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James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”

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James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”. James Baldwin (1924-1987). Born in Harlem, 1924 Illegitimate Mother was a domestic worker Grew up in great poverty Step-father was a factory worker and store-front preacher Baldwin himself was a street preacher for a few years

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james baldwin 1924 1987
James Baldwin (1924-1987)
  • Born in Harlem, 1924
    • Illegitimate
    • Mother was a domestic worker
    • Grew up in great poverty
  • Step-father was a factory worker and store-front preacher
    • Baldwin himself was a street preacher for a few years
    • Early work deals with issues of religious identity
  • Baldwin’s stepfather never fully accepted James, so he always felt like an outsider in the family
james baldwin 1924 19873
James Baldwin (1924-1987)
  • In 1948, fleeing what he had felt was the poisonous racial atmosphere of the United States, Baldwin moved to France. 
  • Though he remained there for the rest of his life, he did visit the United States periodically, to participate in the Civil Rights movement, and to teach and lecture
sonny s blues
“Sonny’s Blues”
  • “Sonny’s Blues” first published in The Partisan Review in 1957
  • Later appeared in his 1965 collection of short stories, Going to Meet the Man
sonny s blues5
“Sonny’s Blues”
  • Takes place in the mid-1950s, probably during the Korean War
    • Before the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement
    • Dark days of segregation
  • The irony of the family’s urban life
    • Military service
    • Life in a housing project
class divisions and racial politics
Class Divisions and Racial Politics
  • The narrator and Sonny can be thought of as representing a divide within the black race during this time period
    • Middle class vs. lower class
    • Pragmatist vs. Artist
    • Belief in the American Dream vs. Disillusion
  • Which worldview seems to win out in the end?
slide7
Jazz
  • Sonny
    • Lower class
    • Musician/Artist
  • Charlie Parker
    • Bebop
  • The Narrator
    • Middle class
    • Teacher
  • Louis Armstrong
    • “That old-time, down-home crap.”
the end of sonny s blues
The end of “Sonny’s Blues”
  • The narrator and Sonny begin to bridge the gap between them at the end.
  • The narrator begins to understand Sonny’s music.
    • 30: “And, while Creole listened…”
    • 31: “Then they all gathered around Sonny and played…”
  • What might this symbolize?
32 the cup of trembling
32: The “cup of trembling”

Isaiah 51: 17-22

  • 17Awake, awake, stand up, O Jerusalem, which hast drunk at the hand of the LORD the cup of his fury; thou hast drunken the dregs of the cup of trembling, and wrung them out.[………]

21Therefore hear now this, thou afflicted, and drunken, but not with wine:22Thus saith thy Lord the LORD, and thy God that pleadeth the cause of his people, Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again:23But I will put it into the hand of them that afflict thee; which have said to thy soul, Bow down, that we may go over: and thou hast laid thy body as the ground, and as the street, to them that went over.

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