The Meaning of Jazz in African American Culture
Particularly in Harlem During the 1950’s
In the Baldwin’s story, Sonny’s Blues, the author portrays African -Americans in the urban life. Even though he writes about reconciliation of two brothers, who are trying to overcome their differences and to come to understand each other, the story shows the meaning of Jazz in African American culture, particularly in Harlem during 1950. The urban life in Harlem has being described by many authors, including James Baldwin. The life of an African American man in this place during the 1950’s was a “disaster”, “faces and bodies” […] were “trapped in the darkness” (Baldwin n.pag). It was a time prior to the Civil Rights Movement, the time of segregation and unjust. Baldwin writes about black and very poor neighborhood in Harlem, where people were struggling to survive in the racist society. The author describes Harlem as a place where “the wages of sin were visible everywhere, in every wine-stained and urine-splashed hallway” (Baldwin n.pag).. The living conditions were horrible and not safe: “Safe, hell!” (Baldwin n.pag). In the 1950s most whites and black middle class had left Harlem, the crime and drug addiction rates were higher than anywhere in the United States. Baldwin portrays Harlem as a place where people can feel danger- “in every clanging ambulance bell, in every scar on the faces of the pimps and their whores, in every helpless, newborn baby being brought into this danger, in every knife and pistol fight on the Avenue, and in every disastrous bulletin: a cousin, mother of six, suddenly gone mad, the children parceled out here and there; an indestructible aunt rewarded for years of hard labor by a slow, agonizing death in a terrible small room; someone's bright son blown into eternity by his own hand; another turned robber and carried off to jail. Crime became real, for example--for the first time--not as a possibility but as the possibility. (Sherard n.pag) The story explains that there was not much hope for black people living there to beat the limits that were placed on their opportunities. It was very difficult to survive as a human being, keep your own identity and social morals in the society that tolerates racism and discrimination. Baldwin refers to young African Americans as… “these boys” (Baldwin n.pag) that were “growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (Baldwin n.pag). The author explains why “they were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone” ( Baldwin n.pag).
James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is being told by the one of the main character’s brother, which the author never names. He teaches Algebra in school, in the same place, Harlem, where he and his brother Sonny had grow up. The narrator is a family man with a wife and two sons. He strongly believes that if he works hard he can improve his living standards and save himself and his family “through assimilation of the values of the white myth” (Reid n.pag). The narrator tries to play a father figure to his younger brother Sonny after the death of their mother. However, when he realizes that Sonny’s plans for the future are impractical -- Sonny wants to become a musician-- he criticizes him. The difference between brothers is in their perception of life. The narrator worries that his brother’s goals are dangerous because Sonny doesn’t want to follow the footsteps of someone else’s success. Sonny believes that “people ought to do what they want to do, what else they alive for”(Baldwin n.pag). In the story Sonny leaves the respectful world of his older brother: first, he joins the Navy and then he returns to live in...
Cited: Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues”.Wright State University. 2004:n.pag. 6 June 2008
Class Lecture on “Sonny’s Blues”.UC Davis University.2005:n.pag
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