Written by Shiama Ali, Edited by Alexander Lynn
(Author’s note: This essay was originally written for my English101 class which I take in fulfillment of the requirements of my major. My professor rejected it outright for two reasons: (1) I cited the sources supporting some of my ideas (I wasn’t supposed to do that); and (2) I failed to show in this essay the skills I learned in class from Aristotle, Toulmin and Carl Rogers re rhetorical analysis and persuasive argument. My writing tutor convinced me that this piece was good enough to publish. This is the original paper, as it was rejected by my English professor).
Introduction This rhetorical analysis is of a famous and heralded story written by James Baldwin, the esteemed African American novelist, journalist, poet and civil rights activist. Sonny’s Blues, originally written and published in 1957, was written at a time of upheaval in the United States. Specifically, it was written at the dawn of what is today known in the official account as the Civil Rights Movement, but for many of its adherents of the time, Baldwin included, it was called the Black Liberation Movement. This naming becomes important as this analyst approaches the purport of this story and the place it has in the times. This rhetorical analysis will address the following topics: First, the major familial relationships in the story — that between the narrator and his younger brother, Sonny; and those between the siblings, on one hand, and their mother, on the other. Secondly, the author’s attitude towards the siblings will unfold in this essay. And, third, this rhetorical analysis will address the significance of the title of the story.
Thesis This story is an example of people’s art (Cockcroft, et al, 1998). People’s art often is a forerunner to a mass people’s movement. This story, written in 1957, was a clarion call to the masses of African American people, oppressed by a system akin to apartheid, a clarion call which was answered by the African American people in the form of the 1960’s-1970’s Black Liberation Movement which changed America forever.
Blues The theme of this story is played out in the relationship between older brother and his younger brother, Sonny. The older brother is the narrator. In the first two pages of the story the reader experiences a mood, tone and color that will remain throughout the story. This color is that of the Blues. Darkness in the environment of their physical lives, and the interior of their emotional lives, weighs in from scene to scene. It is a darkness that is associated with the racism that the family and their people (African Americans of the 1950’s) experience, and the way this racism is internalized by the subjects.
The story opens as the narrator, an algebra teacher from Harlem, has learned from a newspaper article that his younger brother, Sonny, has been arrested for possession of heroin. His initial reaction is to state that, “I couldn’t find any room for it inside me. I had kept it outside me for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to know…” (p.1). “It” is the news that Sonny was addicted to the point of getting arrested. “It” remained “trapped in the darkness which roared outside” (p.1). The darkness is at once of his people, and at the same time, the second class citizenship to which his people have been assigned. The “darkness” of their skin and the social stigma placed on this skin tone, is the formal reason-to-be of their inferior status.
These statements endure throughout the narrative as a prism through which to see the narrator’s perspective regarding the harsh lives of his people. He has tried for years to remain aloof from this condition of his people, to deny it, and to insulate himself from it, in the same way as he has remained in denial about Sonny’s addiction.
Sonny’s addiction to heroin is another metaphor for the seemingly “terminal” nature of his people’s condition. The way people talk about drug addiction is as if it is some kind of damnation, something like the color of the skin of Black folk, incurable and fatal.
The reader learns much about the older brother’s perspective towards Sonny by listening to their mother: She wants Sonny’s older brother to play a stronger role in looking after his younger sibling. In this effort, she tells him the story of how her boys’ Uncle died. The boys’ father and Uncle were out one night together when a car occupied by White drunks ran over Uncle and killed him. Mother said their father “…never in his life seen anything as dark as the road after the lights of that car had gone away.”
Now, as an adult, with Sonny in trouble, the older brother hears this story for the first time. This timing lets the reader and the older brother know that the mother wants something from him. She wants him to cherish his younger brother and to stay close — she wants him to stay closer than their father was when his own brother was run over by a car.
The narrator’s experience of “darkness” is embedded in his own dislike for his people. Sonny is a Jazz musician, he plays the piano, he plays the Blues. His older brother sees this as a sign of inferiority — classical music, i.e., “White” music, would be more uplifting. Sonny played Jazz, and he favored a brand of Jazz which “…sounded just…weird and disordered” (16). Sonny was immersed in the wing of Jazz, led by Charlie “Bird” Parker, which was breaking at root with conventions tied to White music. This form of Jazz is what is known as People’s Art (1998), in that it presaged a People’s Movement, the revolutionary movement of the late 1950’s — 1960’s, known today as the Civil Rights Movement, or the Black Liberation Movement (Lightfoot, 1968).
Ultimately, Sonny represents the struggle of African Americans. His heroin addiction is a metaphor for the affliction of being of a people who are exploited by the dominant culture to serve its twisted interests at power, glory and ill-gotten wealth.
Though Sonny is addicted to heroin, at the same time he is flourishing in an artistic movement unique to his people and emblematic of a breaking of the chains placed on his people by a colonial regime. The Jazz movement led by Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Nina Simone and a host of other outstanding artists made a clean break with a music that was designed to please “Massa.” This revolution in Jazz established this art form as that owned by a specific nationality on planet Earth — African America (Kofsky, 1970). When Sonny’s older brother was able to embrace the beauty, and power of this art form, when he was able to identify Sonny as a participant in a liberating social cause, a social thrust that was to give birth to one of the most momentous social movements in the history of the United States, it was in this moment that he found his own freedom.
Conclusion The reader witnesses the way in which the narrator ultimately embraces his brother through his brother’s music. Sonny’s Blues is the story of a people embracing its own beauty, power and right to be free — as expressed in the revolution in Jazz. The story by James Baldwin is a contributor to this expression; it is in effect “Jazz writing.” This music and this movement ultimately said that “Black is Beautiful” (darkness is beautiful…), that addiction was a disease and not the fault of the sufferer, and that the Blues was a most proud and fantastic music, loved by humanity world-wide.
Genuine art reflects the emotions of people that are hidden below the surface (Cockcroft, 1998). It is a thermometer to the temper of a people. This story predicts emotions of a people that would explode and poor out in the next fifteen years, and transform the entire culture, politics and spirit of the United States.
Baldwin, James. Sonny’s Blues. Penguin Books, 1995.
Cockcroft, Eva, John Pitman Weber, and James Cockcroft. Toward a People’s Art. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico. 1998.
Kofsky, Frank. Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music. Pathfinder Press. 1970.
Lightfoot, Claude. Ghetto rebellion to Black liberation. International Publishers. 1968.