Chris Couts ENC 1102 Professor Jacobs April 7th 2014 Sonny’s Blues: Emotion in the Works Baldwin the author of Sonny’s Blues grew up in the heart of Harlem, he lived during such a time when inequality and racism existed; He was forced to move searching for equality and to be able to write in peace. His ambition was to not to be judged by the color of his skin but by the content of his work. This is where he wrote Sonny’s Blues a masterpiece of the Negro sense of community enlightening his readers to the individual. The influencing of his work comes from his own biographical experiences, which relates to his overall theme and his extended scapegoat metaphor. Baldwin is born in 1924, and grew up in Harlem, which was the center of black intellectual studies and works of art. According to Baldwin, Harlem was a “dreadful place… a kind of concentration camp,” (qtd in “Sonny’s Blues.” Short Stories). Baldwin claimed that at the age of ten he was beaten by two police officers just because of the color of his skin. This came to influence his work greatly, especially when he moves to Greenwich where he begins to take writing seriously(“Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin”). “I could see where I came from very clearly…. I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both”, accepting himself he begins to write about his childhood and growing up in the heart of Harlem (qtd in “Sonny’s Blues.” Short Stories). Producing the work, Sonny’s Blues, he places himself into the story as the narrator. Drawing similarities we can look at the life of James Baldwin and the work of Sonny’s Blues.


The narrator, Sonny’s brother, is a teacher just how James Baldwin was once a preacher or a teacher of religion (“Sonny’s Blues.” Short Stories). The overall story is about the narrator understanding his brother just how James Baldwin came to understand and accept himself and his childhood. The narrator becomes enlightened that he will always be considered black regardless of his success just how Baldwin accepts himself. Furthermore, since Baldwin was a preacher before he moved to Greenwich, there are items of religious symbolism strung throughout the short story representing his past as a preacher. These items consist of the “cup of trembling” and the religious symbolism of a halo “glowed and shook above my brother’s head” (Baldwin). This use of religious ideas directly represents Baldwin’s past of once being a preacher. Suffering is the main theme in Sonny’s Blues, specifically the suffering of the African American’s. This can be found in the story by the death of Sonny’s uncle at the hands of drunken white drivers. The consequences of the treatment of African Americans is further expressed in Sonny’s father who is tormented by the memory of his brother’s death and again suffers immensely because of it. This further stems to a hatred of whites and how that represents the overall cycle of pain and suffering as unforeseen consequences and this pain and suffering turns into hatred. Sonny’s mother is suffering for her son, because she understands the harshness of life in Harlem. Even Sonny’s brother, the narrator, is suffering. This becomes apparent in the darkness he begins to sees everywhere, even in his students. He begins to imagine seeing them using heroin in the bathroom between classes and say that “their laughter… was not the joyous laughter… [the] one associates with children”(Baldwin). This depicts how the effect of finding out that his younger brother who just like his students could be using. The narrator begins to feel the pain and suffering for his brother and students. Another example which also stems from the


narrator finding out about his younger brother is when he states that “a great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long … It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins” (Baldwin). However, the one who is suffering the most is Sonny, he has engulfed himself into the blues and with this comes heroin use which he knows will inevitably kill him. Racism plays a role in the short story by putting emphasis on the individual it portrays blacks as unique members of a community with its own traditions and values. This emphasis on the individual stems from the racial bias growing up in James Baldwin’s life when he lived in Harlem. Like the characters in “Sonny’s Blues”, James Baldwin is trying to find himself throughout his life and he implements his own real life experiences into the experiences of his characters, in this case it’s the emphasis on the individual and the uniqueness of growing up in a harsh environment in such a unique group of individuals. In Sonny’s Blues he illustrates the racial status by the use of Sonny and his brother (narrator). The narrator fits into the white society, he is an Algebra teacher in a New York high school, while on the other hand Sonny goes in the complete opposite direction. He does not live to the status quo the whites want him to live but instead engulfs himself into the blues world and becomes a heroin addict. However, early in the story he is considered the complete failure of the family. With this distinction James Baldwin is looking at the importance of the individual and how it influences the community. Similar to James Baldwin the narrator tries to run away from his culture and isolate himself from the community he grew up with, but the blues brings him back and he begins to feel a sense of community with his brother. The scapegoat metaphor is developed through images, the most important of which is music, with its links to suffering and brotherhood. Scapegoat means the sharing of pain, which is


evident when the religious meaning of the “cup of trembling” which refers to the idea of pain and suffering (Baldwin). The cup symbolizes the cleansing of sins, thus exhibiting the scapegoat metaphor by sharing the pain with Jesus (“Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin). Another example of the scapegoat metaphors is through music, for Sonny music is his outlet and carries part of the suffering for who he is. In the final scene when the narrator is watching his brother he feels the struggles of his brother flowing out of him (Reilly). James Baldwin, the author of Sonny’s Blues, wrote an Autobiography and fiction work of art. This work of art tells his life story while analyzing the suffering he felt growing up. Baldwin in his short story explored his past, with an emphasis on the suffering of himself and the community he grew up with. Suffering encompasses the whole entire story, from a biographical perspective, from the main theme of suffering in death and in life, and further explored in the scapegoat metaphor with the sharing of suffering by music and religion.


Works Cited Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Kelly J. Mays. Shorter 11th Ed. New York: Norton, 2013. Print. Murray, Donald C.”James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”: Complicated and Simple.” Studies in Short Fiction. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Apr. 2014. Reilly, John. “Sonny’s Blues”: James Baldwin’s Image of Black Community. Jstor. Vol. 4, No. 2, 56-60. Web. 2 April. 2014. "Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin." Short Story Criticism. Ed. Anna Sheets-Nesbitt. Vol. 33. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999. 115-157. Literature Criticism Online. Gale. Web. April 2, 2014. "Sonny’s Blues." Short Stories for Students. Ed. Kathleen Wilson. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 1997. 245-262. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.