Hear Them Roar

By Chelsea Yates

“Women’s Liberation” meant addressing specific challenges for black women in the 1960s.

 James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” takes place in Harlem, New York as the narrator who is a teacher who finds out his brother was incarcerated due to the drug use and selling of heroin and gets back in touch with him after the passing of his daughter, Gracie, by writing a letter. The narrator mentions having thought a lot about sonny after Gracie died because his own suffering made him realize that Sonny’s was just as real after this intense life-changing event. The narrator seems to want to reconnect and be closer to his brother Sonny because you just never know who you might lose the next day. Several letters later and Sonny gets out of jail to end up living with Isabel’s family (the narrator’s wife) where we learn that Sonny’s creative “outlet” ends up being the piano, as it’s mentioned in the story about how he loves Jazz, perhaps this is what his form of art is that takes heroin’s place instead. There are certain stereotypes in place within this story as well that aren’t as easily displayed. For instance, to start, let’s talk about a possible underlying theme that isn’t prominent but possible, nonetheless. James Baldwin was a gay man, and as an author, what could that mean for the story and its characters? In a way, it could mean a lot. There are lots of subtle things in every story that could hint towards gay/queer tendencies maybe for fun or to casually bring awareness. Are there any similarities projected from author to page? There might not be any queer characters (that we know of. It’s never actually stated or mentioned) but feminism is definitely present within Sonny’s Blues.

Grace, the narrator’s daughter who passed away early on from polio is the reason this story took off in the direction it did. Her passing ignites something in the narrator, giving him cause to reach out to his brother as a form of reconnection. Almost as an act of “grace”. She isn’t mentioned much throughout the story, but her passing brings out the narrator’s “motherly instinct”, as well. His need to protect the people he cares about begins showing once he lost his daughter. After Sonny’s return to the outside world and the reunion of the narrator and Sonny, memories of their mother are referred to in relation with the immense worry that the narrator feels for his drug-addicted brother. Baldwin writes his mother very well, making her seem saintlike and the narrator makes that quite obvious. Her role is key in this story, because the narrator recalls a memory where she basically predicts her own death because of her age and talks about how she worries very much that Sonny will lose his way and have no guidance in life, knowing something could and/or would happen to him without her there to have someone for him to lean on when he needs help. The mother is an extremely caring and compassionate role in this story, lighting the path for the narrator to take her role as a “maternal” figure, protecting and guiding Sonny from here on out after her death. “‘I want to talk to you about your brother,” she said, suddenly. “If anything happens to me he ain’t going to have nobody to look out for him.’” (Baldwin, 131) The “motherly instinct” of the male narrator begins to show after the death of his daughter Gracie and the new beginning of his brother’s life out of incarceration. Women are a force of nature. The narrators father had a brother who died young, and the narrator’s mother hid this fact so well that neither of the boys knew about him. She was their fathers’ shoulder to lean on. She was the stronger of the two and it was his sibling and not hers. It’s another fact that women are stronger because she had to be the bigger person and let him lean on her in his time of need. Not that men can’t be just as strong, but there is a certain fire inside women that burns just a little bit brighter in times of distress.

Another example of femininity in the story is when Isabel’s character is mentioned in the story. Isabel is the narrator’s wife, his safe haven and rock in troubling times. Baldwin does a lovely job of writing Isabel as a character who is both gentle and caring. She serves as a protector for the narrator and watches over her husband and children in the same way that the narrator’s mother did for her family as well. This added strong female character helps the narrator navigate his feelings of helplessness when it comes to Sonny and the feelings of letting both Sonny and his mother down for not keeping Sonny on the right path in the first place. Another touch of femininity is when Isabel is first mentioned. Isabel is the narrator’s wife, a safe haven it seems for the narrator. Baldwin wrote her in in such a subtly gentle way and she definitely serves as the narrator’s protector and seems to watch over him and their children in the same way the narrator’s mother did as well. Though there’s one thing about this particular character that stands out above the rest. Stereotypically, most women are cautious and guarded as when it comes to criminals, especially one like Sonny, yet she felt at ease with Sonny around, and vice versa, even getting him to come out of his shell and feel more at home that very first night also joking with him in ways that the narrator couldn’t in such a short time. This adds to her strength as a female character who is not only caring for those she loves, but the loved ones of the people she loves as well. She does not run at the first sign of trouble or faltering ideals when Sonny comes back into the family’s life, but instead takes on the protective role for all characters to feel loved.

Baldwin says, “your suffering does not isolate you; your suffering is your bridge.” (Lee, 1) With this, Sonny’s mother and Isabel want to help Sonny with his sense of “otherness” that he feels such as isolation and he need for co-dependence but also his isolation of familial, racial, religious and sexual and community needs and feelings. They are all linked in some way or another. Since he lacked all of these things for so long, it is definitely harder for him to feel needed, wanted or loved because he just hasn’t had any of these things for so long and that is what his mother feared while trying to help him as much as she could before she passed. Isabel and her family, along with the narrator as well are there to recover the protection and love that Sonny was lacking. Sonny’s family, starting with his parents up until it’s the narrator and his family, become his “bridge” so to speak.

James Baldwin seemed to have a pretty good outlook on the role women took within his stories from what they are “expected” to do, versus what they really wanted to be doing. In this particular era, women were expected to be the perfect wife. They were sent to school and then everybody presumed they’d get married and just become this perfect ideal housewife while raising children and waiting on their husband hand and foot. “Maintain the house, prepare meals, take care of the children, help them with their homework, be the ideal wife, do the dishes and the laundry while remaining elegant; that made the day of most American women in the 1950’s.” (Lamb, 1) It doesn’t seem like Baldwin wrote his women this way. Perhaps it was because he didn’t see them that wait himself while growing up. He wrote the women in his story with a strong sense of independence but also a gift for nurturing their families without flaw. The difference in the way Baldwin wrote these women and how women were expected to be back then is that they did a lot of the expected things because they wanted to not people assumed they should and/or would. These women were strong, self-sufficient women who were the backbones for both of their families. They carried burdens not many women would have or would have wanted to in similar situations like this. Sure, a mother might say she’d do anything for her son, as Sonny’s own mother would have and probably did, but when it comes down to it many mothers would turn on their children out of shame. Baldwin’s characters absolutely shine above these stereotypes in the brightest light and create a positive outlook on women in this era.

Works Cited

Baldwin, J. (2011). Another Country, “Sonny’s Blues”. Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin.

Lee, Dorothy H. “The Bridge of Suffering.” JSTOR, The Johns Hopkins University Press, www.jstor.org/stable/2930529.

Vanessa Martins Lamb. “The 1950’s and the 1960’s and the American Woman: The Transition from the ”Housewife” to the Feminist.” History. 2011. ffdumas-00680821


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