A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra.
Baldwin wrote the story in 1957, gave it a narrator with no name and used music and light to capture a high-definition snapshot of life in Harlem during the 50s.
The 21-page short story ‘Sonnys Blues’ gets its name from the narrator’s younger brother who is a jazz pianist and whose music tells, with the smooth elegance of the Blues genre, a story of “the fire and fury of the battle” within him.
Reading Baldwin’s prose means always expecting him to conjure up an unconventionally stylish phrase and yet being filled with shock when it finally hits you. The opening paragraph draws you into the story with the casual confidence of a friend confiding in you.
“I read it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it.”
It is with such grace that Baldwin starts his story and paces you through it with gentle steps, sometimes taking your hand and describing past memories, using flashback embedded in flashback at one moment.
One interesting aspect of this story is the author’s use of light or perhaps the absence of it to describe the hopelessness of the black community in Harlem. The narrator, a high school Maths teacher, has sunk into a state in which he’s at once pessimistic and understanding of the predicament faced by the residents of Harlem’s rundown and dilapidated housing projects. Describing his students, the narrator remarks:
“They were filled with rage. All they knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to the other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone.”
The social critic in Baldwin bleeds all over the author’s words and just as strongly as he held his position on black and white relations in America as being central to the country’s future, so too does he articulate the effect of technology and drugs on his society. Despite being over 60 years old, Baldwin’s words in this story still resonate with our times.
Baldwin was a firm believer in the artist’s crucial role in shaping a society and so his style, in a way, found form in that belief so that the divide between the narrator and the author himself blurs as one reads on.
The narrator, from whose point of view we experience the story unfold, tumbles back and forth between a silent sensitivity and a firm strictness but maintains an inability to communicate the heavy sentiment within him and it is because of this that as readers, we are sympathetic and understanding of him in times when he attempts to show signs of genuine feeling.
“Isabel will sometimes wake me up with a low, moaning, strangling sound and I have to be quick to awaken her and hold her to me and where Isabel is weeping seems a mortal wound.”
Also central to the story’s plot is the narrator’s younger brother ‘Sonny’ and it is his character that voices the unsaid, that suffers, feels and attempts to numb the feelings and yet feels nonetheless. Sonny’s character is built brick by brick into what feels like an answer to a question that seems omnipresent in the story: “Why must we suffer?”
Sonny talks through his music, and Baldwin so skillfully records in perfect prose the musical conversation Sonny has with his band mates. The narrator observes what music does to the people in Harlem: “The music seemed to soothe a poison out of them” — and as he watches his brother play, the observation rings even truer.
“Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.”
Baldwin is careful not to suggest misleading, unrealistic endings however and the narrator indeed points out that the joy of that moment as he watches his brother play, voicing the million muted matters within him, is transient.
“And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as a hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.”
‘Sonnys Blues’ is a great, big window out of which Harlem’s black community as it was in the 50s, calls out to the reader, begging to be heard, and the call comes in the form of the 50s’ great jazz era, the masked struggle to exist amidst racial tensions and the threat of oblivion; that the struggle would come to be forgotten, that it would have been for nothing. Baldwin asks us to look out this great, big window and refrain from wanting parts of the unscenic view changed, to look at it as is.
“For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light in all this darkness.”
- Author: James Baldwin
- Published in: 1957
- Pages: 21