James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues

533 Words3 Pages
"Sonny's Blues" takes place during the mid-20th century, probably during the early 1950s. The action of the story occurs prior to the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement, during the dark days of segregation and supposedly "separate but equal" accommodations in public institutions. You'll notice that the narrator and Sonny have grown up in predominately black and poor neighborhood of Harlem, the sons of a working-class, embittered father whose pride and optimism have been worn down by his own brother's violent death at the hands of rural Southern whites and the ensuing years of struggling to support a family in an overtly racist Northern urban community. The father has given up trying to move his family out of Harlem: "'Safe!' my father grunted, whenever Mama suggested trying to move to a neighborhood which might be safer for children. 'Safe, hell! Ain't no place safe for kids, nor nobody'" (Norton Introduction to Literature 54). As the brothers reach adulthood and the narrator begins his own family, their material circumstances haven't changed much; though the narrator is not impoverished himself and enjoys the comfortable trappings of middle class life, he and his family remain in impoverished surroundings, probably due to the de facto segregation of the safer, suburban and largely white communities they might have been able to afford. Pause, Reflect, and Chat Chat #4: "De facto" means "in reality," or, "actually existing though not legally or officially established." So "de facto segregation" would be a separation of the races that "just" happens, not because of a law saying that African Americans must live, work, go to school or worship in one place and whites in another. Do you see any de facto segregation around you, in your school, neighborhood or city? What are some of the reasons why de facto segregation might occur? The narrator is teaching algebra to boys very much like he and Sonny had been, full of potential but threatened by the drugs and violence of the urban ghetto, their futures limited by segregation and discrimination. The narrator describes the boys he teaches, to whom he likens Sonny and himself as boys, in the following way: "They were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. All they really 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 that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone (Norton Introduction to Literature 48).
Open Document