On Music and Indians in James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues

“But the man who creates music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”

—James Baldwin, Sonny’s Blues

Recently, I finally read my first Baldwin read, racing through it within the course of less than 24 hours.

Sonny’s Blues presents the portrait of Black culture and struggle through a pair of brothers: the speaker and his brother, Sonny. Throughout the text, the characters seem to have a common urge and experience: escapism and the inability to truly achieve it. All the characters attempt again and again to run from a certain horror. The narrator attempts to escape from a Harlem childhood and the glass ceiling it entails. Sonny from drug abuse and a limiting neighbourhood; their elders and parents from a horrific Black past—an unspeakable shared history.

Nevertheless, the past continues to hover like ghosts—the narrator, a math teacher, sees his students as trapped in the same way he still is: “Those boys now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage.” He weaves between his identity as a teacher and a brother; one the one hand, he recognises the struggle as communal. On the other, his struggle is a personal one: his own brother has just been incarcerated for doing heroin. There are two sets of brothers in this novel, the other being the narrator’s father and uncle—his father witnesses his own brother’s death as a young man, and is forever traumatised by it. The narration itself seems equally affected: the narrator tries his best to save his own brother Sonny, desperate to prevent history from repeating. Trauma seems then, to be cultural, cross-generational.

Baldwin proposes music—jazz and the blues—as the way out of all of this, as both a healing and triumph. Sonny dives headlong into these genres, playing at the piano everyday as if to save his life. Interestingly enough, the narrator and his family, while also Black, and who house Sonny, cannot understand the music, recognise it more as noise. Yet, when the narrator hears Sonny play live at a jazz club for the first time, he recognises himself—and all of Black people as well as his family— in the music. He recognises it as the glowing exit sign he was searching for, made possible only by listening and recognition: “Then he began to make it his… it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did”.

The writing style also echoes the novella’s content. In the first two-thirds of the text, as the narrator stumbles over making sense of his life and history, the prose is to-the-point, almost hardboiled. In the final few pages, as Sonny begins to play, the writing itself transforms, becoming lush, musical and poetic. It really takes one’s breath away.

On the Incongruous “Indian” in Sonny’s Blues

For a book on Black trauma and identity, Baldwin includes a strange little portion in which he casually undermines the identities of mainland Indians and Native Americans.

Sonny wants to go to India when he is fourteen: “He read books people sitting on rocks, naked, in all kinds of weather… and walking barefoot through hot coals and arriving at wisdom”. Here, Baldwin is clearly referring to the country of India in South Asia. Yet, when the narrator asks him years later if he still wants to go to India, Sonny replies by joking that America is Indian enough for him, in response to which the narrator reminds him that the country used to belong to them.

This conversation is brief and would be unremarkable, if not for the fact that Baldwin so blatantly conflates two completely disparate people groups within a book that champions cultural identity. It is unclear why he does so—there is no precursor or explanation before and after. I have two theories: 1) Baldwin is either showing that as aware as someone may be about racism-based issues, they themselves are not immune to imbibing certain stereotypes still or 2) he is using this conflated Indian identity example as a foil to show how easily the identities of entire cultures can be erased or belittled by the ignorant observer who does not seek to learn the truth.

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