Table of contents
- Introduction: The Struggles of Two Brothers in Harlem
- Historical Context: Harlem in the 1950s
- The Scourge of Drug Abuse in Urban Areas
- Music as a Form of Expression and Rebellion
- Dark Imagery: Reflecting the Grim Realities of Harlem
- A Marxist Perspective: Class and Racial Oppression
- Conclusion: The Inescapable Traps of Society and Systemic Injustice
Introduction: The Struggles of Two Brothers in Harlem
When the odds are stacked against you, what do you do? Do you rise above and take your future into your own hands or do you become a victim of your situation? This theme was prevalent throughout the short story “Sonny’s Blues” written in 1957 by James Baldwin. “Sonny’s Blues”, set in Harlem in 1957, touched upon the struggles of two African American brothers, the narrator and Sonny. The narrator is an Algebra teacher in Harlem while Sonny is a heroin addict and drug dealer turned jazz musician. This story focuses on how they finally came to understand each other after years apart and living their own, very different lives. Sonny and the narrator deal with many hardships throughout the story, which all seem to stem from factors pertaining to class and race. Sonny and his brother’s position in society directly relates to Sonny’s drug problems, their living conditions, and the narrator's inability to relate to his brother and see the world through his eyes due to a distorted view of how the world works. Since these factors heavily contribute to the overall theme and conflicts of the story, a new historical and marxist approach are best when analyzing this text further from different angles.
Historical Context: Harlem in the 1950s
It is important to understand the historical context of “Sonny’s Blues” because it conveys the struggles African Americans faced in regards to racism, the poor choices of drug and alcohol abuse, and poverty many families faced in the 1950's. During the Harlem Renaissance, artists were free to be themselves, creativity was promoted, and writing and music flourished during the 1920’s and 1930’s. However, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights Movement surrounding this time period changed Harlem’s once prosperous nature into one of poverty and sorrow. Baldwin writes “...between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood” (Baldwin 73). Here, Baldwin paints a contrasting picture of the colorful park against the “lifeless” building and streets to emphasize how Harlem never regained its once greatness. While the narrator has done everything right in life such as served time in the military, attended college, and became an algebra teacher at a local school, his family still remains in the housing projects. This demonstrates how hard it was to escape a life of poverty in 1950 Harlem.
The Scourge of Drug Abuse in Urban Areas
Another important historical context for this story was drug abuse. Drug abuse became predominant in the urban areas in the 1950’s. The most popular illegal drugs at the time were marijuana and heroin. Heroin became predominant in the urban areas after World War II where it was widely distributed, and marijuana saw an increase in usage, particularly among the youth. The abundance of drugs and gangs in Harlem at the time played a big role in Sonny’s drug abuse which ultimately landed him in jail. If it weren’t for the rapid distribution and usage of drugs, Sonny possibly could’ve ended up in a better position in life like his brother.
Music as a Form of Expression and Rebellion
The 1950’s were a difficult period for African Americans to flourish in the music industry, especially due to segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. During the early 1950’s, a new jazz called Bebop emerged. Those who listened to Bebop were looking for a replacement for the music Sonny referred to as “old-time, down home crap” such as Louis Armstrong (Baldwin 79). Bebop became a way of expression, escape, and happiness for Sonny. He wanted to move past the traditional conventions of music and express new notions of individual freedom and artistic liberty. Sonny’s music was more than just a backdrop for his drug use. When he first tells the narrator that he wants to play jazz, the narrator tries to indicate he will have to play the music that he can make a living out of, not necessarily what he wants to play. “‘No, I don't know that,’ said Sonny, surprising me. ‘I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for’” (Baldwin 80)? Sonny is saying we should not let the system dictate who we are, and is instead insisting we rebel against the normal standards. He and his fellow bandmates on stage wanted to find new ways to make society listen, even at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death.
Dark Imagery: Reflecting the Grim Realities of Harlem
Baldwin additionally creates lots of dark imagery to emphasize this gloomy time period in Harlem. He often speaks of the darkness of the events, people, and Harlem itself, which ultimately represents the poverty and sorrow that the narrator and his brother are forced to live in. In fact, images of darkness are present from the very beginning of the story when the narrator learns of Sonny’s arrest. The narrator said he felt “trapped in the darkness which roared outside” (Baldwin 67). Having this dark imagery first appear from the very beginning of the story sets the negative tone in Harlem for the rest of the story. This theme then continues on in the first flashback when the families’ normal Sunday activities are introduced. While one would expect it to be a happy and fulfilling time, the narrator often refers to the “darkness” that has settled over everyone as the adults speak of their past and where they’ve come from (Baldwin 75). Showing how a simple family-filled Sunday afternoon quickly turns into silence as the night falls, demonstrates the significance and impact their dark childhood had on them, even now as adults. With the passing of their parents, Sonny’s drug addiction which lands him in jail, and the passing of the narrator’s daughter, the narrator and Sonny continue to suffer many tragedies throughout their lives which ultimately keep the darkness hanging over their heads.
A Marxist Perspective: Class and Racial Oppression
Switching now to a marxist approach, Baldwin tackles issues of race and class in “Sonny’s Blues” without directly referring to the tumultuous 1950’s in which it was written. The story shows how the inequalities of race in the United States have resulted in permanent underclass status and misery for the black community. Social and economic structures work together to doom the lives of African Americans, who can only internalize this for so long.
The narrator gives us a look into the lives of African Americans as the bottom class of the societal structure. The idea of the hopelessness of their social status is repeated throughout the story. On the day he learns of Sonny’s incarceration, the narrator looks out of the window from his classroom and sees the boys in the schoolyard, and describes their lives as being lived in darkness and filled with rage (Baldwin 67). Here, it is clear that this darkness does not stem from adulthood, but rather childhood surroundings. When he later picks up Sonny from jail, he repeats this idea, “But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn't” (Baldwin 73). The idea Baldwin is suggesting is that these housing projects are not the safest and neither are the streets where the children can get fresh “light and air”. The last line of this quote is short but significant. The trap Baldwin is referring to is life itself. While many could consider the narrator as someone who “escaped the trap”, realistically he didn’t. Yes, he didn’t fall into bad habits like Sonny, but at the end of the day, he is right back where he started--in the slum streets of Harlem living in a housing project. Furthermore, when the narrator was walking down the street with Sonny’s boyhood friend, he passed a bar and saw a waitress and commented, “When she smiled one saw the little girl, one sensed the doomed, still-struggling woman beneath the battered face of the semi-whore” (Baldwin 69). Not everyone in Harlem was fortunate enough to become a math teacher. For most boys and girls, options were very limited. Sonny and this waitress are two examples of how people like them don’t get many chances to escape and end up getting the degrading and low paying jobs. Through the narrator, Baldwin is making the point that African Americans are born doomed because of their race and their class in society.
Life and hope are constantly juxtaposed against death and hopelessness. For example, the green of the park leads to the “killing streets of our childhood” (73). And, when the narrator recalls watching his parents sit with church people in the house, he comments on how silence came with nightfall, and as the lights came on in the house, the children were filled with darkness (Baldwin 75). Both quotes here demonstrate the darkness and hopelessness that surrounds African Americans. At every corner there is darkness. Furthermore, when Sonny is looking out the window of his brother’s apartment and says “‘All that hatred down there,’' he said, '’all that hatred and misery and love. It's a wonder it doesn't blow the avenue apart’' (Baldwin 89). While this is not a call to action by Baldwin, it is a warning. Baldwin is telling the ruling capitalist class that their system of class and racial oppression will result in rebellion, in the avenue blowing apart. Throughout the story the narrator paints a picture of the light and happiness only for it to be replaced instead by darkness and death. All of this is a result of the race and class of the narrator and his family.
The narrator refers to faith twice, and in both instances, seems to tell us that religion does not save everyone, especially those at the bottom of society. Later in the story, the narrator watches out his apartment window as a group of supposedly religious people sing a song about saving souls. The narrator comments, “Not a soul under the sound of their voices was hearing this song for the first time, not one of them had been rescued. Nor had they seen much in the way of rescue work being done around them” (Baldwin 85). The narrator is commenting how singing religious songs will not do anyone any good. He has lost his faith in God and doesn’t believe any spiritual being can save everyone. Additionally, Sonny comments “Give my love to Isabel and the kids and I was sure sorry to hear about little Gracie. I wish I could be like Mama and say the Lord's will be done, but I don't know it seems to me that trouble is the one thing that never does get stopped and I don't know what good it does to blame it on the Lord. But maybe it does some good if you believe it” (Baldwin 71-72). Sonny is separating himself from Mama because he himself does not believe in the Lord. Without saying it directly, author Baldwin has made the point that it is the American capitalist system and class structure, with black people at the bottom, which has relegated these people to hopeless lives. He also shows through the narrator and the church people, that playing by the rules and living within the social structures and institutions of that society, fail to help the people.
Conclusion: The Inescapable Traps of Society and Systemic Injustice
After looking through a historical and marxist lens, it is clear that the 1950’s, race, and class are all important to consider when reading “Sonny’s Blues”. This story is in essence a tale of two brothers, both black and both near the bottom rung of society. The narrator lives within the structures predetermined by a racist and classist society while Sonny instead chose a rebellious life through jazz and drugs in an attempt to control his own life. Through both of them, we glimpse the hopelessness of the lives of African Americans imposed by the broken societal system. We see how even religion is not enough to solve this issue, and thus rebellion is the only solution. However, if society fails to change and find a way to fix the problem, it will result in violence in the streets to overthrow the system in place.