The Representation of Race in Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin and The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

The Representation of Race in Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin and The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

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The Representation of Race in Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin and The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

The journey undergone by the narrator (and elder brother) in Sonny’s blues may be short in literary terms but is said to be one of the tenderest and thought provoking pieces in modern fiction.
Indirect comparisons between life and music are rich within many of the paragraphs and pages and remain quietly present throughout the duration of the story even when less patent.
Jazz as a genre is undeniably unpredictable and often misunderstood.
The jazz listened to, played and loved by Sonny is used as a colorful metaphor right through the story.
The examples are endless. One crucial one was the almost unbearable frustration the narrator experienced while looking outside in to Sonny’s life.
He saw a chaotic, capricious mess when he looked at the life his younger brother lived; much like the erratic and confusing disarray he heard when he heard Jazz.
Although Sonny was aware of the detrimental direction his life was going in, he chose to continue to make music wit beats and rhythms not understood by his brother.
Narrator compared every angle and direction of Sonny’s choices with one another; the drugs, the music, the lack of reality in his preferences- he related each with the other and initially distanced himself from his sibling who he still loved dearly, mainly because he didn’t understand why a well adjusted young man would choose to live a life to indicate that he was a character of the contrary.
As the story grows and unravels, we witness a clear shift in emotional generosity and acceptance in Narrator; he watches and listens to his brother, learning that his story isn’t as uncompressible as he once thought.
It may always be slightly confusing to him but he learned to see depth and courage in Sonny and this is mirrored in/on the final page when almost an identical journey is taken in the few minutes that Narrator experiences his blood playing his music, his life, ‘He didn’t notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked towards me. Then he put it back on top of the piano. For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling’. (Sonny’s blues.141). John M. Reilly writes, ‘this first is the theme of the individualistic narrator’s gradual discovery of the significance of his brother’s life.

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This theme moves to a climax in the final scene of the story when Sonny’s music impresses the narrator with a sense of the profound feeling it contains. The significance of the Blues itself becomes a powerful theme. (Sonny’s blues; James Baldwin’s images of black community. 144).
Neither journey is more important than the other; Sonny is able to combat a serious drug addiction, goes in and out of prison and regains his life but the story that unfolds with Narrator is the spine of the book. An ‘on the spot’ example is the conversation between himself and an old friend of Sonny’s, ‘But now, abruptly, I hated him. I couldn’t stand the way he looked at me, partly like a dog, partly like a cunning child… he says to him… ‘Look. Don’t tell me your sad story, if it was up to me, I’d give you one’ ‘Then I felt guilty’…By the end of the scene he tells us, ‘All at once something inside me gave and threatened to come pouring out of me. I didn’t hate him anymore. I felt at that moment I’d start crying like a child. (Sonny’s blues. 106,108).
These paragraphs moved me more than any other in the story. A perfect example of life; your mind can be made up quite uncertainly, certain to never waver until it does. An action, a person, a rhythm will occur and your never-changing opinion is changed.
The two young, African-American men conduct their own, individual mechanisms in order to cope with feeling like outsiders in the violent, ghetto neighborhood.
Narrator states in reference to his father, ‘he was always on the lookout for something a little better but died before he found it’ (Sonny’s blues. 114) his sons were also striving for something else, Narrator found this somewhat in his acclaimed profession as a teacher and Sonny found it in being able to express frustration and emotion through music.
However there are implications that narrator doesn’t truly feel as secure within his upper-class existence as he would like. In reference to the essay written by John M. Reilly, he states, ‘Agitated though he is about Sonny’s fate, the narrator doesn’t want to feel himself involved. His own position on the middle-class ladder of success is not secure, and the supporting patterns of thought in his mind are actually rather weak’. (Sonny’s blues; James Baldwin’s images of black community. 141.)
There are references to racial uncertainties throughout the story in terms such as ‘black and bouncy’ and ‘a cigarette between her heavy, cracked lips, her hair a cuckoo’s nest… they addressed each other a s sister’. It is fair to see that narrator doesn’t feel as ‘black’ as many of his neighbors. John M. Reilly, ‘he had asked if Sonny liked to play Lois Armstrong, only to be told that Charlie parker was the model. Hard as it is to believe, he had never heard of ‘Bird’ until Sonny mentioned him. This ignorance reveals more than a gap between fraternal generations. It represents a cultural chasm’. (Sonny’s blues; James Baldwin’s images of black community.142).
His persistence to be conventional and ‘better’ than your average ghetto liver, although achieving this, also pushed him into feeling further ‘foreign’ uncertainty; not feeling black, not feeling white, not wanting to hate being black, not wanting to want to be white.
The ultimatum of the journey not only bring together the love and acceptance of two brothers, it crucially allows Narrator to cast aside his beliefs of what makes you a substantial member of the world thus creating his own self belief and security as an African-American man. John M. Reilly agrees by saying ‘because the narrator learns to love his brother freely while he discovers the value of a characteristically Afro-American assertion of life-force. Taking Sonny on his own terms he must also abandon the ways of thought identified with middle-class position which historically has signified for Black people the adoption of ‘white ways’. (Sonny’s blues; James Baldwin’s images of black community. 146).

The obvious and intentional them running through The Buddha of Suburbia is that of race. Hanif Kureishi almost writes an alter ego in the character of Karim. He uses blunt humor to detail his journey as a white-Asian male in England. They both have an indignant opinion on the way many people view them. In ‘The Rainbow Sign’ in a response to Duncan Sandy (1967) saying ‘The breeding of millions of half-caste children would merely produce a generation of misfits and create national tensions’ he simply states ‘I wasn’t a misfit. It was the others, they wanted misfits, they wanted you to embody within yourself their ambivalence’. (The rainbow sign. 75).
Karim greets you on the first page by saying, ‘perhaps it’s the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored’. (The Buddha of Suburbia. 3).
Although he does struggle with the expected uncertanties of living as a mixed race teenager in a suburban town, Karim’s mixed parentage is not a taboo topic for him and as he is the narrator and focus point of the story, this encourages us, the readers, to also be comfortable with his race.
The way Kureishi writes is the way Karim speaks. They both openly use words such as Paki, darkies etc’. They both view racist people as rather ridiculous, Kureishi states, ‘I saw racism as unreason and prejudice, ignorance and a failure of sense’. (The rainbow sign. 78).
There are more similarities between the essay and the novel than differences but one difference is by writing a fictional story, however closely a reflection of his own experiences, it allows time travel, tremendous detail and relationship with the characters, especially Karim. More emotions are evokes through reading the novel as we are there with Karim thus taking personally his discrimination and treatment of other people.
Karim struggles with questions on his own sexuality as well as his place in society. He puts bluntly (and rather delightfully), ‘it would be heartbreaking to have to choose one over the other [genders], like having to decide between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones’ (The Buddha of Suburbia. 55). His views on being a possible bisexual indicate even further his carefree attitude on what you are not defining your depth of character and not mattering a great deal in general.
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