Past and Future Blues: A Comparison of Historical Themes in ‘Sonny’s Blues’ and ‘The Underground Railroad’
The past is anything but mere history; it sheathes, surrounds, and encompasses us, as humans, as we forge on through life. Similarly, in two eminent American works of fiction – The Underground Railroad, The Cafeteria, and Sonny’s Blues – the past is eloquently woven in and out of the story, drastically influencing the reader’s perception of each tale and creating multidimensional narratives that focus on not only the present moment, but key events that shaped and molded it. Out of these three stories, Sonny’s Blues can be compared to The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead in that they both examine the tough historical narrative of racism and prejudice in the United States; ultimately though, Baldwin’s short story deals with the past in a very different manner, one valuing literary complexity over historical emphasis. With gripping prose and haunting narrative lyricism, Sonny’s Blues truly captures the weight of the past- personal, cultural, and familial- as it relates to our futures.
Both The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin explore the theme of pervasive racism against blacks in the United States: one through the harsh brutalities of slavery, and the other through numerous examples of a rough, unforgiving world where prejudice prevails. The Underground Railroad is at its very essence, a book about slavery and the struggle for freedom, both physically and mentally. The protagonist, Cora, is running away from the merciless environment of her plantation through the Underground Railroad, a network of subterranean railroad tunnels that takes her to various states and locations, all the while being pursued by her white masters and slave catchers. Countless times Cora describes the macabre horrors of slavery: the scorching agony of punishment, and the grisly executions of those who try to run and are caught. Through Cora’s eyes, we, as the readers, witness the abomination of slavery from a close-up perspective, and the terrible physical and mental toll it takes on the black people entrapped in its merciless clutches. The book is first and foremost a historical novel; it is absolutely centered around slavery and its brutality.
Although set in a very different America, one well after the emancipation of slaves, Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin also explores racism against the black population, this time in a more private, but not any less shocking way. In one emotional moment, the reader learns of the untimely death of the narrator and Sonny’s uncle when he is struck by a car full of drunk white men one night. As their mother described it, their father had “never in his life seen anything as dark as that road after the lights of that car had gone away” (Baldwin, 13). This horrifying incident demonstrates the harsh reality of a racist world; even though black people had finally escaped slavery, they were still disregarded and abused by whites. Furthermore, the theme of “[darkness]” is prevalent throughout Sonny’s Blues as a force of cruelty, something creeping right outside the door, always waiting to swoop in and extinguish any sources of light and life. In one scene, the narrator describes a seemingly harmless scene in the living room with his family; however, Baldwin details of “the darkness growing against the windowpanes… every face looks darkening, like the sky outside” (11). “Darkness” is a word undeniably connected with blackness, with black skin and all the pain, prejudice, and brutality that comes with it. Even in peaceful times, the darkness, or their own blackness, and the harsh world it brings, is inescapable. The child in the room knows it, seeing the adults’ faces “darkening” with the truth, that this place he has been born in is a cold, unforgiving place for blacks. Even hundreds of years after slavery has ended, he is still one of millions trapped in the harsh reality of a racist society, an impoverished population infused with drugs and peril. In this manner, though set years apart, The Underground Railroad and Sonny’s Blues both carefully examine racial prejudice in the United States, and how the history of America is undeniably one built on a bloody racial hierarchy.
While Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad explores history in the most literal of senses, Sonny’s Blues focuses on the personal and familial pasts of the black characters featured, fleshing them out with intricate psychological detail. Although Sonny’s Blues does mention several times ideas of racial prejudice against black people, the overarching themes of the story are not about race at all. To me, Sonny’s Blues discusses, along with the deep struggles of human nature, the pure interconnectedness between time periods. The past is seen in every aspect of the story, from the unnamed narrator’s constant habit to see people as their former child selves, to his historically bitter and resentful relationship with Sonny, his younger brother and the titular character. These two factors are firmly intertwined; the narrator always sees people as their innocent past personas because he cannot help but do the same to Sonny. To him, Sonny will always be a child, someone he has to protect and guide. However, this rigid mindset is damaging because what Sonny demands from his brother is not protection and patronization, but respect. Sonny’s frustration with the narrator’s condescending attitude is revealed when during their conversation about career choices, he says, “I hear you. But you never hear anything I say” (18). The narrator does not truly understand Sonny’s turbulent emotions until the end when he sees him play the piano, and for the first time truly “hears” him, recognizing his pain as real and deserving of acknowledgement. However, as he earlier mourns, “There stood between us, forever, beyond the power of time or forgiveness, the fact that I had held silence- so long!- when he had needed human speech to help him” (25). Because of the aggrieved personal and familial history between them, the fact that the narrator had withheld “human speech”, or support from Sonny for so long, they will never be able to truly connect as brothers for the rest of their lives, even after he finally recognizes Sonny as an equal. This detail is what makes the story so poignant and tragic, the characters so piteously relatable in their broken, fragmented relationship. In this way, Sonny’s Blues utilizes past events to indicate a bleak future, connecting two time periods to create a heartbreaking narrative of two forever estranged brothers.
Overall, Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin is a remarkable tale, exploring the darker sides of personal introspection, family bonds, and black culture in 20th century Harlem through its use of past events to deepen readers’ understanding of the present. Through an enthralling narrative combined with complex character relationships, Baldwin demonstrates irrefutably how past events- historical or personal- can result in long-lasting effects that refuse to disappear over time, a phenomenon applicable in even our daily lives. However, although our past defines us, it does not have to be in a negative manner; for example, Sonny and so many other great musicians in real life would never have been able to create such beautiful, soul-touching music without suffering as they did. In the end, for good or for bad, our past is an undeniable authority in determining our future.
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