I did not plan to begin Black History Month with James Baldwin, but it is a fitting beginning, and I may skip around the book (The Art of the Short Story – Gioia/Gwynn) and cover the stories of Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison this month.
This week belongs to James Baldwin, though, and the Art of the Short Story selection is “Sonny’s Blues.” Rather than read a new story every day, I am reading the stories in this book and living with them for a week. To be honest, this week, this story is not a comfortable place to live all week.
The most famous of Baldwin’s short stories, it’s the story of brothers, of family, of surviving racism and not surviving racism. And music, the because Sonny’s Blues are really the blues.
Baldwin, according to the biographical information in the small space allotted, was the son of a revivalist minister and became a preacher himself at fourteen. Then he decided to become a writer and with Richard Wright’s help, got a grant that allowed him to move to Paris to write.
What fascinates me is the move from preacher to writer. As if the message he bore was so big, so impossible to tell, he had to follow in the path of Jesus and tell stories. Because we cannot see truth in our own lives, but we can see them in the characters we fall in love with, and the characters we glimpse ourselves in.
Such as the two brothers in “Sonny’s Blues.” I am not a black man in Harlem, but I have been an older sibling charged with caring for younger ones. I did not have a sibling mowed down by drunk drivers because of the color of his skin, but those white men who killed Sonny’s uncle could just as well been my relatives. What do I do with that? I don’t play the blues in a Harlem club, but playing oboe in an orchestra does have some of the same feelings. Becoming one with your instrument, blending with the other players, breathing in unison, and matching tones and nuances with people that you see once or twice a week in only this space. Like odors and smells, music goes straight to the emotional part of the brain, bringing back memories of not necessarily events, but of the emotions that were part of them. I don’t remember much of the concert contests that our high school band played, but I remember the feeling at the end of the last piece of the performance; when we all put our instruments down with a unisoned sigh, and let the hairs standing on the back of our necks finally relax. There’s a part of me that truly believes that movie soundtracks are just captions for the emotionally impaired – I don’t know what to feel without the music telling me.
And this story feels in some ways like that to me. Sonny has the music to tell himself his feelings but his brother cannot understand. It’s not until he goes and hears for himself does he finally realized the connection between the music and Sonny’s soul and how his survival as a man, as a black man, depends utterly on it.