African-American Experience as Seen by James Baldwin
August 1, 2019 James Baldwin was an African-American novelist and activist in which his works the complex racial and class distinction in the world but most of his work focuses on the times of civil rights America where African-Americans were fighting for their civil rights and protections. In James Baldwin’s short story, Sonny’s Blues, Baldwin addresses the struggles and hardships that African-Americans faced living in communities filled with drugs and violence. Sonny from Harlem was arrested for drugs in the 1950s; the protagonist, Sonny’s brother, Sonny’s dark past, however, tells the reader how Sonny overcame those hardships through music. In Baldwin’s Stranger in the Village, Baldwin describes a small town he visited in Switzerland and also juxtaposes the different reactions and looks he faced in Europe compared to America. Both of Baldwin’s short stories both discuss the African-American experience and the plethora of challenges that African-Americans must overcome. James Baldwin creates the argument that the African-American experience is challenging as it is very hard for African-Americans to be recognized and successful.
The motif of darkness in Sonny’s Blues is to demonstrate that African-Americans are not given the opportunity to arise from their poverty- riddled communities restricting their chances to be prosperous. The protagonist was teaching Algebra to his students when he made the revelation that his students will eventually end up like Sonny as “ all they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in . . . at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone” (Baldwin 123). The darkness covering up the protagonist’s young students is closing as their future is becoming much dimmer due to each student observing and encountering drug, violence, and poverty. People living in Harlem and communities like Harlem are more likely to become an addict or be in prison instead of beating the barriers placed on them from birth. The motif of darkness appeared again when the protagonist was reminiscing about the last moment when his mother was alive, however “ For a moment nobody’s talking, but every face is darkening, like the sky outside . . . everyone is looking at something a child can’t see” (Baldwin 130). The darkness is taking away the blithe moment of the family. This reinforces the idea that African-Americans cannot be successful as they are always surrounded by darkness limiting their ability to be successful.
The motif of light in Sonny’s Blues is seen through the symbolism of music as music uplifted Sonny’s addiction but also reconnected the narrator and Sonny. The narrator does not know anything about jazz; the narrator was suspicious of Sonny’s motivation to be a musician as he told Sonny “do you want to be a concert pianist, you want to play classical music . . . For Christ’s sake, Sonny!” (Baldwin 134). The narrator believed that music will take Sonny back to the road of addiction and jail as the narrator does not want his brother to fall back into the darkness however Sonny was determined to play jazz as “[he] want to play with- jazz musicians” (Baldwin 134) as he believed that jazz can serve as a turnaround away from drugs and the life that was set for him by his community. The narrator went to a nightclub to see Sonny play with his band and as they were playing; the narrator noticed the movement of each band member as they were not trying to touch the circle of light too fast because “if they moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would perish in flame” (Baldwin 146). The music that Sonny and his band are making a new light of change as if they were to even approach the light too quickly then they will still be surrounded and covered by darkness. As the band continues to play, each member stepped into the light and was encouraging Sonny to step into the light as Sonny “could have cried, but neither hiding it nor showing it . . . put[ing] both hands to his heart and bowed from the waist”. Sonny and the band are not trying to move to the side of light but are trying to create a new light while embracing the darkness in their communities as “the lights on the bandstand . . . turned to a kind of indigo. Then they all looked different there” (Baldwin 146). The light being “indigo” is a combination of light and darkness that each band member including Sonny has encountered. Through music, Sonny was able to change and atone for his addiction as the music was Sonny’s way out to escape his addiction and murky past. This change in Sonny is accepted by his brother as when he sees Sonny playing “it [the light] glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling” (Baldwin 146). The narrator before recognized jazz to have a negative impact on Sonny as the narrator feared that jazz will send Sonny back to his addiction ways which caused a rift in their relationship however after listening to Sonny play and seeing how passionate jazz was to Sonny. The narrator recognized that Sonny has changed for the better which reconnects the brothers together.
In James Baldwin’s Stranger In The Village, Baldwin utilizes scope to demonstrate that African-Americans are misrepresented due to white colonizers tainting African history causing society to view African-Americans different from the rest of society. When Baldwin was strolling around the village in Switzerland on his first day, he noticed that people “thought [his] har was the color of tar or the texture of cotton” as Baldwin feared that “some daring creature was certain to come along and gingerly put his fingers on [his] hair” (2). Since the village is mostly isolated from the rest of the world, they are foreign to seeing black people at their village which generates interest in people to interact with Baldwin however as the people believed that “there was yet no suggestion that [he] was human” (2). This demonstrates the impact that white colonizers and settlers influencing and maligning African history as people are not viewed as human because they are very different from white Europeans and Americans. Baldwin expresses his anger when juxtaposing the differences between the first white man to be seen by Africans and the first black man to be seen by white people. Baldwin “find[s] [himself] among a people whose culture controls me . . . people who have cost me more in anguish and rage than they will ever know, who yet do not even know of my existence”. Baldwin is furious that he is not acknowledged by white people and it is even more frustrating that Baldwin cannot even get their attention because they do not even acknowledge that he is a real human. In addition, Baldwin discussed the dominating nature of the first white man to be seen by Africans as “he arrives to conquer and to convert . . . whose inferiority in relation to himself”(3). This further supports that the white man intends to damage and erase African history and culture to preserve the power of whites.
Baldwin also discusses that the white man is always trying to erase African history however Baldwin tells the audience that the world must accept the existence of African-Americans and the issues they encounter. Baldwin talks about how the white man marginalizes people of color to keep his power as “the history of this problem can be reduced to the means used by Americans-lynch law: and law, segregation, and legal acceptance” (7). The white man is trying his best to keep his power as he cannot accept the existence of African-Americans. The use of “American-lynch law” and “segregation” is meant to keep African-Americans marginalized and oppressed so they cannot rise to power. The white man is trying his best to keep African-Americans at the bottom. Later, Baldwin exposes people who are blind to accept the truth that the black man exists as “people who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction . . . that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster” (8). Baldwin calls out people who are innocent of racial inequality as people who are still innocent and in denial will be inhumane. Baldwin is informing the reader that the world must accept a world where a black man and a white man resides as racial oppression needs to stop.
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