March 14, 2023
Rereading “Sonny’s Blues”
This morning I spent with James Baldwin and his 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues.” It’s always been a favorite, and it’s what made me a fan of his work. I’ve been slowly making my way through his novels—I’ve taught Go Tell It in the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room the last two times I taught the novel course—and his short fiction and essays are excellent. One of the best things about rereading is that my forestructure changes as do the realities of the world, coloring how we look at the text—even those we think we know very well. While I always knew “Sonny’s Blues” was about listening—it struck me this time as a theme that needs to be emphasized again. People talk a lot; they seldom listen.
The unnamed narrator is an everyman figure—a reflection of his own mid-fifties black community in Harlem, but also one who is a stranger in many ways to that community. He teaches high school kids algebra—something that seems so irrelevant to their daily lives, but symbolic of how he has made something of himself. In a sense, he has isolated himself from the community and feels superior to others he encounters throughout the story, like Sonny’s friend at the beginning, barmaids, church-goers, and even his brother Sonny—certainly the “good-time people” who listen to jazz. Put another way, he has escaped, perhaps only temporarily, the “menace” (which he now calls “their reality,” suggesting that he does not share it) of the mean streets of Harlem by educating himself and not falling prey to the darkness that permeates the story.
Later, the narrator again alludes to “a hidden menace which was [the streets’] very breadth of life.” This menace is ever-present throughout the story, lurking just on the periphery, manifesting itself in various ways—from the obvious lure of drugs and violence, to a truck of drunk white men who kill the narrator’s uncle and the polio that takes the life of his daughter Grace. The death of Grace seems to be a footnote in the story, but it may speak to the the narrator’s isolation. In Christianity, grace is a gift of salvation from God to the undeserving as a reward for faith and devotion. However, Grace has been taken from the narrator, leaving him “sitting in the living room in the dark” alone, and perhaps strengthening the menace that the narrator senses around him. The narrator’s loss of grace helps to illuminate the final image in the story: the narrator sends Sonny a drink which is put on his piano. As Sonny plays the narrator writes: “For me, then, as they began to play again, [the drink] glowed and shook my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.” The “cup of trembling” alludes to Isiah:
|“||Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of trembling unto all the people round about, when they shall be in the siege both against Judah and against Jerusalem. . . . Thus saith thy Lord the Lord, and thy God that pleads for his people, ‘Behold, I have taken out of your hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; you shall not drink from it again.’||”|
|— Isaiah, 51:17; 51:22|
These lines seem to speak of a punishment to the wicked of Jerusalem, but later of God’s granting grace to the faithful by removing whatever causes the cup to tremble, perhaps something like the “menace” of the streets. As the narrator sits in the darkness after Grace dies, he thinks of Sonny: “My trouble made his real.” Baldwin’s text seems to suggest that the narrator had to lose grace in order to be able to make a connection again to Sonny and perhaps his community. While Sonny’s existential low point was heroine, the narrator’s was losing Grace. His tragedy makes him receptive to Sonny’s plight, allowing the narrator to begin listening.
It’s through the blues, then, that Sonny and the narrator begin to connect and heal, much like how blues tradition was rooted in slaves’ attempts to make suffering bearable.
. . .
- ↑ I talked about much of this in a previous post on “Sonny’s Blues.”
- ↑ Baldwin, James (January 1, 1994) . "Sonny's Blues". Reading and Writing About Literature. By Sipiora, Phillip. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. p. 81.
- ↑ Sipiora 1997, p. 88.
- ↑ Sipiora 1997, p. 84.
- ↑ Sipiora 1997, pp. 86–87, 92.
- ↑ Sipiora 1997, p. 99.
- ↑ Sipiora 1997, p. 92.