As the sun rises, birds begin to sing the joy of light and as the day ends, the birds fly back into the darkness of night. The darkness of our lives is often transformed by the delusion of light. In James Baldwin’s essay, “Sonny’s Blues,” the title itself sets up an irony that is explored throughout. The name “Sonny,” when read, sounds like “Sunny,” meaning brightness, light and hope. The word “Blues” presents the reader images of night, darkness and sadness. The darkness represents the reality of life on the streets of Harlem, a community living in an environment where there is no escape from the reality of drugs and crime. The dreadful nature of the streets lures adolescents to use drugs as a means of escaping the darkness of their lives. The main character, Sonny, a struggling Jazz musician, finds himself addicted to heroin as a way of unleashing creativity and artistic ability within him. Using music as a means of creating structure in his life, Sonny attempts to step into the light, a life without drugs. Coping with the light and darkness of siblings can be one of life’s most exhausting challenges as they grow-up and struggle to form their own identities.
The different images of light and darkness serve as the abstract framework for Baldwin’s essay. This imagery is first viewed when the narrator, Sonny’s older brother, thinks about Sonny’s fate in the dark subway. “I stared at it in the swinging light of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside”(270). The “swinging lights of the subway car” allows him to read about Sonny’s arrest, while the “darkness roared outside.” This allows the narrator to realize that he has to find a way to absorb and live with this new understanding of Sonny as an addict and as a blues musician. The darkness is the representation of the community of Harlem, where like the passengers on the subway, the community is trapped in their surroundings by economic, social, or physical barriers.
The dreadful life of darkness has overwhelmed everyone and everything living in Harlem. The narrator, an algebra teacher, is fearful for his students who are falling into a life of crime and drugs. The harsh realties of the street have abandoned the light from the faces of his brother and his students. “These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, 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 dark nesses, 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”(271). This illustrates how darkness has engulfed the lives of the children without them realizing it. In addition, the misdirection of the movies has kept these boys from achieving and doing anything with their lives.
The community of Harlem, filled with disaster, is following the dull path of previous generations. As Sonny and his brother return to the streets of their youth, they recognize the similarities between their childhood and the lives of the children who are growing up in the hostile community of Harlem. The vivid description by the narrator describes how over the course of time the neighborhood has not changed for the better, yet for the worse. He describes how “most of the houses in which we had grown up had vanished, as had the stores from which we had stolen, the basements in which we had first tried sex, the rooftops from which we had hurled tin cans and bricks.
But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated by landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster”(275). This shows how the children, seeking to escape from the darkness of their houses, fled into the streets for refuge. However, the children only found more darkness creeping around in their community.
Darkness can be fearful and soothing. “The night is creeping up outside, but nobody knows it yet. You can see the darkness growing against the windowpanes and you hear the street noises every now and again but it’s real quiet in the room. For a moment nobody’s talking, but every face looks darkening, like the sky outside. Everyone is looking at something a child can’t see. For a minute they’ve forgotten the children. Maybe somebody got a kid in his lap and is absent-mindedly stroking the kid’s hair. The silence, the darkness coming, and the darkness in the faces frighten the child obscurely. He hopes that the hand which strokes his forehead will never stop-will never die.
But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already ending. And when the light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure. The child knows that they won’t talk any more because he knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon, about what’s going to happen to him” (277). The light is a consciousness of the dark and reality. With the light comes the understanding of the world for the child lying in his mother’s lap. Although the child may want to learn the truth, by doing so he exposes himself to the world and looses part of his innocence and childhood. Therefore, the child may wish to remain in darkness.
The images of light and darkness, which serve as truth and reality, are used to show the struggle between Sonny and the narrator. The narrator recalls a story his mother once told him about an uncle whom a car of drunken white men killed. The narrator’s father “never in his life seen anything as dark as that road after the lights of that car had gone away”(279). The narrator’s father so depressed by the incident that he “never did get right again. Till the day he died he weren’t sure but that every white man he saw was the man that killed his brother”(279). The story serves as a lesson for the narrator to “hold on to your brother and don’t let him fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you gets with him” (279). In the story, this significant event alters the narrator’s responsibilities as an older brother. With this new responsibility comes the burden of raising his younger brother, Sonny. However, when the narrator confronts Sonny to discuss his future, he refuses to accept his brother’s goal of becoming a jazz musician.
After going through many hardship and pain, the narrator eventually realizes that “Sonny was at that piano playing for his life”(283). The narrator accepts Sonny’s life as a musician when he accompanies him to a nightclub in order to hear him perform. Within the nightclub, there is a struggle between light and darkness. As Sonny and the rest of his quartet wait to go on stage, his brother notices that “the light from the bandstand spilled just a little short of them and, watching them laughing and gesturing and moving about, I had the feeling that they, nevertheless, were being most careful not to step into the circle of light too suddenly; that if they moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would perish in flame”(290). This indicates that, to embrace the truth and gain awareness too fast is painful and devastating. As Sonny plays the piano, the older leader of the band, Creole, leads him into the light, into the water. “He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing-he had been there, and he knew.
And while Creole listened, Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. Creole wasn’t trying any longer to get Sonny in the water. He was wishing him Godspeed” (291-292). Creole is helping Sonny to unleash his artistic ability not through drugs, but through the emotion of pain and suffering. Music is a way of creating order in a disordered world and the narrator sees that musicians are trying to “find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness” (291). The daily struggles of life are all the same for everyone, yet the manner in which it is confronted and dealt with is different. Within this consciousness of reality, there is peace and hope that makes the darkness and life worth living.
The two brothers, the narrator and Sonny, deal with the harsh realities of their daily lives and are surrounded by a world full of shadows and light. Together they face the inescapable and all encompassing darkness that had plagued their lives. Using music as a form of communication, the brothers are able to overcome their differences and create order in their disordered life. The painful realization of the truth has enabled them to redirect their lives and rebuild on a relationship tarnished by drugs and poverty.