blues, a Short Story by James Baldwin. (2023, Mar 03). Retrieved from

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