Annotated Bibliography

Albert, Richard N. “The Jazz-Blues Motif in James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’.” College Literature, vol. 11, no. 2, Spring 1984, pp. 178–185. JSTOR, 

Richard Albert’s article explores the significance of jazz and blues music in James Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues.” The article offers a close reading of the story that shows the author’s use of specific allusions and motifs to emphasize the themes of individualism and alienation. The examples used focus on the history of Creoles, popular jazz musicians of Baldwin’s time, and the background of the song “Am I Blue?” by Ray Charles. These historical details aim to strengthen the author’s interpretation of the older brother’s alienation, emphasizing his attempt to separate himself from the African American community. The author then compares the functionality of the allusions made in the beginning of the story to those made at the end, aiming to consider possible counterarguments to his claim.

The article uses New Criticism to further explore the tension that divides the two, comparing the way the older brother and his younger brother, Sonny, each struggle with their own feelings of isolation. There are references made about their contrasting interpretations of jazz and blues music, their individual acceptance of identity, and ultimately their interpretations of their positions in society. The conclusion credits the narrator’s willingness to experience Sonny’s blues to be the first step he takes towards reuniting with his African American heritage and to ultimately unify him with all of humanity.

Brim, Matt. James Baldwin and the Queer Imagination. United States, University of Michigan Press, 2014. Google Books,

Matt Brim’s book on James Baldwin and the Queer Imagination adequately describes James Baldwin’s work as an author and how his sexual identity influenced his work and what his being queer did for the community around him and his influence it had on others in a similar way. Brim aims to argue how Baldwin and queer theory do not fit together. James Baldwin was and still is a pillar in the community and Brim coins the term “Baldwinization” in direct reference to “queer theory in the form of black queer studies” (Brim, 1). Queer theory and Baldwin’s work is a huge focus in Brim’s book and he also goes on to explain that Baldwin has a deep understanding of identity and how he understands queer theory and its intense complexity which helps shape his ideas in writing. Baldwin is a notable member of the queer writers community, paving the way for others to study and making the seemingly impossible, possible. Brim notes that Baldwin’s writing and queer theory mesh well, and Brim’s book goes into his argument that there is more to imagine than that especially because Brim is fascinated by how Baldwin can make queer and unqueer go well together in relation.

Byerman, Keith A. “Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity In ‘Sonny’s Blues’.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 19, no. 4, Fall 1982, pp. 367-372. EBSCOhost,

Keith Byerman reads into “Sonny’s Blues” with the inquiry that the prose of the story can reveal the journey of Sonny’s brother. He shows how a pattern exists in the story where the narrator, when confronted by severe emotional weight, tends to deviate from usually logical, clear prose, to metaphorical and escapism-filled prose, often practicing tactics of evasion and deflection in his narration, wishing to understand Sonny but failing to listen when he has the chance. This back-and-forth pattern continues until he finally witnesses his brother, Sonny, perform in the jazz club. When he watches him, the prose becomes a blend of the logical narration and the symbolic one, showing the internal growth of the narrator. The narrator does not oscillate without control anymore. He now can coexist with these former warring entities.

Byerman’s analysis uses a blend of historical criticism and deconstruction in picking apart the prose of the story to seek an original interpretation. He explains how the debate between critics over whether the narration belongs to Sonny or the brother limits other possible readings of the text. One should not necessarily seek confirmation of the meaning of the story, but simply explore the text and try to connect the dots. In addition to employing a deconstruction lens, Byerman uses historical criticism in his acknowledgement of the story’s fame as a hindrance to a unique interpretation. He states that his purpose for the essay is to take a different path than others have before, and search for a universal theme instead a unilateral one.

Flatt, Bill. “Some Stages of Grief.” Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 26, no. 2, 1987, pp. 143–48. JSTOR,

Bill Flatt, the Professor of Counseling at Harding Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, at the time of publication, documents his findings after studying grief in 500 widows and widowers. In the article, he states that grief is a non-linear process, and that any individual’s grief work is not permanent, as going through grief, emotions fluctuate. The article focuses on Flatt’s theory of “Some Stages of Grief” being: shock, lamentations, withdrawal, frustration, panic, depression, detachment, adaptation, reinvesting, and finally growth. Shock is described as one of the shorter stages with a strong physical response ranging from dizziness to heart palpitations. Lamentations are described as when an individual experiencing grief starts to vent their resentment and anger towards the tragedy, or the circumstances. Withdrawal is described as the action of separating oneself from others in an attempt to process the loss on their own. Frustration is described as the process of dealing with the death mostly in a financial or social setting. Panic occurs at any time in the process, but appears earlier than other stages, and is described as a general feeling of dread. Depression is the stage in which an individual feels at their lowest and struggles to maintain their typical routines. Detachment is the stage in which someone attempts to disconnect their feelings from their grief in an effort to maintain normalcy. Adaptation is when someone begins to adapt to their life, coexisting with their grief. Reinvesting is described as overcoming the negative emotions, and beginning to invest in the positives. Finally, growth is described as the ideal final stage, in which an individual accepts their grief and moves on to live a productive life.

Written as a publication for the Journal of Religion and Health, the document is divided into paragraphs for each corresponding stage of grief, describing common physical and emotional reactions. The paragraphs themselves are short, approachable, and informative. The stages are well depicted and would do well for anyone attempting to research griefwork.

Golden, Timothy Joseph. “Epistemic Addiction: Reading ‘Sonny’s Blues’ with Levinas, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol. 26, no. 3, Penn State University Press, 2012, pp. 554–71,

Via comparing and contrasting the ideologies of James Baldwin, Emmanuel Levinas, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche, Timothy Joseph Golden explores “Sonny’s Blues” as a critique of society, culture, and Christianity. To underscore the religious themes in “Sonny’s Blues”, the essay begins with the biblical story of humanity’s fall, in which inappropriate means of seeking knowledge creates a moral dilemma. Golden shows this biblical story to relate to the older brother in “Sonny’s Blues” in that the brother lacks the correct means of knowing Sonny, wishing only to accept Sonny on conditional terms. Freedom from suffering is the objective in the brother’s case, but his inability to know Sonny results in further suffering, just as Eve’s inability to understand good and evil resulted in the same.

Using New Criticism to perform a close reading of Baldwin’s short story and a summary of the philosophers’ ideology, Golden reveals the older rother’s attempt to make Sonny like himself, an effort that is detrimental to his desire to know his brother, being incapable of preventing suffering. Readers will not only obtain a better understanding of why Sonny is distanced from his older brother but also how the older brother is the cause of this distance. Whilst this suppression of Sonny negatively impacts the narrator’s role as the older brother, suffering bridges the gap between them, transforming the narrator’s values and resulting in a fulfillment of knowledge.

Goldman, Suzy Bernstein. “James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’: A Message in Music.” Negro American Literature Forum, vol. 8, no. 3, Autumn 1974, pp. 231-233. JSTOR,

Goldman writes about the connection between James Baldwin’s short story and music itself. This story has music as an important theme, and the format of the story correlates four parts within the story to the four time sequences in music. This article stresses the importance that music can have at a deeper level. The four movements listed in the article tell the song of tragedy for the generation before and the current generation. The connection of music creates a bond between the brothers amongst all the turmoil that they endure. Goldman ends the article with the note that although the blue’s that Sonny creates are a way to hold memories for the brothers, it also is a powerful catalyst for everyone. The music is an example of the beautiful mourning from those who feel unheard and discarded. This article can be used to understand the impact that music had on life during this time by seeing the picture of poverty during 1957 in Harlem. This includes the impact that music had to dramatically draw people closer together across any social lines. The different layers that Baldwin weaved into this story, including the irony of how the story is written, make the point that the story itself is a work of music. We also see that in the streets where there was little to hope for, music was an outlet and joy for all.

Gustafson, Donald. “Grief.” Noûs, vol. 23, no. 4, 1989, pp. 457–79. JSTOR,

Written for Noûs, a peer-reviewed academic journal published by Wiley-Blackwell, Donald Gustafson pens a lengthy discussion on grief. The article itself is a philosophical analysis of grief, and a collection of data that support Gustafson’s claim that grief is its own emotion, separate from pain and sorrow. Gustafson discusses cognitively impenetrable emotions, which he writes are feelings in which the individual has no say in having, and by contrast, cognitively penetrable emotions are feelings in which the individual has a factor in feeling them. The idea that emotions serve an adaptive function is also played with as both physical and physiological advantages and actions are proposed and discussed. Emotions themselves are also discussed, and their functions for the sake of how they are perceived by both society and from a scientific standpoint, of which grief does not fit the typical confines of other emotions.

The article itself is difficult to grasp from its diction, but also its format. While the article contains wonderful thinking points, and a philosophical view of the emotion and process of grief, it is written academically to the point that it’s almost sterile. The article does have some wonderful information and insight towards grief and the process of grieving. For an individual dipping their toes into researching grief work, this article wouldn’t be a starting point, but would be a good way to further support any already gathered information.

Hodge, James R. “They That Mourn.” Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 11, no. 3, 1972, pp. 229–40. JSTOR,

Dr. James Hodge writes an alternative to Emily Kubler-Ross’s theory of the five stages of grief, instead researching his own stages of grief: shock and surprise, emotional release, loneliness, physical distress with anxiety, panic, guilt, hostility and projection, lassitude, gradual overcoming of grief, and readjustment to reality. Not only does Dr. James Hodge pen his own stages of grief, but he also writes of the management of grief as not only an individual, but also as a family. Dr. Hodge also brings in the idea that the process of grief is not only limited to the loss of a loved one, but any kind of major loss or separation.

Written as a publication for the Journal of Religion and Health, the document is divided into six major sections: the personal loss, the grief work, the individual pattern for grief, stages of grief, the management of grief, and grief as a separate reaction. At the end of the document is a summary, and a short conclusion. All of Dr. Hodges research and depictions are detailed and would do well for any individual looking into an alternative for the Emily Kubler-Ross stages of grief, but also for any individual seeking information on how grief affects individuals and families.

Laird, Susan. “Musical Hunger: A Philosophical Testimonial of Miseducation.” Philosophy of  Music Education Review, vol. 17, no. 1, Spring 2009, pp. 4-21. JSTOR,

Susan Laird’s study of music as sharing the same metaphorical quality present in food and education offers fascinating parallels to the redemptive aspect of jazz in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”. Laird’s remarkable insights on music as a necessity of life for bearing suffering offer an invaluable perspective of Sonny’s passion for jazz. Exploring her own philosophical studies of food and education, in addition to referencing various theories regarding music, and drawing from personal experience, Laird assesses the effects of a musically deprived childhood. She begins by describing and analyzing hunger and its stages, including appetite and satiety and unhealthy relationships with food, addressing food’s addictive quality and comparing it to music as a form of nourishment in its own right, possessing particular benefits for spiritual and emotional wellbeing. Her brief interpretation of “Sonny’s Blues” serves to strengthen her theory that music’s sustaining nature makes it a necessity in the lives of all children, as Baldwin’s story falls neatly in line with her perspective, illustrating the consequences of a life grounded in pursuing the creation of music versus one that relies on an education system devoid of art and, subsequently, the power to bear suffering. Readers of Laird’s article will not only gain a better appreciation of Sonny’s craving for music but also perceive the spiritual and emotional disadvantage the older brother has imposed on himself through his disapproval of jazz.

Lamb, Vanessa Martins. “The 1950’s and the 1960’s and the American Woman: the Transition from the ’Housewife’ to the Feminist.” HAL, 2011,

Lamb’s article is a wonderfully in-depth look at the way that women were viewed and expected to be in the 1950 and 1960’s. Women were expected to be at home after university and run the household and raise the children, rather than have a life free to do as they pleased. Women began to wonder if that life was all there was and would be. Lamb explains that just after the Second World War, it was as if girls just thought their only goals were to get married right away and start a family as, if they did not do that, then what good were they? Until it wasn’t their main goal any longer. Women felt trapped like they were being kept in the dark about something magical: Freedom. It was not that women were not free–there was just a lot of expectation to carry out the legacy they followed from their mothers before them and theirs before that. Women in the 50’s and 60’s felt restrained, tied down and held back from certain things and interests. Women were done feeling like the perfect housewife. They wanted more and were beginning to lose their sense of self. Vanessa Lamb explores the transformation of women starting with who they were expected to be into becoming who they were meant to be instead.

Lee, Dorothy H. “The Bridge of Suffering.” Callaloo, no. 18, Spring 1983, pp. 92-99. JSTOR,

“The Bridge of Suffering” by Dorothy Lee explores the in-depth relation between James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and his metaphorical bridge that helps one’s suffering and keeps one from essentially suffering in isolation. This explains thoroughly what’s important between the form of “otherness” Sonny experiences in his life–whether it has to do with race, religion, community or even identity. Lee explores the concept that Baldwin’s other works intertwine the concept of suffering into each of his other stories and how they all seem to connect with each other. The concept of suffering and its pitfalls appears in Baldwin’s other works, such as in “Another Country” in which it takes the form of Guy’s isolation, or Arthur’s journey for self-acceptance in “Just Above My Head.” It is genuinely astounding just how well James Baldwin can intertwine such an intricate concept such as suffering repeatedly over several different stories to correlate with one another, and readers are able to find clever similarities between each of his works in some shape or form. Through the theme of suffering an individual can come to understand more about themselves and the world that surrounds them, giving them a better understanding of not only themselves, but others as well.

McParland, Robert P. “To the Deep Water: James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’.” Interdisciplinary Humanities, vol. 23, no. 2, Fall 2006, pp. 131-140. EBSCOhost,

Robert P. McParland explores the metaphorical quality of music in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”, offering a unique perspective of Sonny’s withdrawn nature and the redemptive quality of jazz. Referencing Baldwin’s own experiences with music and the ideas he presents in his essays, McParland illustrates the way music establishes a connection between individuals and their community. He notes that the story even flows like music, stopping and starting, with repetition of thought and memory. Music is the heart of the story, underscoring the brothers’ relationship and explaining Sonny’s struggles. Beyond this, McParland shows that jazz represents the ups and downs and unpredictability of life itself.

McParland’s essay hinges on Baldwin’s lived experience with and ideas of music, which fuels the complex relationship between Sonny and the jazz community, shedding light on both literature and music and the culture of Baldwin’s day. Whilst McParland references Baldwin’s essays to strengthen his interpretation of “Sonny’s Blues” and focuses on music as a culture, he demonstrates employment of the New Criticism lens via his exploration of how music unifies the story’s ambiguities. Readers will not only learn more about the relationship between Sonny and his older brother, but understand the appeal of jazz for Sonny, as well as how the story symbolizes any individual’s struggles in the process of regaining control of or redefining their life.

Mitchell, Koritha. “James Baldwin, Performance Theorist, Sings the ‘Blues for Mister Charlie’.” American Quarterly, vol. 64, no. 1, Mar. 2012, pp. 33–60., JSTOR,

In this article, Koritha Mitchell aims to show how James Baldwin uses his writing and theatre abilities to encourage his fellow Americans to recognize one another as equal human beings. By first bringing attention to the country’s failure to acknowledge the nation’s violent and unjust past and present, the author is introducing a critical approach that can be applied to Baldwin’s writing. Michell identifies Baldwin’s aim as an attempt to gradually break down the United States’ distorted reality and the dehumanization that results from enforcing social hierarchies. By using art as a means of deliverance, Baldwin hopes to “re-create” America into a country that recognizes our connection to one another. Mitchell shows that Baldwin consistently engages the meaning-making power of performance to deconstruct false consciousness and resist dehumanizing social categories. Baldwin believed that the art of theater created a space for fulfilling the ethical mandate to unite all Americans. Audiences experience the tension as the actor brings the character to life while remaining recognizably themselves, ultimately demonstrates the capacity to recognize the connection between self and others. Like audiences, readers of Mitchell’s essay are enabled to see Baldwin’s writing in a new light, as contributing to the literary discourse on social injustice.

Murray, Donald C. “James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’: Complicated and Simple.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 14, no. 4, Fall 1977, pp. 353-357. EBSCOhost,

In his essay, Donald Murray explores and posits two types of readings of James Baldwin’s seminal work. The first is that “Sonny’s Blues” does not possess a feel-good quality that stems from the sole self-expression found in art. Rather, the story’s themes of light and dark illustrate to the reader that life is a non-negotiable affair, and we must learn to love what we are dealt. This part of the work is what Murray calls in the title “complicated”. The second reading, which he calls “simple”, regards the story’s symbolisms and the inner workings of the characters, such as the profession of Sonny’s brother, an algebra teacher. Murray explains how this occupation in the story is not a random detail, but a symbol of the rigid and orderly nature of his brother, and also a greater symbol of the world around Sonny that is rigid and unartistic.

The essay presents an alternating analysis of both the complicated and the simple. Murray does not pause in this essay to give extensive historical context, nor draw conclusions from it by analyzing Baldwin’s life. Murray shows an immediate dive into the analysis without much in the way of introduction. This work is brief in length and in style, tending to colloquially “jump right in”, versus teasing out information.

Nelson, Emmanuel S. “James Baldwin’s Vision of Otherness and Community.” MELUS, vol. 10, no. 2, Summer 1983, pp. 27–31. JSTOR,

Emmanuel S. Nelson’s article explores James Baldwin’s vision of the relationship between self-discovery, suffering, and community. He analyzes common themes in many of Baldwin’s works–such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone”, “Another Country”, and “Sonny’s Blues”, amongst others–exploring the way that the denial of one’s causes of suffering is associated with the denial of one’s community, preventing the experience of shared identity with others and, subsequently, the discovery of self. Baldwin believes that self must be formed through the acknowledgement and acceptance of the sufferings shared by oneself and others. This philosophy appears through much of his writing, showcased in multiple characters whose redemptive self-discovery is determined by how they handle suffering.

Nelson surveys a wide range of Baldwin’s fiction and plays, focusing on how each contributes towards the idea of individuals knowing themselves through culture or community. The article’s close-reading of “Sonny’s Blues” and presentation of key concepts from other works indicates it is employing a New Criticism lens. Whilst Nelson references “Sonny’s Blues” very briefly, the article’s unification of the versatile experiences described in Baldwin’s work sheds light on the complicated relationship between the brothers and offers insight for life in general.

Reilly, John M. “James Baldwin’s Image of Black Community.” Negro American Literature Forum, vol. 4, no. 4, July 1970, pp. 56-60. JSTOR,

Reilly starts the article with a thesis stating that the history had a direct correlation with the short story that James Baldwin wrote. The impact of Baldwin’s involvement in civil rights with the Black movement is communicated and is linked while telling the story of the streets of Harlem in this story. This article discusses the importance of music, especially jazz, and the connection it made historically for African Americans during this time. This article connects the first-person narrative that is also common in Blues music. Sonny uses his music to make something of himself, in a place and time when he is oppressed because of the color of his skin. In addressing music as a main theme of the story, the article not only shows the influence that the blues had on the story but it also makes the point that the blues are a universal way for humans to just be human together. This article speaks to the common place of desperation during this time and how the music and this story were all tools used to spread a message and work on creating awareness of the quality of life, as well as the rich culture that music created for the Black man.

Sherard, Tracey. “Sonny’s Bebop: Baldwin’s ‘Blues Text’ as Intracultural Critique.” African American Review, vol. 32, no. 4, Winter 1998, pp.691-705. JSTOR, 

Sherard writes about the breakdown of “Sonny’s Blues” while looking at the story with a different take to that of others, as she mentions in her thesis. This article argues the difference between Jazz, Blues, and Bebop and the impact they had specifically in African American culture. This article talks about the relationship that these types of music had to Harlem during this time, but also the social ramifications and connections to the African American culture. Sherard also makes the tie that the narrator is not able to make a deep connection to the free style of this music (thus also supporting the idea that it is Jazz). It is only after his daughter’s death and he experienced heartbreak that he understands the deep hearted connection of despair. This article digs deeper into the quality of life that Sonny and the narrator were experiencing in Harlem. This includes the impending doom that happened to anyone who got stuck in the ghetto. As the Blues became more popular, the culture moved towards the Bebop and Jazz that gave the freedom to self-express without the traditional constraints of music. This article makes the correlation between the story itself and the history of the African Americans during this time.

Tackach, James. “The Biblical Foundation of James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’.” Renascence, vol. 59, no. 2, Winter 2007, pp. 109-118. EBSCOhost,

James Tackach argues in his essay that a biblical interpretation of “Sonny’s Blues” is valid for two primary reasons. One, James Baldwin had a close relationship with the Christian church and the bible. And two, the story itself bears resemblances to the bible’s fables of the Prodigal Son and Cain and Abel. By comparing “Sonny’s Blues” to the bible, Tackach shows that the story is a modern incarnation of the biblical fables. “Sonny’s Blues” demonstrates the use of biblical symbols and images in presenting a story of a son who distances himself from home, undergoes a baptism–or a change of values–showcased in the scotch and milk, which imitates the ‘“cup of trembling”’ in the book of Isaiah (Tackach 117), and an older brother who struggles with being his younger brother’s keeper. These biblical themes represent the process of developing forgiveness and acceptance between the brothers, but deviates from the traditional fables in that the younger brother is accepted on his own terms in the end.

Tackach begins his essay with a detailed historical background on Baldwin’s upbringing, which centers on his religious history. He does this to strengthen his interpretation of the biblical influences in “Sonny’s Blues”, and afterward he makes comparisons between two famous bible fables that resemble his short story. The essay is primarily a historical criticism and offers much history on Baldwin and the intricacies of the biblical text. Overall, readers can learn from this essay how Christian ideology shaped Baldwin’s writing and his contribution to the literary discussion of religious matters.





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