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James Baldwin the African-American Novelist and Social Critic

James Baldwin the African-American novelist and social critic, was born in Harlem, (1924-1987). Baldwin grew up a poor, unhappy, man after his mother’s marriage in 1927. His stepfather, a domineering fundamentalist minister from New Orleans, seemed to hate his stepson. He read prodigiously, and became a junior minister whose oratory attracted a growing congregation, in his teens. James Baldwin lost his faith subsequently, and left Harlem to work in Jersey City. His experience of racism and segregation in Harlem drove him to Greenwich Village where he found a much better acial climate and more opportunities for him to write.

James Baldwin, in 1947 began his literary career with book reviews in the Nation and New Leader and he attracted attention with an article on black-Jewish relations as well as a short story in commentary.

He moved to Paris to seek greater personal freedom, in 1948. His essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” discusses Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Richard’s Wright’s Native Son.

In the essay, James Baldwin questions the use of fiction to advocate social change. He published his irst novel in 1953, which became the largely autobiographical “Go Tell It To The Mountain. ” The book set in Harlem, recalled the difficulties of his struggles with his Stepfather and recalled the difficulties in his adolescence. His collection of essays, “Notes of Native Son. ” Commented on racism in America. Baldwin’s novel “Giovanna’s Room” written in 1956, is considered one of his boldest treatments of homosexuality in American literature in that time.

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Baldwin Order# 11110450 Exploring a Literary Character Pg. 2 Returned home in 1956, and observed the burgeoning civil Rights movement.

A long journey to the South resulted in highly rhetorical essays, collected in “Nobody Knows My Name” written in 1961 and “The fire Next Time” written in 1963, both led to Baldwin recognized as a major American Essayist as well as the leading critic of racism. Between these two books came “Another Country” in 1962, is the leading best-selling novel dealing with issues such as of racism, love and sexuality. These three books established Baldwin as an international celebrity. He was sought out by the press while he traveled among homes in France, Turkey, and the United States.

Also read: What Was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Biggest Role in the Antebellum United States?

In 1964, his controversial drama “Blues for Mister Charlie” about the most horrible crimes of the Civil rights movement, ran for 150 performances on Broadway. Baldwin brought to American the discussion about race, especially in his earlier novels and essays an understanding of the turmoil’s psychological nuances and its consequences. His complicated sense of himself as an artist, an African American, a homosexual, and a man of religion served James Baldwin well by his high intelligence, distinct literary ability, and his will to love, peace, and reconciliation despite his rage and itterness that racism inspired. His best work continues to this day affords clear insights into perhaps the most incendiary time of American social problems. James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” tells the story of two brothers. They come to understand each other, in a way that highlights through its main characters and two sides of two African-American experiences. The narrator of the novel assimilates into white society as much as possible however, still feels the pain of institutional racism and the limits placed upon his opportunity.

The character of Sonny has never attempted to Order# 11110450 Exploring a Literary Character Pg. 3 assimilate to find an outlet for the deep pain that status as a permanent outsider upon him. The character of Sonny channels his suffering into his jazz, bebop blues music. First Published in 1957; it was collected in Baldwin’s 1965 book, “Going to Meet the Man. ” Sonny’s Blues has biblical implications. James Baldwin utilizes an image from the book of Isaiah of the “Cup of Trembling. ” which symbolizes the suffering and trouble, which Sonny had experienced in his life. In the end of the novel, Sonny is laying the piano as Sonny’s brother watches a barmaid bring a glass of Scotch and milk to the piano. The cup reminds Sonny’s brother of all the suffering he and his brother had to endure throughout the novel and he begins to understand that he can turn his suffering into something beautiful and worthwhile through music. An interesting character to analyze from “Sonny’s Blue” is the narrator. The character is self-reflects his experiences with the various family members in the novel such as his younger brother, Sonny and his mother. The narrator is Sonny’s older brother who is 7 years older.

The reader can see the narrator is disappointed with his younger brother Sonny at first on the count of his interest becoming a musician. He thought it only a phrase that Sonny is going through, and hopes it shall pass. The older brother patronizes Sonny with an insincere interest in music until it angers Sonny into telling his older brother “Don’t do me any favors. ” The narrator has a judgmental, stereotypical, predetermined way of thinking about the past. His thoughts and feelings are hard and cruel toward Sonny’s drug addict best friend when he tells him he doesn’t want to hear his “Sad Story. And yet, he Order# 11110450 Exploring a Literary Character Pg. 4 realizes both have something in common. The narrator has Sonny’s drug addiction to contend with whereas the friend has his own. the narrator realizes that everyone has a sad story. Sonny tried to express how he felt inside to reveal his drug abuse. The narrator did not accept his younger brother’s drug abuse. Just like Sonny, he feels alone and helpless, and cannot talk about it to anyone. In the end, Sonny the narrator and Sonny is able to come to a mutual understanding of one another through Jazz music.

The part in the novel where the narrator went to Sonny’s territory which was the club, is the way the narrator accepts Sonny’s drug addiction on his own terms. This acceptance comes in full circle when he listens and watches Sonny express himself through his piano. The older brother (Narrator) was, at first disappointed in his brother’s choice of being a professional musician, to which he embraces it in the end. The reader sees how the narrator unconditionally loves his brother by listening and eventually accepting his brother as a musician. He is able to change his attitude about life, himself, nd Sonny’s choice. Tragedy and suffering is seen in the character of the narrator as he wrestles with his feelings toward his brother.

Jazz blues music can also be viewed in Sonny’s Blues as a catalyst for change. The narrator starts to begin to understand not only Sonny’s music, but also his relationship with his brother. The reader can explore the theme of brotherhood in “Sonny’s Blues” and suggests that the story implies that we are “Our brothers keepers,” and that brotherly love, listening, understanding, acceptance and support works better than control or coercion.

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James Baldwin the African-American Novelist and Social Critic. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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