How do sonny & his brother try to escape the past? Is sonny's brother able to accept the past?
"Sonny's Blues": Learning To Accept The Past
What is the past? Webster's Dictionary defines the past as a person's history or background. The experiences of the past help make people who they are. It is the sorrows and joys, the losses and the victories of the past that shape and mold people into what they become. The past can affect someone for the rest of his life. James Baldwin's story "Sonny's Blues" is a story about two brothers who grew up in the ghetto of Harlem. As adults they both try to find themselves and escape their past in Harlem. Sonny's brother tries making a better life for himself. He uses his family and his success as a schoolteacher as a way of overcoming his childhood. On the other hand, Sonny uses his drug addiction and his love of music as means of escape from the past.
The idea of the story is that no matter how hard they try to escape the past, they will never be able to. The past is a part of them, and until they learn to accept that fact, they will never truly know how it feels to be free.
"One of the most important messages in this story is the description of Harlem's
stultifying environment, a place where children are 'smothered'. 'Some escaped the trap,
most didn't. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as animals
amputate a leg and leave it in the trap' (Baldwin p.109). The implicit assumption here is
that childhood is a holistic state, whereas the process of growing older maims the
individual." (Perspectives on James Baldwin: Approaches to Reading and Teaching
Throughout the story Sonny's brother unknowingly returns to the past for comfort. One example of this is when his daughter, Grace, dies. He grasps for the one remaining piece of his past, his brother; " I didn't write Sonny or send him anything for a long time. When I finally did, it was just after my little girl died" (Baldwin p.107). As the story progresses, it becomes more and more important for Sonny's brother to get to know and understand Sonny.
At one point during the story, Sonny's brother realizes that he and Sonny have something very important in common. As he describes during their cab ride home; " It came to me that what we both were seeking through our separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind" (Baldwin p.109)
It is not until the end of the story that Sonny's brother is able to accept the past and find himself. " The narrator's freedom comes through his recapturing and acceptance of the past; the music conjures up his mother's face, his uncle's death, Grace's death accompanied by Isabel's tears"(Perspectives on James Baldwin: Approaches to Reading and Teaching "Sonny's Blues").
Baldwin, James "Sonny's Blues" Literature and Ourselves Ed. Gloria Henderson, Bill Day, Sandra Stevenson Waller. Addison-Wesley, 2001. 107,109
"Perspectives on Reading and Teaching 'Sonny's Blues'." 28 January 2001