Analysis of James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues

“Sonny’s Blues” is a first-person account by an AfricanAmerican schoolteacher trying to come to terms with his younger brother, Sonny, a jazz musician and sometime heroin addict. Some of James Baldwin’s thematic preoccupations can be ascertained by noting the subtle variations and quasi-musical interplay of motifs: darkness (both atmospheric and existential), (in)audible attempts to articulate or testify, and the spatial coordinates of inside/outside (a complex motif entailing withdrawal into privacy, the filling of voids, and the impulse to escape or transcend compression).

The story begins as a retrospect from darkness. Shocked to read a newspaper account of his brother’s arrest for drug use, the unnamed narrator stares vacantly at his face reflected in the train window, “trapped in the darkness which roared outside” (831). Darkness recurs periodically throughout the narrator’s reminiscence and is often associated with the menace of the outer world. The narrator remembers Sundays at twilight, when as a child he felt “the darkness coming” while registering with anxiety the adults talking darkly of a dark past. His obscure intimations of the possibility of their death are not dispelled when someone turns on a light. Indeed, “when light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. He knows that every time this happens he’s moved just a little closer to that darkness outside,” which he must endure as his ancestors always have (841–842). One of the incursions of darkness endured by his people has been the murderous running over by whites of his father’s brother, a musician. The narrator’s mother testifies that his father had “never in his life seen any thing as dark as that road after the lights of that car had gone away” (844). As an adult, the narrator muses on the less overt aspects of the darkness that envelops his students: “All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone” (832).

The narrator begins to realize after many years of conflict with his brother that the blues and jazz represent the antithesis of this escape through distraction into alienated solitude. They constitute a negotiation and transformation of darkness and suffering. Creole, the leader of Sonny’s group, testifies with his bass how innovative jazz approaches to the blues (in this case, be bop) are retelling the tales of “how we suffer . . . and how we may triumph” because they are “the only light we’ve got in all this darkness” (862). However, the intense revelations of light are also risky and potentially destructive. Sitting “in a dark corner” watching his brother and his colleagues preparing to play in their “circle of light,” the narrator notes that they are “most careful not to step into [it] too suddenly,” as if “they would perish in flame” (860). The external dimensions of the darkness of suffering and the light’s threat of exposure are associated with social conditions and a historical legacy, but their existential coordinate is associated with the inner conditions of the self. As Sonny tries, haltingly, to communicate the parameters of where heroin had found him and taken him, his brother notices that “the sun had vanished, soon darkness would fall.” This temporal observation stimulates an intimation of another kind of encroaching darkness: the possibility of Sonny’s relapse, encapsulated by his brother’s warning “It can come again” (859).

The narrator sees Sonny in his students because they are approximately the age that his brother was when he started heroin use and are “filled with rage,” much as Sonny must have been, because of “the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (832). The narrator’s perception, suffused with guilt and pathos, is acutely attuned to their laughter, which is “insular” with disenchantment (832). Given the story’s preoccupation with finding one’s voice and the riskiness of light, it is significant that when the narrator hears one of the boys whistling, “it seemed to be pouring out of him as though he were a bird . . . moving through all that harsh, bright air, only just holding its own through all those other sounds” (832). After one of his quarrels with Sonny, the emotionally inhibited narrator whistles a blues song “to myself” so as not to cry (852). Baldwin’s images of the (in)audible entail other forms of what might be called injured communication. The narrator inadvertently reveals his cold, uptight-emotional tendencies when he describes “a great block of ice” that “seemed to expand until I felt . . . I was going to choke or scream” (831). The scream of his brother is said to have haunted the narrator’s father the rest of his life, while screaming and choking converge in the memory of the narrator’s traumatized wife, who discovers their daughter, Grace, struggling for air enough to scream: “And when she did scream, it was the worst sound . . . that she’d ever heard in all her life, and she still hears it sometimes in her dreams” (852). The narrator also reports that his wife “will sometimes wake me up with a low, moaning, strangled sound” (852).

Music transmutes these injured sounds, as it does the suffering from which they issue. But the spirituals sung by the street singers, which express a people’s desire for liberation, are contemplated with the ambivalence that Baldwin shows toward African-American Christianity throughout his work. Although everyone has heard these songs, “not one of them had been rescued. Nor had they seen much in the way of rescue work being done around them” (853). The usually passive Sonny forcefully expresses his own ambivalence: “It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much” (856). That said, these spirituals not only constitute a major emotional foundation of the blues and jazz, they articulate the quasi-spiritual themes resonating in Baldwin’s description of Sonny’s wilderness wandering and prospects for salvation. Sonny’s piano playing is best understood, as his brother understands it, as a form of “testifying”—a bearing witness to suffering and redemptive aspiration in the manner of the spirituals (853). Thus, when Sonny finally takes his solo from the group, “Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen” (863). However, before the withdrawn and inarticulate Sonny can speak for himself through his piano, he must first struggle “to find a way to listen” to the soul of the music and to the turbulent, not-yet music in his own soul (857). It is for this reason all the more painful to realize that “nobody’s listening.” This situation constitutes a tacit silence inasmuch as he might just as well not be playing. Ultimately, silence testifies to the absence of existential attunement. The narrator belatedly realizes that he “had held silence—so long!” while Sonny, in need of “human speech” and under the pressure of unarticulated feelings, was turning to heroin in the hope of relief (856).

Baldwin’s story insists on the need to escape constricted, pressure-filled spaces. The narrator’s insistence on conventional obligation and responsibility has long put him at odds with his hipster brother’s desire for self-liberation, which he judges an escape from wisdom (838). He feels threatened listening to Sonny’s old friend talk about drug highs, as a jukebox plays: “All this was carrying me some place I didn’t want to go. . . . It filled everything . . . with menace” (835). At the same time he resonates to the lifelong effects of the “smothering” Harlem ghetto, “filled with a hidden menace which was its very breath of life” (839). He remembers how the people “came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster.” Those who escaped did so “as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap” (839). The new government housing project fails as a haven, a cleared space, because “the hedges will never hold out the streets” and the windows “aren’t big enough to make space out of no space” (839).

Space is not merely a circumscribed set of physical or even social coordinates but an existential-psychological domain of self-definition. Sonny’s greatest pain has resulted from his failure to escape the confines of the sealed space of his privacy. Challenged, he “just moves back inside himself, where he can’t be reached” (840), to “the distant stillness in which he had always moved” (837). Baldwin coordinates inside/outside with the imagery of darkness/light, as when the narrator recalls how Sonny “looked out from the depths of his private life an animal waiting to be coaxed into the light” (837). His inaccessibility makes him seem “some sort of god, or monster . . . as though he were all wrapped up in some cloud, some fire” (850). Inside/ outside is also linked to the (in)audible inasmuch as Sonny’s blues entail the struggle to find a “way of getting it out—that storm inside” (857).

Spatial prepositions are made emphatic the only time Sonny speaks at length to his brother in the attempt to explain what heroin had done for him: “When I was most out of the world, I felt that I was in it, that I was with it, really, and I could play . . . it just came out of me, it was there” (858). Baldwin also deploys spatializing tropes to characterize the addicting quality inherent in music’s capacity to remove the listener from unsatisfying contexts, especially the constricted dimensions of the self. Sonny compares the affect of the street singer’s voice to the feeling of being “distant” yet “in control” that heroin produced— a feeling “you’ve got to have” (855). It had been the need “to clear a space to listen”—and the inability to locate that place—that had deposited him “all by myself at the bottom of something” (858). Sonny believes that his use of drugs helped him reject unavoidable suffering, “to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it.” It had been a means of making him responsible, of providing some demonstrable reason, for that suffering. The conversation ends with a spatial displacement, as Sonny looks onto the street below and observes, “All that hatred and misery and love down there. It’s a wonder it doesn’t blow the avenue apart” (859). There is an especially significant spatializing term in Baldwin’s story. The narrator feels remorse that he has not followed his mother’s counsel regarding Sonny, “you got to let him know you’s there” (845). And his account culminates with his being there to bear witness and to testify to what his brother undergoes “up there” on the illuminated bandstand.

Descending to the bottom without being destroyed becomes the challenge of Sonny’s playing. Creole, another “witness,” urges Sonny with his bass to “strike out for the deep water . . . that deep water and drowning were not the same thing—he had been there and he knew.” As the narrator watches his brother move “deep within” himself toward the music, he becomes aware of the void that must somehow be made into a livable space—how “awful” it must be for the musician to have “to fill” his instrument “with the breath of life, his own.” The narrator evokes, in terms that are both spatial and redolent with the (in)audible, the pressurized threat that making music entails: “The man who creates the music . . . is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air . . . more terrible because it has no words” (861). Finishing, “Creole and Sonny let out their breath, both soaking wet,” as much from depths descended as from sweat (863).

The story’s recurring references to breath and to personal atmosphere can be profitably linked to the death by constriction of Grace, which functions as a kind of grace. Sitting alone in the dark after burying his daughter and thinking of Sonny, the narrator begins to recognize that “my trouble made his real” (852). Baldwin seems to suggest by this that the inwardness of self need not be hermetic and might provide a route to others. Yet the narrator also remarks “that not many people ever really hear” music, and even “on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations” (861). This principle is perhaps applicable to the narrator’s own concluding description of Sonny’s playing, which does not evoke the music as music so much as the thematic burden the brother is capable of hearing or would like to think he heard. In accord with this principle, the narrator reveals a newfound peace of mind, with but a residue of unease, when he designates the drink he sends his brother “the very cup of trembling” as it glows in the stage lights and shakes with the playing of the band (864). This designation arises from the same biblical source as the spirituals, being an audible renunciation, delivered by a prophet, of God’s threat to destroy a community: “Therefore now hear this, thou afflicted and drunken, but not with wine. . . . Behold I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt drink it no more” (Isaiah 51:21–22).

Literary Criticism of James Baldwin

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” In Early Novels and Stories. New York: Library of America, 1998.
Jones, Jacqueline C. “Finding a Way to Listen: The Emergence of the Hero as an Artist in James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues.’ ” CLA Journal 42, no. 4 (1999): 462–482.
Sherrard, Tracey. “Sonny’s Bebop: Baldwin’s ‘Blues Text’ as Intracultural Critique.” African American Review 32, no. 4 (Winter 1998): 691–704.

Categories: African Literature, American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Short Story

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