The Meaning of Jazz in African American Culture Particularly In Harlem During the essays In the Baldwin story, sonny Blues, the author portrays African ;Americans In the urban life. Even though he writes about reconciliation of two brothers, who are trying to overcome their differences and to come to understand each other, the story shows the meaning of Jazz In African American culture, particularly In Harlem during 1950.
The urban life in Harlem has being described by many authors, including James Baldwin. The life of an African American man in this place during the sass’s was a disaster”, “faces and bodies” were “trapped in the darkness” (Baldwin n. Page). It was a time prior to the Civil Rights Movement, the time of segregation and unjust. Baldwin writes about black and very poor neighborhood In Harlem, where people were struggling to survive in the racist society.
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The author describes Harlem as a place where “the wages of sin were visible everywhere, in every wine-stained and urine-splashed hallway” (Baldwin n. Page).. The living conditions were horrible and not safe: “Safe, hell! ” (Baldwin n. Page). In the sass most whites and black middle class ad left Harlem, the crime and drug addiction rates were higher than anywhere in the United States.
Baldwin portrays Harlem as a place where people can feel danger- “in every clanging ambulance bell, in every scar on the faces of the pimps and their whore’s, In every helpless, newborn baby being brought Into this danger, In every knife and pistol fight on the Avenue, and In every disastrous bulletin: a cousin, mother of six, suddenly gone mad, the children parceled out here and there; an indestructible aunt rewarded for years of hard labor by a slow, agonizing death in a rebel small room; someone’s bright son blown into eternity by his own hand; another turned robber and carried off to Jail.
Crime became real, for example–for the first time–not as a possibility but as the possibility. (Shearer n. Page) The story explains that there was not much hope for black people living there to beat the limits that were placed on their opportunities. It was very difficult to survive as a human being, keep your own Identity and social morals In the society that tolerates racism and discrimination. Baldwin refers to young African Americans as… “These boys” (Baldwin n. G) that were “growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (Baldwin n. Page). The author explains why “they were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darkness, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the 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” ( Baldwin n. Gag). James Baldwin “Sonny’s Blues” is being told by the one of the main character’s brother, which the author never names. He teaches Algebra in school, in the same place, Harlem, where he and his brother 1 OFF strongly believes that if he works hard he can improve his living standards and save himself and his family “through assimilation of the values of the white myth” (Reid n. Page). The narrator tries to play a father figure to his younger brother Sonny after the death of their mother.
However, when he realizes that Sonny’s plans for the future are impractical Sonny wants to become a musician– he criticizes him. The difference between brothers is in their perception of life. The narrator worries that is brother’s goals are dangerous because Sonny doesn’t want to follow the footsteps of someone else’s success. Sonny believes that “people ought to do what they want to do, what else they alive for”(Baldwin n. Page). In the story Sonny leaves the respectful world of his older brother: first, he Joins the Navy and then he returns to live in Greenwich Village.
He struggles to survive as a musician and remove himself from the misery of ghetto once he used to live in. The story portrays that the conflict between two brothers is more complex than it seems to be. Sonny tries to prove that living by another man’s definition of success, or worse, being hemmed in by discrimination that deprives one true freedom, is like being dead. Music, art, and even drugs are avenues out of that social death, even as they are, in their own ways, dangerous or subversive” (Class Lecture). Sonny becomes a drug user and gets arrested for possession of narcotics. Those who try to escape on the streets find themselves encircled by disaster” (Baldwin n. Page). In his adolescence, Sonny succumbs to the streets and ends up hooked on dope and in prison” (Filbert n. Page). Even though, Sonny tries to explain himself, the narrator chooses not to be involved. Later in the story he reconciles with his younger brother after the death of his daughter. The pain of loss made him more sensitive to his brother’s feelings. The narrator in the beginning assumes “that he has escaped “the underclass”(Baldwin n. Gag), but what he discovers later is that his younger brother is still stuck there addicted to heroin, and he will never find a peace until he saves him”(Reid n. Page). What he begins to discover with Sonny’s arrest and literal imprisonment is that he cannot free himself from responsibility for his brother. He is his brother’s keeper and the vision that will make life and freedom from bondage possible is not the Platonic, Apollonian vision of his white brother’s inheritance, but the vision that grows out of the darkness to which he is condemned.
The darkness lived is transformed into the tragedy that is the story. The vision provides the experience of the spirit of the people in their finite struggle and transcends the death inherent in the bondage” (Reid n. Page). One of the major themes in the story is music, especially jazz music in Harlem. The author shows that music is not only as a symbol of African American identity, heritage, and racial issues in society, but also as a means of communication between people. Historically Harlem is rich in history and culture. Throughout its development it has seen everything from poverty to urban growth” (Hilliard’s n. Page). Many black people have migrated to this community, “bringing with them heritage and traditions of their own”(Hilliard’s n. Page). One of these traditions was music – blues and spirituals. “This tradition deeply rooted because of their African heritage provided a source of employment for on the Harlem streets, at house parties, bordellos, or Just about anywhere for a meal, a alular or two'(Hilliard’s n. Page).
During these years many musicians who have migrated In the story Baldwin tries to explain why music plays such an important role for people living in Harlem. In the opening paragraph, the narrator reads about Sonny in the newspaper while riding the subway from Harlem to the school where he teaches: “l stared at it in the swinging lights 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” (Baldwin n. Page). The image of the narrator’s face reflected in the window of the subway car, along with the indication of the roaring sound of the darkness” (Baldwin n. Gag), which implies that roaring sound is Jazz music, and the darkness is Harlem in which the story takes its place. Or else, “the subway itself–for Baldwin words comprise a curious moment of kinesthesia–certainly points to the transience of the railway Juncture as unique to the matrix of the blues, they always already of African American experience and culture” (Shearer n. Page). The authors description of the movement inside the subway suggests the rhythm of “change, movement, action, continuance”(Ticktack n. Gag) of the “always anatomically wandering”(Ticktack n. Gag) blues; however, the narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” does not feel the unsure hope, the possibility of unrestrained mobility and unlimited freedom that, according to Class Lecture from the US Davis University, the railway once symbolized to African Americans (Class Lecture n. Page). In the story Baldwin proves that music for black people was one of the most powerful tools to help them to deal with the reality of everyday life, and throughout the story he makes it possible to see the presence of music everywhere. One boy was whistling a tune; at once very complicated and very simple, it seemed to be pouring out of him as though he were a rid, and it sounded very cool and moving through all that harsh, bright air, only Just holding its own through all those other sounds” (Baldwin n. Page). After the narrator listen to a boy whistling a tune he meats one of the Sonny’s friends, who James Baldwin describe being “always high and rag'(Baldwin n. Page), they commence a conversation about Sonny, which argues about his fate, along with a Jazz music on the background.
The main theme of the story is a conflict between two brothers and their attempt to come to understand each other. Therefore, the portrayal of the sass Jazz music scene illustrates a division in the black community represented by the brothers themselves. The division within the black community can best be described as between those of middle class, like the narrator, who downplay the barriers to their success”[… ] “who would readily assimilate into white society if given the chance”(Class Lecture n. Page), and Sonny’s group “more radical and less accepting of the status quo.
They suspect that as blacks their struggles will always be fierce, and that, unless drastic social change were to occur, they will always be shut out from the privileges most whites enjoy’ (Class Lecture n. Gag). Therefore; music was the only way for many black people to be able to express their hopes, pain, frustration, or sorrows. They would not want to hide from them by denial, they would rather to confront their pain and except the real life. In the story Baldwin emphasizes that all these boys leaving in Harlem are not bad: they may be “wild” (Baldwin n. Gag), but never “hard, or evil or disrespectful, the way kids can, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem” (Baldwin n. Page). Baldwin tries to make us readers understand that people overcome their sorrows and sufferings in different ways – some through unaffected, but dangerous also. The author explains that “years of struggle living as an oppressed minority can be reclaimed only through the creation of some sort of original art, in this case, blues music”(Class Lecture n. Page). In the story Baldwin talks about the new movement in Jazz called Bebop.
This movement was known as “the music that was forced underground. The music shifted from dancing to listening. Bebop was also known as modern reflected the resentment black musicians felt over the rewards and benefits reaped by white big bands from swing developed by blacks” (Hilliard’s n. Page). Sonny admires the new Jazz, mainly because it as not accepted by mainstream culture. He wants to play music that will “challenge the conservative status quad’ (Class Lecture n. Page). The culmination of the story is when the narrator agrees to go with Sonny to hear him play.
He finally comes into his younger brother’s world and start to understand “what the blues all about. They were not about anything very new for, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must always be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness” (Baldwin n. Page). Moreover, with the understanding of the Jazz music, the narrator realizes that it is imperative in life to be able to “leave the shoreline and strike out for deep water” (Baldwin n. Page).
He witnessed that “deep water and drowning were not the same thing” (Baldwin n. Page). The author proclaims that music is the greatest tool to help people to heal from sorrows, to come to understand each other, to evoke feelings in both performers and listeners, and make them to except changes. The jazz music “up there were keeping it new, at risk of ruin, destruction, madness and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen” (Baldwin n. Gag). In conclusion, Music in “Sonny’s Blues,” specifically Jazz music helps examine questions of heritage, society, and racial relations in America.