Redemption in Sonny's Blues
Once all the assignments were read, there was no contest. Indeed, no contest existed after the last few paragraphs of Sonny's Blues. For in his attempt to make us see Sonny through the eyes of his brother, the author slips, carrying not only us but himself into the story.
Walking along with Sonny's brother I try desperately to tear myself away from the story. I don't like the language - it grates on my sensitivities. I don't like the subject matter - it seems all too common to hold my interest. Yet it does...because woven throughout the story is the age old struggle of good and evil. Sonny struggles to find his place, seeming to grasp music, yet failing to convey his destiny to those who can't believe, who won't believe.
The story captivated me, moved me to tears and touched me in a special way.
In the words of James Baldwin, I saw my own struggle to find a place to belong. I heard my own words and music falling on the deaf ears of those who would not, could not believe in me. I ached for Sonny yet I knew his actions, his struggle with drugs, had taken his brother to the breaking point. Sometimes the desire to belong takes us beyond what others can accept or even understand.
But it was the second to the last paragraph that held me captive. I could HEAR the music as Sonny played. I could see what his brother saw as the music held HIM captive. The tears on his wife's cheeks were mine. I could feel the ache in the hearts of those in the room. And I could see the beginnings of the healing process. All in the notes of Sonny's blues.
In the final lines of the story, Baldwin seeks to convey his message and if you aren't already caught up in the tale, you will miss it. For the ending is a riddle whose answer is contained in the previous pages. If in reading, you skipped lines or paragraphs, you will have missed the point. It is a story about redemption, healing and infinite loss. In the final paragraphs of the story, Sonny redeems himself in the notes of his music. In the respect of his peers, in his world, where he is the man who would be King. But if you have read the anguish of his brother as he struggles to understand, you know that just like Billie Holiday, whose songs he sings, Sonny's life may play out to the same end.
The struggle with drugs is a harsh one. The struggle with any addiction can be harsh for those who watch as well as for those who participate. It was this struggle that Sonny's brother was forced to watch over the years. The struggle that led to Sonny being arrested and it is this same struggle that we are led to believe is the underlying motivator in all that Sonny does.
Although the story ends on a somewhat healing note, you are left with the feeling that Sonny's fate is still uncertain, that the monkey on his back is never too far away and that the emotion he uses as the muse for his songs may turn on him one day. I have sat at that piano with Sonny and I have poured my heart into the music dripping from my fingertips - Unlike Sonny, I have not struggled with addiction but like his brother, I have watched as loved ones struggled to find their way out of the darkness.
As a writer, I have been taught to write what I know. In this story, I have to wonder what memory or incident James Baldwin tapped to bring life to his words. I know what memories he fostered in me.
I was in Junior High when I read "The Veldt" by Ray Bradbury. It was a story that caught my attention and drew me in - a story I have never quite gotten out of my head. Sonny's Blues is another one I must add to that list of stories never to be forgotten.