Darkness and Light in “Sonny’s Blues”

June 21, 2019 by Essay Writer

In James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” the abundance of darkness reveals the beauty of light. Despite how uncomfortable and painful it is to be in the dark, the main character, Sonny empowers himself by stepping into the light and incorporating his dark experiences into his passion of music. The darkness represents the destitution that is faced everyday on the harsh streets of Harlem. These streets are ridden with the reality of drugs and crime and these wrongdoings are almost impossible for adolescents to break away from. Sonny, a struggling jazz musician, finds himself to be a victim to the streets of Harlem. He finds that heroin is the only way he can express his artistic and creative potential while shying away from reality. However, his experience with darkness led him to the light. Sonny attempts to step in the light when he rejects drugs from his life to advance his passion for jazz music. Light and darkness are deliberate metaphors used by Baldwin to convey the message of truth and reality, as well as the hardships of adversity. In the beginning of the story, the narrator symbolizes darkness with a negative connotation when he mentions “the swinging light of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside”(43). This reference is significant because it is a contrast to the dismal society that the narrator and his brother Sonny live in. The darkness is the portrayal of the community of Harlem that is trapped in their surroundings by physical, economic, and social barriers. The obvious nature of darkness has overcome the occupants of the Harlem community. The narrator, an algebra teacher, observes a depressing similarity between his students and his brother Sonny. This is true because the narrator is fearful for his students falling into a life of crime and drugs, as did his brother. The narrator notes that the cruel realities of the streets have taken away the possible light from the lives of his brother and his students. An insightful connection is made by the narrator between the darkness that Sonny faced and the darkness that the young boys are presently facing. This is illustrated when the narrator expresses: These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darkness’s, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and 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. (44) The passage demonstrates how darkness has overcome the lives of the children without them realizing it. The darkness also represents the lack of opportunity available to them. The young boys live in a dark reality where they do not know and are not familiar with light, and therefore do not have anything to look forward to.The motif of light and darkness is also demonstrated when the narrator recalls his and Sonny’s childhood and gives examples regarding his recollection of his family on Sunday evenings. The narrator makes several points in regard to the silence in the room and “the darkness growing against the windowpanes”(49). He states that the darkness that is outside is where the older generation of his family comes from and what they bear. He recalls the children sitting on the mother’s lap and he points out that:The silence, the darkness coming, and the darkness in the faces frighten the child obscurely. He hopes that the hand which strokes his forehead will never stop—will never die. But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already ending. And when the light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness.(50) In this quote, the narrator is showing that with the light comes knowledge of the world for the child. The light is bleak and not always encouraging. When the child exposes himself to the world he loses part of his innocence and childhood. Therefore, the child may wish to remain in the darkness. The darkness in this specific excerpt is personified as a slow and gentle relief. The narrator attempts to convey the concept that darkness, which in reality means nothing without any light to illuminate it; this is because the light makes one aware of the dark, and therefore comprehend reality. The pain that Sonny undergoes is only satisfied when he is playing his music, and it is through this that the narrator accepts Sonny as a person and as a musician. Acceptance of Sonny’s profession is extremely difficult for the narrator because he has always associated Sonny’s music with darkness and drugs. Nevertheless, the darkness of the night in the jazz club illustrates the complication and wonder of jazz to the narrator. In the jazz club, there is a struggle with light and darkness. This is exemplified when Sonny and the rest of the musicians wait to go on stage and the narrator notices: The light from the bandstand spilled just a little short of them and, watching them laughing and gesturing and moving about, I had the feeling that they, nevertheless, were being most careful not to step into the circle of light too suddenly; that if they moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would perish in flame. (61) The passage suggests that to embrace the truth and gain conscious awareness too quickly is painful and devastating. Unfortunately for Sonny and the rest of the musicians, the fear of something new, regardless of how pleasant it could be, was too uncomfortable to take advantage of at this point.At the end of the story Sonny is finally able to step in the light and genuinely feel his passion for music. Although the narrator had been objectionable to Sonny’s music earlier on, he finally appreciated Sonny’s way of expression at the end of the story when he listens to Sonny play:I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth.(63)When the narrator listens to Sonny’s music, he is able to share the freedom and reality which connects them in the light.Everyone has daily struggles in life, however, the manner by which different people approach them determines whether the individual would be able to shine in the light. Within the consciousness of reality that is obvious throughout this story, there are instances of peace and hope, which make the darkness in life worth living. The two brothers attempt to repair the void that has been left in their lives and are surrounded by a world full of shadows and light. Jointly, they face the unavoidable darkness that had overwhelmed their lives. Using music as a form of communication, the brothers are able to overcome their differences and create order in their chaotic life. The painful realization of the truth enables them to redirect their lives and rebuild a relationship. If the brothers would have not experienced the darkness together, they would have never shared the beauty in the light.

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