Expectations in Sonny's Blues, by James Baldwin Essay

Expectations in Sonny's Blues, by James Baldwin Essay

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Segregation – prejudice – persecution: slavery had ended, but African-Americans were still forced to carve out a grim existence beneath the dispassionate stare of narrow-minded bigots. Soon, the Civil Rights Movement would gain momentum and drastically alter such social exclusion, but James Baldwin writes his story “Sonny’s Blues” before this transformation has occurred. In the style of other Post-Modernist writers of his day, Baldwin invents two brothers, Sonny and the narrator, who seem to have given up on finding meaning in their lives: escape, not purpose, is the solution for suffering. Although marginalized by white society, these men are still influenced by external standards – most noticeably our narrator. Using these two brothers as voices for a broader purpose, Baldwin develops conflicts within the story to depict a battle between the expectations of society (our unnamed narrator) and a free, African-American spirit (Sonny) as they each try to understand how to live in a changing world. Baldwin forces them to grapple with such difficult concepts as escape and suffering in an attempt to guide his own race toward the soothing balm of reconciliation.
The first conflict that Baldwin introduces is the clash between the narrator’s expectations and Sonny’s desires. As the more responsible and settled of the two brothers, the narrator is of course tasked with taking care of Sonny after his parent’s death. His mother pleads with him, “You got to hold on to your brother…and don’t let him fall, no matter what is looks like is happening to him…” (Baldwin 30). Seven years older than Sonny and working as an Algebra teacher, he seems to have escaped the dark depravity of Harlem and found a small measure of peace and happiness with his ...


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...t and even embrace their suffering so that their lives can continue. His reference to the cup of trembling is not merely a symbol of suffering, but also a reference to the sorrow that Jesus Christ willingly embraced – a sorrow with which Baldwin’s intended audience would have been very familiar. Although Sonny’s life is indeed about non-conformity and individualism, it is also about reconciliation: not just the reconciliation of two brothers, but also peace between the African community and the injuries (both mental and physical) that they had endured. The past will never vanish, no matter how stubbornly we try to escape it; Baldwin’s question to his readers is how we will allow it to shape our present and future.



Works Cited


Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Jazz Fiction Anthology. Ed. Sascha Feinstein and David Rife. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009. 17-48.

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