A Look at James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues
Michael Clark, in a critical analysis essay he wrote on James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues, examines the ways in which Baldwin uses images of light and darkness to tell the story of two brother's. Thus, being Sonny and his elder brother. Clark points out in his essay that Sonny finds his life a living hell, yet he knows enough to try and strive for better, for that saving light. He also believes that Sonny sees music as something positive and by not mastering music will result in a downfall in his life. Not only does Clark express his point of view on Sonny and his older brother, he also has the idea that the brothers' father, mother, uncle, and the elder brother's daughter Gracie each represented something greater than themselves. And one imperative thing he realizes is that each brother has been damaged by the actions of life and that they must get through these things to lead a fulfilling life.
Clark expresses in his essay that Sonny finds his life a living hell, yet he knows enough to try and strive for better, for that saving light (30). From my perspective this statement is totally true. Sonny gets mixed up in using heroin. The heroin that Sonny was using and pedaling is what made his life a living hell. When he is writing to his brother in response to the letter that he received about the death of little Gracie, he expresses this. He says that he feels like a man who has been trying to climb out of a real deep and funky hole and he just saw the sun up on the outside. Then he says he's got to get outside. When hell is pictured, one sees a bottomless pit. The usage of drugs and now his placement into the incarceration system is the hell that Sonny is in. Yet when he hears from his brother he feels he has just reached a level in his climb out of despair, where he can see the sunlight. Now he has to get out so he won't go back.
Clark also introduces the idea that Sonny sees music as positive terms and his failure to master music will result in his downfall or death (30). Now although Sonny is not yet a mature man when his mother dies, he knows what he wants to be in life and that is a musician. As he speaks to his older brother about becoming a musician then going into the army or navy, he thinks he has a plan to get out of Harlem and to make himself a better man. He figures that the G.I. Bill he receives will help him cover expenses for musical equipment. As pointed out by his brother Sonny has obviously thought about this plan quite thoroughly. He feels school is a waste of time and he has to do something that is actually going to benefit him. Sonny shows a small bit of maturity when his brother asks him to just put up with Isabel's family until he gets back and he agrees to live with them. He even looks toward the bright side of things, being that they have a piano, therefore he could practice his music. Also in the letter Sonny wrote to his brother he is sure to specifically mention to his brother to not think that him being a musician had anything to do with where he is presently placed, which is in jail. For music is not what brought him to this low stage; but he never says what has driven him there.
Something else that Clark points out that I find to be extremely undebatable is contained in Sonny's music, is a culmination of the suffering that he and his race endures. Clark believes that sorrow is turned into pure emotion and Sonny's music becomes an expression of history (31). The most obvious part of that statement is that Sonny does turn his music into his emotions. This is how his music seems so real to his brother. As his brother pointed out, while he sat and listened to Sonny at the club, he made it his own. As Sonny took control the other musicians gathered around him and they seemed to be encouraging him on, saying amen every now and then, as if he were speaking some words they desperately believed in. In Sonny's Blues while the title character is playing, the narrator says that his brother's fingers filled the air with life, his life (Baldwin 183). Then he goes on to say something that something that has great significance. He says that within his life there is so many others. Sonny is not only playing for himself. He is also playing for his mother, his brother, and everyone else that is enduring a struggle or hardship. The narrator mentions seeing his mother's face, and speaks of stones on the road she must have walked on that bruised her feet. Then he sees another road, that is moonlit, where his father's brother died. Last there are the tears felt from his wife Isabel, crying from the death of his daughter Gracie. All of these characters represent something greater than themselves. The father, mother, and uncle each represent the older generations of the African American race. The folks who have been been beaten, scorned, and killed for only one reason: being black. The road that he saw his mother walking on is the same road all blacks in her generation had to walk upon. Working in the hot cotton fields, then after a long day of work, walking back along those roads with inadequate shoes bruising their feet only to arrive home to a run down shack where they lay their heads. The father and uncle represent those men who worked hard all week and just wanted to enjoy a little time off from work, but had to be fearful of the fact that at any time they could be the center of a entertainment for the white men. Even if that entertainment meant their death. And with the father, these emotions were carried inside of him for the rest of his life, and could have been one of the factors in his death. Finally little Gracie represents the younger generation, the youths of the present time. She symbolically stands for all the juveniles who are born into the state that they are in, and can do nothing about it except fight and try and hold on as long as possible. For some of these young people there is a fairytale ending, and for others there is a result that is far beyond themselves, and that is death.
One of the last things that Clark points out is that both Sonny and his older brother has been damaged by life (30). They both have been through major losses and have gone through many challenges each were faced with. Both of them lost their mother and father, and the older brother lost his most recent addition to the family, Gracie. The brothers both suffered from the incarceration of Sonny in a way. Sonny having the feeling that he was trapped in darkness, and having nowhere to turn he would rather die than face being in his state again. His older brother just can not bring himself to face the fact that his younger brother is in jail for drugs, and when he reads the newspaper he tries imagine it is someone else. Each brother has wars going on within themselves, yet they are trying to cope with them. Sonny has his own way of dealing with things which through his music, and his brother's way is never truly revealed.
There are numerous things that Clark has pointed out and expressed in his essay that I agree with. As noted both Sonny and his brother has gone through many situations that has left a remarkable impact upon their lives. Not only that, but other characters such as the father, the mother, the uncle, and Gracie in Sonny's Blues are representations of generations larger than themselves. These characters represent the struggle of older generations, and the struggle of the younger generation. The characters in this story coupled with Sonny's music has given a broad spectrum of what is meant by the blues and what music can be a representation of.