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Sonny's Blues is a story about a young man from Harlem, New York City, who plays jazz music. Sonny became addicted to heroin and became involved in the hard drug trade, which led to his capture. His older brother, the narrator, picks him up and invites him to live with his family after he is released from jail. Sonny worked as a missionary in the Pentecostal church where his father introduced him when he was a child (Baldwin 22). When he grew older, Sonny strayed from church authority and pursued a life of music and drugs. He got an apartment in the village of Greenwich, New York City but later moved to Paris because of hatred towards his race and sexuality. Sonny was a gay black man. Blues, in the title of the move, are the life struggles and the problem that Sonny faced as he grows up, the discrimination, the arrest for drug use, problem with the family among others. His brother claims that other musicians introduced Sonny into drugs whereas to Sonny, he used drugs as an escape from his suffering and struggles. Race and cultural heritage have been a problem in the United States of America especially the Black families. There are instances they are abused, insulted and discriminated against just because of their skin color. This is a story of a young man that is facing life as a Blackman who has to deal with social ills perpetrated to people of his race. The Blues are his struggles, his found love in music as a solace to the sufferings.
This essay will analyze the significance of racial identity and cultural heritage.
Racism and segregation is a feeling that is not so obvious throughout the story of Sonny’s Blues. It is a dark undercurrent that can be felt all through Sonny’s journey and the story of life. For example, the narrator states “I couldn’t believe it: but what I mean by that is that I couldn’t find any room for it anywhere inside of me. I had kept it outside me for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to know” pg.103, the narrator had closed himself to part of his culture and race, Black American community. He is living the life by practicing what the white community deemed respectable. It is as if he set aside everything unpleasant about his community and kept them at a distance (Baldwin 23). He has been assimilated to white culture, which in his view is superior. Wretchedly, his brother is arrested for drug use and dealings. He did not contact him for months while in jail. This part shows how African-American especially the elites were obsessed with the cultural practices and lifestyle of the white community to the extent that they were beginning to close their ears and eyes to their own culture and sufferings. This is significant as it can be said to have contributed to the long sufferings of the black community in the hands of their white counter parts and delayed fights for equal rights between the two communities.
Similarly, another sentiment by the narrator, “These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush, and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities," pg 104. The narrator is reflecting on the pain that racism in institutions has subjected the black community. It is as if black had limits that they can reach as adults, in their studies and so forth. These limits are based on the fact that they are African American society. Racism has made institutions to force work to keep the students of black community impoverished and trapped in their lives(Baldwin 25). This part is significant in that it shows why the black community lagged behind in development and education for a long time. Schools were not favorable; they did not have the privileges that the whites had. It shows the struggles that the black endured in their lives in the 1950s before the civil rights movement that demanded equal rights. These frustrations forced some of the African-Americans to engage in drugs dealings and abuses as the only way they could afford the lives of the whites. They could not get good jobs, and if they do, it is through lots of struggles as compared to the whites. The society simply placed a limit on their head, regarding growth professionally and personally. Sonny is an example of a black man that engages in drugs because of the frustrations a fact that the brother does not want to accept. The narrator describes the neighborhood, Harlem, where Sonny was born and raised as “boiling sea” pg.112. This word was used to describe the place as full of misery; the community living there is forced to live an oppressive and painful life. In page104, he commented that his students are full if rage. This is the cause of frustrations and the reasons why the blacks lived a violent life full of crimes. Further, Sonny wondered aloud how the anger and hatred in this neighborhood have grown to a dangerous level he says “don’t blow the avenue apart” Baldwin, page.135. This shows the anger as well as the desperation that has plagued the back community in Harlem. In the struggle to escape sufferings of their neighborhood, they find themselves using even the unorthodox means. This is significant in understanding the reason as to why the black is considered as the violent, cruel community. They are raised in a life of oppression where nothing comes easy. Their struggles are always faced with discrimination from the white society who either insult them or do not look at them as their equals. It shows the journey of American society as far as racism is concerned. In other words, the life of a criminal is not something the blacks chose to do, but rather a victim of their circumstances and trapped life of isolation from the privileges that could have made their lives less miserable like good schools, access to education funds, jobs among others. The story is a narration of the black society in the period it was written. It also opens more about the racism in the past and can be seen as more adverse as compared to what it is today. This is significant in knowing the American history, the struggles of the past and the progress that has been made so far.
The blues, as the title goes appears as a genre of jazz music even though it is not. It is the “tales of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph” pg.139. Therefore Sonny’s Blues is how he suffered, the racism, the segregation of the black community and the triumphs made along the way. He managed to escape and see the world beyond Harlem when he moved to New York and later joined the navy. His brother too escaped, found a good job and lived a quiet middle-class life.
In sum, Sony’s Blues has exposed the past struggles of American society and relationship between the black and whites. The privileges they had and why the African American lived a life of violence and crime. They were raised up in a tough neighborhood full of hatred and deplorable conditions. The government of the day did not care much about them. It was they to find a way out of it. It was significant in the evaluation of the progress the America has made as far as the issue of the racism is concerned. Sonny presents what may African Americans went through in their lives, trapped, limited in progress and no privilege or help to move them up the ladder of success. It is a story of Sonny’s actual music in an attempt to connect with his audience to retrieve suffering they the society of African-American has undergone throughout their lives. The title the blues, at the end of the story can be seen as the genre of music while at the begging it was more like the sufferings the young man went through and the solace or redemption he found in playing music.
Baldwin, James. Sonny's blues. Ernst Klett Sprachen, 2009.
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