Historical/New Historical

The Historical Context of African American Culture as seen through James Baldwin’s Short Story Sonny’s Blues

By Aubrey Howell

A group of African-American children gather around a sign and booth to register voters. Early 1960s.

The year 1952 brought turmoil and chaos to the city of Harlem, but out of the wreckage came James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”, which tells a story of hope and fighting against all odds. “Sonny’s Blues” is a representation of African American culture, specifically the impact of music and the chance for someone born into poverty- despite hardship- to have the chance to feel alive and connect. This story’s depth is especially impactful, since it was on the heels of the Great Depression, the Great Migration, the beginning of World War II, and in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout this short story, Baldwin displays personal hardships, traumas, and endeavors, all reflective in the characters that historically align with African American culture during this era.

The narrator and his brother, Sonny, grew up in a predominately black neighborhood in Harlem, dealing with the hardships that many African Americans faced at this time. Drugs, alcohol, and especially racism littered the streets of Upper Manhattan. Baldwin connects the fear that racism had during this time with two specific instances. The first example was the death of their father’s brother by intentionally being hit by a car and the despair felt knowing that there was never any justice. “Your father says he heard his brother scream when the car rolled over him, and he heard the wood of the guitar when it give, and he heard the strings go flying, and he heard them white men shouting, and the car kept on a-going and it ain’t stopped till this day” (Baldwin 132). The second example is Baldwin also writes how Sonny had been skipping school and been into a white woman’s apartment. The reaction of Sonny’s family is that of anger, concern, and fear. During the early 40’s it was still common to see “White Only” signs placed in businesses and shops throughout the country, to have a young black man in a white woman’s apartment was socially unacceptable during this time. Both the narrator and Sonny after being raised in this toxic environment went on to serve in the war giving them more depth of loss but also a feeling of misplacement when they returned. It was a shared experience with thousands of African Americans who also felt tossed aside after the war.

The impact that racism had on Baldwin as a kid, and seeing the racial atmosphere daily eventually led him to escape Harlem. In 1948, when he was 24, he fled to Paris where he spent the majority of his life. The story connects to a similar storyline where Sonny, despite being a good child, fell into the traps of drugs and the criminal justice system. The narrator then relates a period of time where he did not have contact with Sonny. It was not uncommon for an African American during this time to have to work harder than a white man to create some success, especially someone born into poverty. Suzy Bernstein Goldman explains, “Agitated though he is about Sonny’s fate, the narrator doesn’t want to feel himself involved. His own position on the middle class ladder of success is not secure…”(57). The narrator feels the need to protect himself and his hard work without getting involved with his brother and losing any status he might have within the middle class world.

The death of the narrator’s daughter was a turning point in changing this thinking. The abrupt realization that death is finite and what matters is not money or status, most likely allowed the narrator to have a change of heart for his brother especially since they connected a loss of a mother together before. “Thus guilt for not fulfilling their mother’s request and a sense of shared loneliness partially explains the older brother’s feeling toward Sonny.”(Sherard 693 ) During the car ride through the streets the brother’s tumultuous relationship was evident. The absent years of communication brought a subtle sense of tension in the car ride. However the streets they both wanted so badly to escape from ended up being the very thing that started to bring them back together, they both connected with the memories of the projects alone in silence, lost in their own thoughts. Once again, however, Baldwin stresses the place of the conventional set of the narrator’s mind in the complex of feelings as he has him recall scenes from the time when Sonny had started to become a jazz musician. The possibility of Sonny’s being jazz rather “seemed beneath him somehow” (Bernstein 57).

During Baldwin’s time in the United States, especially his younger years, many of the emotions and the characteristics of Sonny suggest this is what Baldwin experienced with other young black men. Sonny would retreat into the depths of his mind, or sit alone at a piano, isolating himself from society and the negative atmosphere they lived in. Baldwin endured a neglectful childhood with a stepfather who treated him more harshly than the other children. He often spent many hours alone in libraries where others found themselves entangled in the oppression of Harlem. “The oldest of nine children, he grew up in poverty, developing a troubled relationship with his strict, religious stepfather. As a child, he cast about for a way to escape his circumstances” (“James Baldwin Biography”). This can be directly linked to the character of Sonny and the emotions that he had as well as the narrator.

During this short story we learn of Sonny’s ambitions to be a pianist, not one of classical music but of the historical new jazz called bebop. The narrator tries to understand the ambition of Sonny and ask who he wants to play like. Sonny replied Charlie Parker who is credited as being one of the originators of this new jazz music of the 40s called Bebop. Throughout the story Baldwin tries to relay the importance of music specifically for the African American culture during this era. Bebop was created as a resentful representation to how the African American musicians were being treated. This new jazz was often faster paced with less cohesion amongst the other instruments, a separation from earlier jazz that was conceived with the idea it would be danced to. “Baldwin is advocating the necessity of African American self awareness of the context of their own cultural forms and particularity of the hybrid narratives that can result from their appropriation” (Reilly 693)

The impact of Jazz on the culture of Harlem is not fully comprehended by the narrator until the final scene. This new Jazz had become an escape from societal racism as well as a new expression.  Sonny’s brother sitting at a table watching his brother play and hearing it for the first time, was like unlike anything he experienced before.  In that moment you sense the shame, guilt, and pride in the narrators thoughts. He had shame for not having more connection with the African American culture, and the suffrage they all experienced. The guilt for not being able to save his brother, the promise he made his mother he knew he wouldn’t be able to keep. The way he treated his brother when he found out he wanted to me a musician. “Playing his own song, Sonny finds a way to listen, though he confesses that heroin sometimes helped him release the storm. Now he wants his brother to hear the storm too.” (Bernstein 233) The next emotion that the narrator feels is the pride he gets when his brother so effortlessly, moved his fingers across the keys producing a sound that you not only could hear but feel every essence of what it meant to be African American.

The intense connection and opportunity to have meaning in life gave Sonny a way to feel ecstasy without drugs. “He hit something in all of them, he something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air” (Baldwin 147). The different layers that Baldwin weaved into this story with the irony of how the story itself is written, make the point that the story itself is a work of music and, in the streets where there was little to or hope for, music was an outlet and joy for all. “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph 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 the darkness” (Baldwin 147).

Baldwin is able to capture the true essence of being an African American during the 1940s in this story. Due to the dehumanization that was created from societal racism, the spectrum of pain and suffering that Sonny and the narrator experienced, including James Baldwin, was difficult to mitigate. From childhood to becoming adults and finding a place in the world to understand themselves life was a struggle. They all had to learn how to escape the abandonment and shame of being a African American man and find a way to feel alive. Eventually though the powerful connection of music they were able to bond, creating a sense of redemption within the psyche of the characters within the story. This enabled them to break free from shackles of racism and feel a sense of true purpose and self-identity using the horrors of life to create something beautiful.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Another Country,“Sonny’s Blues”. 2011. Camberwell, Vic. Penguin.

John M. Reilly “James Baldwin’s Image of Black Community.” Negro American Literature Forum, vol. 4, no. 4, July 1970, pp. 56-60. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3041352 Accessed 30, March 2021.

Tracey Sherard. “Sonny’s Bebop: Baldwin’s “Blues Text” as Intercultural Critique.” African American Review, vol.32, no. 4, Winter 1998, pp.691-705. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2901246 Accessed 30, March 2021.

Suzy Bernstein Goldman. “James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”: A Message in Music.” Negro American Literature Forum, vol. 8, no. 3, Autumn 1974, pp. 231-233. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3041461 Accessed 30, March 2021.

“James Baldwin Biography and Quotes ~ James Baldwin Biography.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 4 Aug. 2020. www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/james-baldwin-about-the-author/59/




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