Suffering and Surviving in James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues
In "Sonny's Blues" James Baldwin presents an intergenerational portrait of suffering and survival within the sphere of black community and family. The family dynamic in this story strongly impacts how characters respond to their own pain and that of their family members. Examining the central characters, Mama, the older brother, and Sonny, reveals that each assumes or acknowledges another's burden and pain in order to accept his or her own situation within an oppressive society. Through this sharing each character is able to achieve a more profound understanding of his own suffering and attain a sharper, if more precarious, notion of survival.
Mama, as a member of an older generation, represents the suffering that has always been a part of this world. She spent her life coexisting with the struggle in some approximation to harmony. Mama knew the futility of trying to escape the pain inherent in living, she knew about "the darkness outside," but she challenged herself to survive proudly despite it all (419). Mama took on the pain in her family in order to strengthen herself as a support for those who could not cope with their own grief. Allowing her husband to cry for his dead brother gave her a strength and purpose that would have been hard to attain outside her family sphere. She was a poor black woman in Harlem, yet she was able to give her husband permission for weakness, a gift that he feared to ask for in others. She gave him the right to a secret, personal bitterness toward the white man that he could not show to anyone else. She allowed him to survive. She marveled at his strength, and acknowledged her part in it, "But if he hadn't had me there- to see his tears!" (421). By shouldering the pain of others and setting them free she allowed herself a means of dealing with her own oppressed situation. Mama asked that her strength remain to support the family when she told her older son to watch out for his little brother saying, "I'm telling you this because you got a brother. And the world ain't changed" (421).
Her older son has difficulty with her legacy because he chooses not to see. Where his mother was vigilant and quick to identify the weak areas in her family, her son is blind to them. The beginning of "Sonny's Blues" marks an awakening for him. He is faced with a printed truth about Sonny's drug addiction, and suddenly his world is penetrated from all directions. His own grief for the loss of his daughter focuses this new perception. "My trouble made his real" (429); he needs to reach out to Sonny in order to begin to resolve his own pain. Yet as he narrates the story, it becomes apparent that he has perceived very little along the way. Thoughts like "I had never really noticed it before," and "strange, suddenly, to watch, though I had been seeing... all my life" indicate the surprise that the narrator feels as he...