Literature Review : James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”

In practical subjects, like math, it is often frowned upon to find your own way of doing something. Students are expected to pay attention to their lessons and use the exact same methods that are presented to figure out problems that are given to them. Literature, a much more liberal subject, allows for a writer to reach their conclusion through any means they see fit.

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This literary liberty results in many different pieces that have the same goal, theme, or message. James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech use two different techniques and styles to discuss the issue of black oppression in America. Baldwin’s short story uses the life of a fictional character to show the disadvantages and hardships typical in the lives of black Americans. King’s speech uses forceful figurative language and repetition to call his audience to action and fight racial segregation. Both authors focus on the condition of black America, but what each chooses to do with the subject is completely different in style and approach.

Baldwin uses a technique for presenting the subject of racial inequality that presents his message through his characters and their experiences. The use of fiction to discuss a real world issue makes the writing more creative and more accessible to a broader audience. The type of fictional political writing that is seen in Sonny’s Blues aims to combine enjoyable reading with a clear, strong point. Baldwin’s purpose in his technique is to make his message more accessible to a wider audience. He writes so that all people could understand his writing, not just his peers or other people of the same intellect. The style Baldwin uses for his piece allows more people to read and understand his work than would if he were to have written a scholarly nonfiction essay on the same subject.

In “Sonny’s Blues” Baldwin tells the story of the struggle of black people with racial inequality using a nameless narrator. The narrator himself has a decent life with a relatively uneventful upbringing, a good job, and a family. The narrator’s brother, Sonny, is not as fortunate. Sonny, the character used as the poster for black disadvantage, is a heroin addict and dealer. He struggles with incarceration due to drugs, trying to make his family proud, and finding a passion for something in his life. The author uses Sonny as an example of how young black men in America can easily fall onto the wrong path as a result of the disadvantages that they inherit when they are born. In the beginning of the story, the narrator explains the day he found out that his brother had been arrested for drug possession. In his story Baldwin writes, “…here I was, talking about algebra to a lot of boys who might, every one of them for all I knew, be popping off needles every time they went to the head.” The narrator acknowledges the vulnerability of all his young students to be negatively socialized by their surroundings. He can see that they have the same chance of falling prey to societal evils that Sonny did. The narrator knows that his brother’s hardships are a result of the environment he grew up in and is therefore able to recognize his students’ susceptibility to going down that same road. This is the point that Baldwin makes. He implies that black people grow up and make decisions based on the strong influences created by black oppression in the society they live in. He further argues that the decisions they make tend to be negative and harmful.

Martin Luther King Jr., unlike Baldwin, took the most direct route possible to address the problem facing his people. While Baldwin’s fictional story took a more observational approach to the issue, King’s speech was direct. He looked his audience in the eye and pleaded with them to take action, warning that if they did not act their condition would not improve. He analyzed the situation of Blacks in America and then told them exactly what they needed to do to fix it. In contrast to Baldwin’s laidback style, King wrote and delivered his speech with an extremely high level of urgency. Recognizing the directness, and sort of nonfiction, of King’s speech is not to say that it was not artfully crafted. “I Have a Dream” is of the most significant speeches in American history. King’s speech is loaded with figurative language, repetition, and other literary devices. The speech is a work of art that was used to inspire action. The goal in using the frequent metaphors and repetition in the speech is meant to hold the audience’s attention and arouse feedback. King is clearly successful in accomplishing that goal because during the speech, the audience is actively engaged and responsive. They agree verbally, they cheer, they shout. Like Baldwin, King’s aim in using writing techniques that make his text more accessible is to make his message able to be communicated to a broader audience. He plays to the audience he has and it makes the speech highly effective.

While “Sonny’s Blues” and “I Have a Dream” use two completely different structural methods in broaching the subject of racial inequality, they do focus on similar points. One common theme between the two works is unity. In “Sonny’s Blues” this topic is brought up in the scene between the narrator and Sonny’s mother. The mother tells the narrator that he has to look out for Sonny because Sonny has no one else. Baldwin uses this scene to discuss how familial support and togetherness are incredibly important in achieving success. King’s speech, too, incorporates unity as a central theme. Though this statement it is not written explicitly, the speech is directed to the audience as a whole. He uses the term “we” throughout the entire speech to communicate that he and the audience and every black person are all in it together. The turnout of the audience combined with the speech itself shows how important unity is and how much of a difference it can make.

Presentation is a huge part of writing. Demonstrated in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the method of presentation that an author chooses hugely affects how effective a work is in reaching its audience. Although Baldwin and King travel different roads, they reach the same destination: addressing racial segregation in America. Baldwin illustrates the day-to-day reality of it and King issues an inspirational call to action.

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