25 Jul 2009
James Baldwin’s novel Sonny’s Blues illustrates the life of the narrator and the relationship he has with his drug addict brother. The juxtaposition of these two characters is an interesting debate on life and being black. The following paper will illustrate these two characters and the life situations they have to cope with growing up and living.
The story is told by the narrator who has a fascination with his heroin-addicted brother and his ability to play jazz on the piano. The narrator takes the reader through his working day as a teacher in an inner city. The narrator eventually comes into contact with his brother through a third party, his brother’s friend. It is at this point in the story that the narrator reads a letter written to him by his brother while he was in prison. The distance at this point in the novel that exists between the two lives of these brothers is what Baldwin wished to illustrate (Tackach 2007). One brother is locked up in prison while the other one is a teacher. This moment will play an important role when the narrator sees his brother play the piano later in the story, and how living isn’t necessary a life found on the straight edge of being a teacher, but rather is found with finding one’s passion; or rather, for ‘Sonny’ in playing jazz.
The motif of music has an important role in the novel. The music in the story, the jazz is a transforming element that allows the narrator’s brother Sonny to become a king, to become a part of something majestically that he loves so much he owns it and by all rights is a king. This role as king also has an important juxtaposition in the novel as the narrator takes the reader back to growing up together as children in Harlem with their mother (Shannon 1998).
It is at this point in the novel that Baldwin allows a sense of race to play a part in the novel; The narrator tells, through the story of the mother, how the father’s brother was run over by whites with their car and killed. Here the readers gain a sense of the race issues which abound in all of Baldwin’s works.
The checkered past of Sonny becomes quickly apparent to the reader as is seen through the narrator’s eyes. Sonny skips school to play jazz and eventually that becomes his calling card; being a piano player at local clubs. Sonny confesses to his brother that his heroin addiction is directly related to his jazz playing. Sonny admits that in this outside world, the world where there is no jazz, where his uncle was run over by a car filled with white men, that there was too much rage, too much ‘coldness’ for him to do anything about it except to take heroin, “It’s terrible sometimes, inside . . . that’s what’s the trouble. Youwalk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s really not a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out — that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen. . . . Sometimes you’ll do anything to play, even cut your mother’s throat.”
The main difference between the two brothers is seen in this naked emotion and how the narrator cannot begin to fathom its complexities or all of its sources or even how to deal with, so he just blocks it out. In blocking it out however he cannot enter into the frenzy of the jazz world, and by extension he cannot truly cope with how his uncle was killed because jazz is about expressing violence and thereby jazz becomes a type of cure for the world around the two brothers.
Baldwin’s story is a tale of race issues and involved in that theme Baldwin’s story becomes an issue of how jazz is a healing element. In the outside world, that is, the world outside of jazz, Sonny is nothing more than a jailbird and heroin addict, but inside the club, playing the piano, he is a king, and he has everyone’s attention in a positive way. For the narrator however, he doesn’t exist in the club as anything else except Sonny’s brother, while outside the kingdom he is a teacher, even that doesn’t come with much attention. Either brother is drastically different and its jazz and its acceptance that separates them.
Baldwin, James. Sonny’s Blues. Online. 18 February 2008.
Tackach, James. The Biblical Foundation of Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s
Blues'”. Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Vol. 59, 2007.
Shannon, Janet Harrison. Family and Community Secrets: Secrecy
In the Works of James Baldwin. The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 22, 1998.