We Are in This Together: Comparing “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and “Sonny’s Blues”
Martin Luther King and James Baldwin lived in the era of racial inequality and the civil rights movement, an era when African-Americans were still fighting to find a place in society. In 1963, King wrote a famous letter from jail while in 1957; Baldwin for his part published a fictional short story capturing this intimidating time period. Together, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” demonstrate a common fear of the future of African-Americans in the late 1950s/early 1960s United States. Both men write of struggling and troubled blacks trapped in racially-segregated Birmingham, Alabama, and a drug and crime-infested Harlem, New York, respectively, fearing that the status quo may never change. However, King and Baldwin respond to this fear, and they do so by encouraging brotherly love and community fellowship. They suggest that perhaps the best way to fight such fear is to unite and help one another.
King crafted his letter in response to the recent non-violent protest against racial segregation of the government and downtown retailers of Birmingham, Alabama. Although King is concerned with the fight against segregation for much of the letter, he essentially fears most not the ones who segregate, but the ones who do nothing about it – the white moderate. He sees the white moderate as “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom” (King), because they recognize the injustice, but they are not devoted to it. The white moderate, more specifically, is the clergymen, religious leaders of the church both Christian and Jewish. King sees two faults with the clergyman; (1) they “hide behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows” (King), and (2) they “admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law” (King). King criticizes the white moderate not only for lack of action, but also for action that reinforces the status quo. If the white moderate indeed prefers negative peace (i.e. lack of tension) than positive peace (i.e. justice), then they are of great threat to the future of African-Americans. King explains that “shallow understanding and lukewarm acceptance is far worse than absolute misunderstanding and outright rejection” (King). In other words, King is disappointed with racial segregation and its agents, but even more frustrated with the clergyman who fail their every obligation and go against their every moral for the sake of their own well-being. King fears that this very nonconformity can seriously prevent the end of racial segregation.
King responds to the fear of the white moderate and ultimately racial segregation by urging African-Americans to unite for the common purpose of love and justice. Much of the letter is a call of brotherhood; King defends non-violent protests and vouches for direct action. He also refers to himself as “we,” an indication that King seems to speak for all African-Americans, that is he is the voice that unites all the voices against racial segregation in this one letter. In promoting unity and brotherhood, King also asks African-Americans to spread love and justice, comparing his people to Jesus Christ and Amos. Again, King attempts to create a sense of togetherness, making these associations with key historical figures. By drawing the comparison, King is better able to communicate the idea that African-Americans are a single body working for the same good goal, the goal of love and justice. King not only advocates brotherhood among fellow African-Americans, but also with his “white brothers.” Some such as Ralph McGill, Lilian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden, and Sarah Patton Boyle have written about the struggle, or marched down streets, or even went to jail for the African-American cause. They have “recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for a powerful action to fight segregation” (King). These “white brothers” are another indication that the best way to respond to the fear is to unite, help one another, and together fight for a better future. King concludes his letter hoping that “in some not-too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love ad brotherhood will shine over the nation with all their beauty” (King). The times are hard, but people have the ability to come together and survive.
James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” documents on the drugs, poverty, and oppressive living conditions faced by African-Americans in the late-fifties Harlem. Much like Martin Luther King, Baldwin fears that African-Americans may never see a brighter future, with a place like Harlem. The narrator is perhaps only an exception to what is neighborhood filled with Sonnys. A short passage demonstrates the despair and hopelessness – the darkness – of Harlem:
Most of the houses in which we had grown up had vanished, as had the stores from which we had stolen, the basements in which we had first tried sex, the rooftops from which we had hurled tin cans and bricks. But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster (Baldwin).
This passage illustrates not only the hostile living conditions of Sonny and the narrator’s childhood, but also the same living conditions of the next generation. Though years have passed, it appears nothing has changed, a new generation of African-Americans are doomed to be in no better Harlem than the one where Sonny and the narrator grew up in. The darkness that is the drugs, crime, poverty and oppression engulfs Harlem with every generation. And even though new housing projects have been constructed, the only thing that is new is their existence and appearance, life conditions remain unchanged. Stealing from stores, recreational sex, and mindless hobbies still dominate the everyday childhood in Harlem. Baldwin tries hard to create this intimidating image of Harlem; poverty, addiction, crime, imprisonment, and very little hope of escape. He clearly fears that African-Americans have no future in Harlem, they are introduce to darkness in childhood, and grew up in darkness for the rest of their lives.
Baldwin responds to the fear of darkness by encouraging brotherly and familial love, and promoting small but meaningful gestures in the community. He believes that African-Americans can survive the difficult times in Harlem and one day live like the narrator if they do it together, helping one another whenever they can. Of course Baldwin’s most prominent example of this in “Sonny’s Blues” is the brotherly love that evolves between Sonny and the narrator. After the narrator’s mother asks him to “hold on to [Sonny]…and do not let [Sonny] fall” (Baldwin), the narrator takes it upon himself to take care of his brother. Initially however, the narrator is unable to do so; while he himself escapes the drugs and poverty of the streets and become a teacher, he fails to make sure Sonny follows. Sonny gets addicted to heroin, goes to jail, and the relationship with his brother for most of the story is complicated and difficult. By the end of the story, the narrator finally becomes the big brother he promised to be, he takes Sonny back home, feeds him, and most importantly gives him a family for the first time in years. Even the fact that he is there to simply listen to Sonny, to hear Sonny express himself is a brotherly gesture Baldwin seeks to encourage. Baldwin uses Sonny and the narrator to demonstrate that brothers can come together to watch and protect one another despite their differences and hard times.
This brotherly love, however, extends beyond Sonny and the narrator. Baldwin also believes that individuals within the community can help and be there for each other. In “Sonny’s Blues,” the adults for example spend their Sunday mornings in church and afternoons having dinner and sharing stories together. The narrator admits that on Sundays “the living room would always be full of church folks and relatives” (Baldwin). This creates a sense of togetherness between the adults, and provides warmth and security for the children. In another examples, the narrator meets one of Sonny’ friends and gives him five dollars (Baldwin). Though the narrator is frustrated with Sonny’s friend at the start, when he is asked for a dollar for the subway fare, the narrator suddenly feels sorry for the man and gives him the money. Otherwise, the narrator admits he “would be crying like a child” (Baldwin). Even Sonny is part of this community fellowship as his music brings people together in Jazz clubs and again builds the sense of unity and love in the community. Also, his music helps everyone listening face their problems more easily because they are doing it together. Ultimately, Baldwin fears the hostile and oppressive living conditions, but he responds to this fear by urging African-Americans to come together and help one another be it family, friends, neighbors or even strangers, so that the drug and poverty-stricken Harlem is that much more bearable.
On the basis of their texts, Martin Luther King and James Baldwin fear that Birmingham, Alabama, and Harlem, New York are doomed to be the sites of racism, segregation, injustice, and oppression to African-Americans in the future. However, despite everything, they believe that African-Americans can survive the tough times f they do it together. Fear is a powerful and primitive human emotion found in every human being from King and Baldwin to the African-Americans in Birmingham, Harlem and across the nation. Fear unites every individual in this way, but it is the response to fear that defines these same individuals. King does not call for violence or outright riots, and Baldwin does not complain about the situation, rather they face their fear and they tell us to do it together, side by side. Perhaps it is because individuals like King and Baldwin that African Americans were able to find unity, brotherhood, love, and justice in the most unlikely of times.
Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.”
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
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