James Baldwin’s celebrated short story, “Sonny’s Blues”, is a poignant narration of the unique relationship between two brothers, set against the depressed and isolated conditions of Harlem in the 1950s. Much of the story focuses on the disparity of views held by the narrator and his brother Sonny, but their conflict speaks largely of the reality of African Americans at the time, translated into the music that defines their culture.
“Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston, on the other hand, may be seen on similar terms as the depiction of a woman’s long-suffering life with her apparently sadistic husband, as she is relegated into the stereotype of woman as workhorse within the familial context. But the authenticity in the sue of language to portray the lives and characteristics of black people of the setting and society contributes to the larger picture of the African American mindset, including allusions to the lives they lead.
In both stories, the focus on the intrinsic ability of blacks to create a voice for themselves—figuratively, in “Sonny’s Blues”; and literally in “Sweat”—demonstrates the complexity of the lives of common folk, as well as the wealth and richness of their culture. Both authors successfully communicated this concept through situations, ensuing topics for discussion, and internal conflict within each story. II. The Blues: Music and Language in the African American Reality
The African American culture, or what is often referred to as black America, functions within a specific set of values and ideals that validate behavior, reactions to issues, and life decisions of African Americans. Accompanying culture is tradition, a ritual or concept that signifies a community’s identity. Such is the underlying theme within the two stories in focus, which are based on actual experiences held by African Americans—and produced the unique communication style called the blues.
The blues, or the original term “blue”, traces its roots to the Elizabethan era’s depression and melancholia, and the “blues” was later coined by writer Washington Irving in 1807 (Baker, 1995-2004). However, the more popular context of blues is in vocal and instrumental music form, made by the combination of blue notes. In the black culture, this manifested early on through shouts, hollers, chants, and rhymed ballads, which produced the more recent bluegrass, jazz, and R & B music.
The African American slave experience, born out of an era prejudiced against the color of one’s skin, necessitated self-expression. Sorrow and pain were the common reasons for this, as black slaves were deprived by their barbarian masters of basic human requirements such as a birth date and a name, and a recognized family structure and rights (Gates, 1987). The outcome was in the form of oral expression, echoing the sound of African drum-beating tribes. In “Sonny’s Blues”, the blues music became Sonny’s own way to express his sadness and pain—similar to those appropriated by his forebears.
Because prejudice and racial discrimination were not entirely eliminated during the period, Sonny’s blues music was still symbolic of the social conditions and the change in consciousness of working-class African Americans (Barlow, 1989), which also included his brother. Their goals in life may vary—with the narrator’s aim to free himself of the stereotypes attached to his race, and Sonny’s goal to rise above the same albeit by embracing his identity—but the effect and appeal of the blues were the same for both of them.
Delia in “Sweat”, as well as the rest of the characters in the story, carried with her a language that echoed the blues tradition, with the use of inner rhymes and a resounding beat in every spoken line. By validating this style against the parameters set by the blues, the connection between language and social condition and class becomes apparent. Like the early African Americans, Delia is portrayed to be strong yet long-suffering, and is made to perform such heavy and menial tasks similar to the hard labor of plantation slaves.
Her perpetrator, in this case, is her husband Sykes, who represents the persona of the slaves’ brutal masters who find ridicule and superiority given and matter-of-fact. The locale in which the story is set, being a working-class community, further gives reason to the nuance of communication used. Both stories display an understanding of how the blues, in its literal and figurative forms, reflect the reality of black Americans in different times. III. Relationships Within the Realm of Race In both “Sonny’s Blues” and “Sweat”, discussions on the complexities of human relationships are seen.
The connection between the Sonny and his brother is not representative of the typical American family, as seen from all angles; within the dynamic lies a deeper truth that is still derived from the race and class struggle. The narrator subscribes to the promise of placing African Americans at a level that signifies America’s maturity with having a common culture—one that excludes recognition of socially-structured differences, from race to gender, from class to underclass (Bhabha, in Morrison, 1992).
His dream for himself and his family are created along the lines of justice as the opposite of racial injustice, and equal opportunity as opposed to the inequality brought upon by available choices. He worked completely to erase the stereotype given him and his race, and fully intends to have his brother believe in the same principle. However, Sonny’s inclination to follow the call of his own nature does not include subscribing to his brother’s ideals, nor does it address any reference to family.
His search for identity goes beyond the confines of relationship, and this led him to discover a community that shared his views. The husband-and-wife relationship of Delia and Sykes may be studied along the same lines, with Delia’s character exhibiting similarities with Sonny. She, like Sonny, had been placed in a vacuum, expected to perform the role given her. The typical black woman, as in the stereotype, is nothing if she is not strong-muscled, and is capable of producing offspring who would carry the community’s tradition through adulthood.
Delia had been successful at doing what society required of her—earning her family’s keep, serving her husband, and thought nothing, initially, of the obstacles thrown her way. But is was the abusive personality of Sykes that did her in, and finally Delia was forced to review her deeply-help opinions of a woman’s role in marriage. Sykes represents the typical male husband-antagonist; while he shares many similarities with Sonny’s brother—all within the expectations of family and the superior role of the husband—Sykes embodies the evil effects of power.
He believes solely in his assigned role as head and decision-maker in the family, taking for granted his wife’s preferences and ignoring the immorality and injustice produced by his actions. The African American culture is best known for its ideals of family, specifically defined by adaptability, resiliency, and strength to survive in a hostile environment (McCray, 1994). The complex traditions and expectations within the community according to an individual’s role and position—in this case, as a brother, a wife, and a husband—all come into play when evaluating the choices that need to be made.
Sonny’s brother and Sykes, while different in motivation and nature, will most likely fail the test of values; on the other hand, Sonny and Delia, by staunchly believing in identity, surpasses mere adaptability and reveals extreme strength and resiliency. Though Sonny had succumbed to drug use while contemplating on his own reality, the concluding events of his story marked his growth and development as a man of character. Delia’s progress is even more linear than Sonny’s—she did her best, was abused, and bounced back.
Again, these characteristics mirror the experience of African Americans, noting the status given them during the early years compared to the present, as the United States gears for what may possibly be the first black presidential rule. Relationships, whether defined through traditional or symbolic terms, have always been at the core of African American folk culture; the very essence of family is the one thing that had kept African Americans united and heard as one voice. IV. The Narrator, Sonny, Delia, and Internal Conflict
The three major characters in the two stories have been given the function of representing several principles and ideals, and is done by placing them in positions of introspection. Internal conflict takes place when one is struggling over the choices that have to be made, and may also be represented by the mixed feeling and emotions one goes through (Morgan, 2002). The narrator in “Sonny’s Blues” experiences internal conflict several times in the story, yet the most significant happens towards the end, as he sees Sonny finally playing the piano.
He had to straddle the ideals he had trained and given himself to live by, and the obvious discovery of identity of his brother through the kind of music the narrator believed only emphasized the marginalized situation of blacks. But in the end, Sonny won—and logically so, since the music, as with other folk practices of black Americans, is supposed to resound within one’s consciousness. This succeeded completely, for one can never deny the power of true identity over an assumed one.
Sonny had his own internal conflict early on, and even manifested in his outward behavior. The drugs he dealt and used, as well as his refusal to keep living according to the standards set by society, are actual expressions of this conflict. It is also to be noted that Sonny had been portrayed as a difficult son and brother, who insisted on going against practically everything expected of him. His performance in the end, particularly when the audience expressed their appreciation and admiration of his talent, became the solution and validation of the conflict.
Sonny made a choice, and that was to defy all the odds and set forth to find the truth. The story provides an inverse establishment and resolution of internal conflict for both Sonny and his brother; for the most part of the narration, it was Sonny who appeared to be struggling, and only gained his reward for a brief moment in the end, while his brother was introduced and maintained as a strong, reliable, albeit imperfect character, whose internal conflict is revealed towards the latter part and immediately concluded as well.
In “Sweat”, the title already gives a visual manifestation of internal conflict, since sweating or perspiring is a common occurrence when one is struggling to choose between two options, or when one is troubled. Of course, the more literal meaning of sweat in the story pertains to Delia’s unflappable endurance and determination to keep everything as calm and peaceful as expected of her, notwithstanding the ridicule and injustice thrown upon her by her husband, and her community as well.
Even the idea of washing clothes contributes to this image, by using the act of washing or taking away the dirt to represent Delia’s desire to make things proper, and to have the kind of marriage people expected. The story gives the reader a real symbol of Delia’s internal conflict, and this is the snake Sykes had brought home to scare his wife. Since it had been established that Delia had a great fear of snakes, the creature also represents her inability to face her husband’s immoral ways and his unfair treatment of her.
Just like she refused to rid her home of the snake, Delia delayed having to face Sykes’ behavior. This, like any other issue that is not addressed at once, was kept simmering under the surface until it reached boiling point. By this time, Delia’s unacknowledged anger was slowly tipping over, and Sykes’ intentions of scaring her by using the snake made things even worse.
While part of Delia’s conflict was resolved when she bravely held her own against Sykes and told him what she thought of him, the problem was only truly addressed in the story’s ending, when she let Sykes die under the deadly bite of the snake he claimed to have control over. V. Conclusion The culture of black America is so distinct and symbolic that probably no other ethnic community in the United States would be able to match the wealth afforded by the collective African American experience.
This is because said experience took place within the country, and was formed by events in history known by most, if not all Americans. Therefore, the voice of blacks is definitely stronger and richer, and is clearly reinforced by certain folk practices and societal norms that form the whole of the culture’s identity. The blues, familial relationships, and ways of addressing internal conflicts are but some of the aspects that create the African American experience, and trace the complexities afforded by experience, history, and culture.
Baker, Robert M. “A Brief History of the Blues”. The Blue Highway website, 1995- 2004. http://www. thebluehighway. com/history. html Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues”. In Ann Charters, ed. The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction, 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. Barlow, William. Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. Bhabha, Homi. “ A Good Judge of Character: Men, Metaphors, and the Common Culture”. In Toni Morrison. Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power.
New York: Pantheon Books, 1992. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. , ed. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Penguin Group, 1987. Hurston, Zora Neale. “Sweat”. In Ann Charters, ed. The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction, 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. McCray, Jacquelyn. “Challenges to Diversity from an African American Perspective”. Journal of Extension, Volume 32 Number 1. http://www. joe. org Morgan, Tina. “Conflict in Fiction”. Fiction Factor website, 2002. http://www. fictionfactor. com/articles/conflict. html
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