Suffering and Surviving in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues

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Suffering and Surviving in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues

In "Sonny's Blues" James Baldwin presents an intergenerational portrait of suffering and survival within the sphere of black community and family. The family dynamic in this story strongly impacts how characters respond to their own pain and that of their family members. Examining the central characters, Mama, the older brother, and Sonny, reveals that each assumes or acknowledges another's burden and pain in order to accept his or her own situation within an oppressive society. Through this sharing each character is able to achieve a more profound understanding of his own suffering and attain a sharper, if more precarious, notion of survival.

Mama, as a member of an older generation, represents the suffering that has always been a part of this world. She spent her life coexisting with the struggle in some approximation to harmony. Mama knew the futility of trying to escape the pain inherent in living, she knew about "the darkness outside," but she challenged herself to survive proudly despite it all (419). Mama took on the pain in her family in order to strengthen herself as a support for those who could not cope with their own grief. Allowing her husband to cry for his dead brother gave her a strength and purpose that would have been hard to attain outside her family sphere. She was a poor black woman in Harlem, yet she was able to give her husband permission for weakness, a gift that he feared to ask for in others. She gave him the right to a secret, personal bitterness toward the white man that he could not show to anyone else. She allowed him to survive. She marveled at his strength, and acknowledged her part in it, "But if he hadn't had...

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...f supporter he finds a will to survive consciously. He may not be able to change anything, but he is there (422).

The central characters in "Sonny's Blues" afford one another a place in which to suffer. The relationships between these brothers and their mother reveal the ways in which family members allow each other moments of weakness in order to access and resolve personal grief. By allowing one another to suffer, the pain becomes easier to bear. They gain a sense of empathy that helps them to face the life ahead of them. The narrator feels "for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet" (439). It is this feeling of companionship that pushes these characters forward against the trouble.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues." The Oxford Book of American Short Stories 1992: 409 - 439.

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