In the mid-1900s , Harlem, New York was a city of segregation and limited rights of the African American people. Following the devastation that came with the Great Depression, riots began to bloom amongst black communities experiencing the pressure of high rents, unemployment and racist practices(History of Harlem 6). Throughout all of this suffering experienced by the African American culture, music played a major role in their attempt to cope.
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In James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues jazz music is revealed to be the one thing that keeps the African American culture thriving. This is emphasized in the story through the characters actions which prove the only cure to their external and internal conflicts is music, therefore it becomes an inseparable part of their culture. Sonny’s blues begins in medias res when the narrator discovers his brothers arrest in the newspaper. He explains his face as trapped in the darkness which roared outside(Baldwin 1). With this quote it can be inferred that the narrator is undergoing and an internal conflict and an external conflict simultaneously.
The first mention of music in Sonny’s Blues was when Baldwin wrote One boy was whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple, it seemed to be pouring out of him like a bird(Baldwin 7). This extract begins to demonstrate the essential idea of the story, that jazz music is portrayed as an inseparable aspect of the African American community. This is done by comparing the boy who is whistling to an animal in which whistles as an everyday routine. This comparison defines the fact that it is almost necessary that this boy whistles to get through his day and to keep moving. . In this particular quote, the boy can be viewed as a representation of the black community as a whole, symbolizing the rhythm of their music is the rhythm of their lives. Later in the story, there was another mention of whistling in a flashback of when the narrator got into a fight with his brother Sonny. Baldwin writes I started down the steps, whistling to keep from crying, I kept on whistling to myself, You going to need me, baby, one of these cold, rainy days(Baldwin 176).This cite is another way of explaining how whistling is a way for the culture to keep their mood up. Therefore, these two quotes can be portrayed as examples of music being a breakthrough from the everyday suffering experienced by the African American people.
The second encounter with music was when the narrator was having a tough conversation about his brother Sonny with someone they grew up with. As the old friend was telling the narrator ain’t nothing you can do. Can’t much help old Sonny no more, I guess (Baldwin 19) as they stopped in front of a bar. The narrator explains how The jukebox was blasting away with something black and bouncy and I half watched as the barmaid danced her way from the jukebox to her place behind the bar(Baldwin 25). This cite continues to highlight the main idea that jazz music is the cure to conflict for the African American culture by showing that it persists throughout the narrators and characters days. This passage is an adumbration that music is a way to keep going throughout the day by explaining how the barmaid dances while working.
As the story continues a sign that music holds a meaningful place in Sonny’s sole is when he tells his brother, the narrator, that he is interested in becoming a jazz musician. This is shortly after their mother has passed away which resembles this idea as a coping mechanism for Sonny. Sonny then stays with the narrator’s wife while the narrator is away at war and plays the piano every single day. The story reads I sensed, from so many thousands of miles away, that Sonny was playing the piano for his life(Baldwin 171). This reveals that playing the piano for Sonny was a way to relive the weight of his suffering off of his shoulders. Sonny was truly playing to stay alive. To investigate this idea further, it can be proven that the suffering of African Americans dates back to slavery. The beginning of an age of jazz music was when blues music was evolving across the country out of the traditional African slave spirituals, work calls and chants(20th Century Music 3). These chants were a way for the African American slaves to keep their spirits up as they were brutally forced to work long labor hours with no breaks and no pay. The chants symbolized that throughout all of this suffering it was mandatory to keep moving and progressing. The chants also served as the one thing that the culture had true to them and the single thing that they had complete control over in a world in which their freedom was seized from them.
Baldwin continues to express the importance of jazz music as a way for the African American culture to persevere through their hardships. He expresses this necessity through a conversation between the narrator and Sonny when the narrator asks if Sonny needs to use heroin and drugs to play the blues. Sonny answers by saying how Sometimes. Some people do(Baldwin 199). He continues with It’s not so much to play. It’s to stand it, to be able to make it at all. On any level. In order to keep from shaking to pieces (Baldwin 203). Here Sonny expresses that he is in a vulnerable position when he plays the blues because he is putting his sorrows out in the open. A common reason for this drug use can be interpreted when Youth Health Talk states how some people sometimes use drugs or alcohol to escape from their home, or personal, problems(Youth Health Talk 2015). This further illustrates how the use of drugs while performing is another acknowledgment of the pain felt by the black community of Harlem, New York.
To continue the essential idea of jazz music holding a vital importance in the African American culture, later in Sonny’s Blues Sonny shows signs of pursuing his teenage goal of becoming a jazz musician by playing at a nightclub. The passage reads Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about(Baldwin 248). This passage serves as a final representation of how jazz music plays such an important role in the African American culture. This extract justifies how their music is the music of suffering. The suffering that had created many conflicts that this culture had to undergo through many generations. Their only breath of relief was by telling their stories through the music they created.
In summary, James Baldwin’s short story, Sonny’s Blues highlights the idea that jazz music is an inseparable part of the African American culture because it is a way for its people to express themselves and their suffering through their own unique language. The story’s narrator and main characters represent this idea by shining a light on the importance of jazz music is a way to keep moving and keep living despite their many hardships.
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