“Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin is an account given from the perspective of a brother to a heroin addict in Harlem. The encounters that the characters have with those around them bring to light the fundamental African American experience in the United States; one of suffering. Looking at the historical and cultural context of the text helps readers understand better where the author, Baldwin, was coming from. For instance, Baldwin shows readers how the narrator was left with the responsibility of raising his sibling just like he was in his own personal life. The narrator shows the lack of upward mobility for African Americans despite their best efforts through the struggles of the narrator to try and get the family out of Harlem. Finally, Baldwin shows readers the drug problem that afflicted members of his community by showing how the narrator dealt with the news of his brother’s use of drugs. The story of Sonny and his elder brother is a good memoir about the life of the average resident at Harlem. It addresses the suffering that African Americans were going through at that time in history.
Baldwin writes about the struggle with drugs in the African American community. The story begins with the narrator learning about his brother’s arrest. His brother, Sonny, was found dealing and using drugs. Such an opening introduces users to a world where the use of drugs was common place and they should not be surprised. In “Sonny’s Blues”, the narrator lives in the inner city area where the use of drugs is rampant. He works as a teacher in a school teaching algebra. Among his students he knows that there are some students who use drugs, and with dismay, he sees how their lives take a turn for the worse as the addiction gets a bigger hold on them. When he learns of his brother’s drug use, he says, “I didn’t want to believe that I’d ever see my brother going down, coming to nothing, all that light in his face gone out, in the condition I’d already seen so many others.” (Baldwin 170)
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The issue hits home when the narrator suspects that his brother is addicted to heroin. Sonny justifies his drug abuse as a means to help him cope with his suffering. Similarly, the author (Baldwin) is a victim of drug abuse. His biological father was a user and this forced his mother to leave him and go find a new life with another man. Therefore, when readers read “Sonny’s Blues” they start understanding why a user might want to use drugs. Sonny says that the drugs help him feel as though he is in control of his situation. Again, this need for control has an underlying cause of African Americans feeling trapped in their predicaments (Kowalska 4). With few and limited means he can use to better his life, Sonny turns to drugs to alleviate his suffering. In writing this, Baldwin highlights the plight of the African American in a segregated society. Being victims of social injustices left many hopeless. Such despondence left them vulnerable to becoming users of harmful drugs. Therefore, such an understanding could help readers understand where Sonny is coming from when he says that he enjoys the feeling that the drugs give him.
Baldwin wrote “Sonny’s Blues” during a period when the communities in the United States were segregated by race. The segregation of the community was widespread with people using social amenities based on their race. “Sonny’s Blues” was created during the Civil Rights Movement which highlighted the issues that were afflicting the African American community. An area where segregation affected African Americans adversely was the restrictions on their residential areas. There were laws and private agreements that restricted home owners from selling homes to people of African descent due to the fear that an African American presence would lower the price of their homes (Ronell 55). In the text, readers get to understand that the narrator has a stable job which can allow him to move to a better area; effectively escaping the menace of drugs and violence that accompanies it. However, it is unfortunate that due to the segregation in residential areas, the narrator finds himself trapped in Harlem due to redlining. He cannot move to other areas, thus, he continues suffering in a neighborhood that is not his ideal residence. Therefore, Baldwin easily brings this problem to the forefront. The book provides a good historical and cultural context for readers to see why the characters made the choices that they did. Readers who wonder why African Americans continue living in the areas of hardship get to understand how factors that are out of the control of the African Americans force their hand when it comes to choices they have for residential areas. Despite the fact that the narrator is economically stable, his upward mobility is greatly limited and forces him to continue in the cycle of suffering that he was born into. The narrator refers to his living condition as the “darkness”. He is overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness because despite his best efforts, he fails to improve the lot of his family. The narrator feels he did everything right to the best of his abilities (Taylor 80). He joined the army and served his country. After the war, he came back and got a college degree. After his college degree he even managed to get a regular job as a teacher. However, despite his best efforts, his family was still stuck in Harlem. Therefore, the narrator is left suffering in his darkness.
African American suffering is well documented throughout history. There are issues that members of the community face that have psychological effects on them. For instance, from a young age, African American children are burdened with the various responsibilities that they have to take care of. This problem is most especially true for the older siblings who are left with the responsibility of having to take care of the younger siblings (Lee 97). James Baldwin had nine siblings and his mother expected him to help take care of them. For a child, such responsibility coming early can be detrimental to their development because they are forced to grow up fast. Moreover, this is a common problem in the African American society. Understanding this problem helps readers understand the pressure that the narrator felt when his mother told him that he would have to take care of his younger brother, Sonny. Baldwin was writing about his own experience of having to care for his younger siblings somewhat like a parent when he wrote “Sonny’s Blues”. This is a task that the narrator was never prepared for and throughout readers get to see him struggle with his brother. When Sonny says that he wants to play the piano and be a jazz musician, the narrator objects taking on the responsibility of the parent and this decision does not sit well with Sonny who decides that he is going to play the piano anyways. Here, the narrator tries to be a parent to Sonny and fails. However, when he softens his stand and goes to see his brother play he gets to understand his brother better. He understands that they are both suffering and playing the piano is Sonny’s way of dealing with his suffering.
In conclusion, the historical and cultural context of “Sonny’s Blues” helps readers to understand the ideas that Baldwin introduced in his story better. The racial segregation that existed in the fifties limited the options for African Americans. Therefore, when the narrator tried to move out of Harlem, he was saddened to find out that this move would not be possible. The narrator also brings to light the issue of children being turned to parent figures for their younger siblings. Despite his best efforts to parent his brother, the narrator found that he was better at simply being his brother. Finally, the narrator shows readers the general attitude of the African American community at the time about drug use. He was affected by the issue since he had someone close to him being a user. In addition to that, the narrator is saddened by the widespread use of the drugs by the youth around where he lives. “Sonny’s Blues” provides a spot on account of what life looked like for the average African American around Baldwin’s time. Therefore, looking at the culture and history surrounding the text provides users with a better understanding of the text.
- Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Granta book of the American Short Story. London, UK: Granta, 1992.
- Kowalska, Eva. “Troubled reading: ‘Sonny’s Blues’ and empathy.” Literator 3.1 (2015): 1-6.
- Lee, D. H. “The bridge of suffering.” Callaloo 18 (1983): 92-99.
- Ronell, A. Crack wars: Literature, addiction, mania. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
- Taylor, D. “Three lean cats in a hall of mirrors: James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Eldridge Cleaver on race and masculinity.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 52.1 (2010): 70-101.