As a student I wondered at it. As an English instructor I find it an indispensable font; a reminder I can dip into again and again that the goal is to practice empathy, not dogma. Empathy is a lesson one has to learn again and again, especially at a college with over half of its students from disadvantaged or marginalized backgrounds. "It" is “Sonny’s Blues,” in my opinion James Baldwin's opus. My students nod their heads—the lessons contained here are familiar to them. But I wonder anew with every rereading.
Baldwin's short story (publication date, 1957) is a tapestry, tightly woven of complementary motifs and themes, rich and dense. Not a word out of place. How to land on a single topic to discuss? Here is one obvious motif: on it’s surface, it’s a story of the prodigal’s return. A comfortable trope, certainly rife with cultural resonance, and still worthy of exploration. The unnamed narrator—the straight brother—has escaped his circumstances through stalwart moral rectitude: he fights for country, marries well, educates himself, and teaches at-risk boys in his old, ailing neighborhood of Harlem a few decades after its Renaissance and before the Civil Rights movement. He is circumspect in all things. Emotional distance is the cost of his prudence. He grapples with ungenerous feelings toward his dreamier, more inward-looking and self-destructive brother, Sonny. Even though his mother has entrusted our narrator to look after the wayward boy, he can’t bring himself to reach out. Sonny confounds him. The narrator commits the sin of silence, which, the story suggests, is complicity with the void. He doesn’t even write when Sonny, a heroin addict, goes to prison. Sonny, to the narrator, is merely a ghetto stereotype, is an affront to him, the escapee, and all the work he's done to elevate his people. But ultimately it is the narrator’s moral righteousness that the story questions, not Sonny’s transgressions, just as the bible story stacks our prejudices against the resentful brother, angered not to have been granted primacy in the family hierarchy as payment for his piety.
Baldwin carefully crafts a world of sinister, inhuman evils. In Harlem, unnamable malignancies bare their teeth from every tenement building. They poison the very air. They drag the inhabitants into darkness, even the ones that have escaped (through drugs or through education or through music). Against this evil, Baldwin’s people have only communication—art, music, stories—to fight with. It is Sonny, the narrator realizes, who has all along been battling these ominous forces. The narrator apprehends this while Sonny is playing his blues, and his moment of epiphany is heartbreaking. Over the course of the song he experiences a sudden dilation of perception. The chasm between himself and his brother is bridged a little, for a little while. It is, the story suggests, the best we can hope for: a rickety, temporary bridge between people.
“Sonny’s Blues” remains above cynicism, even though it suggests that life—not just life in economically depressed areas, but everywhere—is unbearable. This gives the story its power. As we face the abyss, we develop coping strategies. We escape however we can. The narrator escapes through what he deems proper channels. Sonny escapes with drugs and music. The narrator is surprised to find that his own strategies are not qualitatively better. His erudition is not superior to the strategies he condemns. Sonny, with music, talks back to the void. He tries to explain it. “There’s no way not to suffer,” Sonny tells the narrator. “But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it."
The first relief from drowning in it occurs when the narrator hears, between the derisive cursing and laughing of adolescent boys, one boy whistling. He likens it to birdsong, barely holding its own through all the evil talk. The paragraph serves as a miniature of the structure of the story itself, in which a thin, futile good threads through all the reduplicated evil. Empathy breaks open in the narrator’s heart, if only for a moment, a break of sunlight through a crack in the blinds. This boy’s whistle initiates a metaphor carried through the story with remarkable consistency (because in Baldwin, not a single word is missing or extraneous). The whistle is a rebellion, and a refuge. Later, the narrator listens to the singing of a barmaid whose life is otherwise doomed. Another refuge. Sonny sends a condolence letter from prison, conferring sympathy for the death of the narrator’s daughter (both events precipitate a change in the narrator’s worldview: create the conditions for deepening empathy). Finally, in the ultimate scene, music provides temporary sanctuary from the darkness outside. These coping strategies are communiqués in both directions. They speak to the chaos that exists beyond our control, darkness beyond words, saying you will not have me yet. And of course, they talk to the living. The narrator’s tale, the reader realizes by the final paragraph, is the last of these communiqués, shared with us, and we are duly honored by it.
“Sonny’s Blues”, notably, has no human cruelty in it. The void, discrete from human agency, does have a metonymy within the story: it is silence. It is a formless, motiveless entity that does harm, but makes the communion between souls all the more precious for its inevitability. Death takes us; terror and loathing win in the end. The transcendence of the story is not mastery over the inevitable. There is, however, transcendence in the temporary staving off. The antidote to cruelty is not its eradication. Rather it is the creation of spheres of intimacy, patterns of survival. Silence is the story’s villain. Silence is redeemed through art, a sanctuary. A sanctity.
Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues." The Jazz Fiction Anthology. Edited by Sascha Feinstein and David Rife. Indiana UP, 2009. 17-48.