Nonfiction tells of truth and personal experience. A speech has the capacity to stun an audience with its intensity. However, fiction, and only fiction, has the power to open a reader’s heart and speak directly into it. In “Sonny’s Blues,” author and political activist James Baldwin uses fiction to tell a story of African American brotherhood, exposing the reality of the problems that plague the black race. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin uses nonfiction in order to explore the nature of the relationship between blacks and whites. In the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin’s memorable speeches allow him to tell the shockingly true story of African American hardship. Both Baldwin’s nonfiction and his speeches reinforce the ideas presented in his story, “Sonny’s Blues.” Through mastering the art of figurative storytelling in “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin’s other works including The Fire Next Time and I Am Not Your Negro support the concepts presented in his fictional tale, allowing him to further educate his audience about the abhorrent racial divide in 1960s America.
Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” allows readers to gain perspective on the struggles faced by African American families in 1960s America. “Sonny’s Blues” tells the story of the relationship between an unnamed narrator and his brother Sonny. The two have fought over the narrator’s disappointment in his brother’s choices, leaving their already unstable brotherhood in disarray. After reading a newspaper excerpt, the narrator finds out that this brother has been taken into custody for using and selling heroin. As a teacher, he immediately realizes that this despicable fate could easily become the reality of any of his students. The narrator then runs into one of his brother’s old friends by chance, and his anger begins to overflow. Sarcastically, the narrator makes a comment to the boy, “you’re pretty goddamn smart, I bet.” Then [the boy] looked directly at [the narrator] for a minute [and said] “I ain’t smart,” . . . “if I was smart, I’d have reached for a pistol a long time ago” (Baldwin, James 160). This moment in the text reveals what the narrator will soon come to understand: that his brother’s depression led to his use of drugs, which is a universal struggle that plagues the youth of his race.
It is not until the death of the narrator’s young daughter that he finally reaches out to Sonny. After he is released from jail, Sonny reluctantly agrees to accept his brother’s help. The narrator describes their first uncomfortable encounter: “I was trying to find out something about my brother. I was dying to hear him tell me he was safe” (Baldwin 165). At this point in the story, the narrator finally admits that he does in fact care for his brother. The characters that Baldwin creates tell the story of the black youth of America. Plagued by discrimination and a lack of hope, thousands of black teenagers in the 1960s turned to drugs. The fact that the narrator goes unnamed signifies that this tragedy could happen to anyone within the black community. Through fiction, Baldwin is able to create the perfect setting and characters in order to demonstrate the horrible effects of racial inequality, such as the use of drugs.
Baldwin’s nonfiction piece, The Fire Next Time, exposes the racial tension between African Americans and white Americans. The Fire Next Time is composed of two essays. The first essay, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” is written from Baldwin’s perspective. He writes to his nephew and encourages him to be a role model for African Americans in society. The relationship Baldwin shares with his nephew is very similar to the relationship that the narrator shares with his brother in “Sonny’s Blues.”
The sense of brotherhood established in the fictional “Sonny’s Blues” and the idea of family presented in the nonfictional The Fire Next Time together tell a story of African American suffering. “Sonny’s Blues” is a story about the relationship between two brothers. The concept of brotherhood is also present throughout The Fire Next Time. For example, in “My Dungeon Shook” when describing to his nephew the hardships that his family has endured, Baldwin says “I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it” (13). Both the narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” and Baldwin himself, as the narrator of “My Dungeon Shook,” incorporate the importance of brotherhood in their stories of the fight against the oppression of blacks.
Similarly, the concept of blues and jazz music as a part of African American culture is present in both works. In the second essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” Baldwin discusses the presence of music within his community: “we had the liquor . . . the music, and each other, and had no need to pretend to be what we were not. This is the freedom that one hears in . . . jazz. In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged” (68). Through personal reflection, Baldwin allows readers to gain perspective on the impact jazz music has on his community. He describes jazz music to be not only reminiscent of home and heritage, but to be a form of therapy for the oppressed blacks. This idea is mirrored in “Sonny’s Blues.” The narrator is at first frustrated with his brother for devoting so much time to music, and it is not until the narrator watches his brother play that he begins to understand and appreciate the positive impact jazz music has on Sonny’s life. Jazz music serves as Sonny’s outlet. Through music, he and the members of his community are able to pour out all of their sorrow: “as the singing filled the air, the watching, listening faces underwent a change, the eyes focusing on something within; the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them” (Baldwin 176). The concept of music as the temporary cure for black misery as presented in The Fire Next Time is reflected in “Sonny’s Blues.”
In the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin uses impactful speeches in order to educate his audience about racial issues in 1960s America. During this time period, instances of discrimination and violence steeped in racism were rampant throughout the country. In his speeches, Baldwin expressed his belief that the “African American experience is American experience” (Frykholm, Amy 10). He declares that “the story of the Negro in this country is the story of America, and it is not a pretty story” (qtd. in Frykholm 10). Throughout the film, it is clear that Baldwin is desperate to escape from his country’s story. This idea is echoed in “Sonny’s Blues.” The narrator comments on the bleak reality that was everyday life for African Americans in the 1960s: “while the tale of how we suffer . . . is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness” (Baldwin 182). In “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin is able to bring new light to the reality of black oppression through pathos. By describing the innermost thoughts and feelings of the blacks, he is able to convey to his audience the dark truth of the consequences of racism in America.
Both the film and the fictional story share a timeless quality. The documentary “moves back and forth between historical and contemporary footage, reminding the viewer continually that this is not a piece of documentary history but a commentary on the present moment” (Frykholm 10). In the same way, “Sonny’s Blues” details the problems of the past while offering a warning for the future. While watching Sonny play for the first time, the narrator comes to realize that “freedom lurked around us and that [Sonny] could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did” (Baldwin 183). In this passage, the narrator recognizes that in order to overcome the horrors of American racism, both blacks and whites needed to form a sense of community. Although the relationship between blacks and whites has improved since the 1960s, there is still much work to be done, and this truth is recognized in both I Am Not Your Negro and “Sonny’s Blues.”
The Fire Next Time and I Am Not Your Negro work together to reinforce and legitimize the story contained within the fiction of “Sonny’s Blues.” At the end of “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator comes to accept his brother, despite his struggle with drugs. The narrator orders his brother a drink, a milk and scotch, which is deeply symbolic: “the drink represents more than Sonny’s freedom; it symbolizes Sonny’s redemption . . . of sin” (Tackach, James 116). This particular drink holds a deep religious significance in that it symbolizes the Holy Communion, a practice of purification. However, it also represents Sonny’s duality of personality and how this will continue to haunt him. The milk symbolizes innocence while the scotch symbolizes sin: “Sonny’s acceptance of it indicates that his life will continue on the edge between the poison of his addiction and the nourishment of his music” (Byerman, Keith 371). Baldwin’s nonfiction, speeches, and most importantly, his fiction, illustrate the truth behind the struggle of the African American community in the 1960s. For Sonny and for all African Americans of his time, life would become a constant battle between giving in to the temptation of depression or choosing to rise above it. Unlike many speakers of his generation, Baldwin takes a more positive approach in the matter, and in every form of his expression, endorses peace and love. “Sonny’s Blues” opens the hearts of Baldwin’s readers and reveals to them the struggle of being black in America while also providing hope for the future.