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A Marxist Take on Sonny’s Blue

The oppression and social status of African Americans in the late 1950s were harsh. This essay will be viewing the story through a Marxist critical lens. During this time frame, there were major Culture differences. African Americans were often looked down upon strictly just because of their nationality. We see many examples of oppression in the story “Sonny’s Blue by James Baldwin. The whole story takes A look inside at how hard it actually was to be an African American during this time.

In the classic story, “Sonny’s Blues” James Baldwin tackles issues in late 1950 such as racial equality. It displays how the inequalities of race in the United States have resulted in a permanent underclass status for different racial backgrounds, especially African Americans.

Social and economic structures work together to doom the lives of African Americans in many different ways. One way we see this in “Sonny’s Blues” is when Sonny wants to be a musician and his own brother knocks him down and tells him he could not be a musician. This is a hard reality that African Americans have to face. Sonny’s brother had to look after him and be real with him even though he was hurting Sonny’s ego. A study done by Brigham Young University found that brothers give siblings a mental health boost in ways that parents do not. A statistical analysis of nearly 400 families showed that, regardless of age and distance, having a sibling protected adolescents from feeling alone and fearful. (Whiteman). This study can be related to Sonny’s situation because his brother was helping him even though he did not realize it. Even though at the time it had seemed Sonny’s brother was being mean and adding to the oppression he was actually giving Sonny a boost that would help him in the long run.

Sonny’s Brother gives the readers a look into the lives of African Americans as the bottom class of the societal structure. A teacher looks out at the boys in the playground on the day he learns of his brother’s incarceration, and describes their lives as being lived in darkness and filled with rage. When he later picks up Sonny from jail, he repeats this idea, “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 the disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t” (277). The idea of the hopelessness of their social station is repeated throughout the story.

Walking down the street with his friend, he passes a bar and sees a worker. “When she smiled one saw the little girl, one sensed the doomed, still a struggling woman beneath the battered face of the semi-whore” (274). Through the narrator, James Baldwin is making the point that this underclass of black Americans is born doomed because of their race and their class. Life and hope are constantly juxtaposed against death and hopelessness. When reading the story, it can be inferred that Sonny needs an escape from his reality.

Sonny turns into a heroin addict and continues to relapse during the story. A study done by Rajita Sinha showed that drug is related to stress relief. In the study, Sinha states “Dopamine, Glutamate, and gamma-amino-butyric acid are the underlying pathophysiology associated with stress-related risk of addiction” (Shinha). In the passage, Sonny was under extreme stress due to the time period he was in, along with trying to be a musician. When someone is a drug addict they are typically looked down upon in society., with this being said it is hard to imagine how hard it actually was for Sonny to be living in this time.

Even though they believe in God, their religion avails them of nothing, and evil continues. Later in the story, he watches out his apartment window as a group of supposedly religious people sings, a song about saving souls. The narrator comments, “Not a soul under the sound of their voices was hearing this song for the first time, not one of them had been rescued. Nor had they seen much in the way of rescue work being done around them” (287). Sonny here is the voice of Marxism when he says “Give my love to Isabel and the kids and I was sure sorry to hear about little Gracie. I wish I could be like Mama and say the Lord’s will be done, but I don’t know it seems to me that trouble is the one thing that never does get stopped and I don’t know what good it does to blame it on the Lord. But maybe it does some good if you believe it” (276). Sonny is separating himself from Mama, who is silently oppressed by the opiate of religion, while he himself does not believe in it. The story is clearly appealing to an ideology-critical point of view here. Without saying it directly, author Baldwin has made the point that it is the American capitalist system and class structure, with black people at the bottom, which has relegated these people to hopeless lives. He also shows through the narrator and the church people, that playing by the rules and living within the social structures of that society, fail to help the people.

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While “Sonny’s Blues” does not make a direct appeal to revolution against the status quo, it does allude to the fact of rebellion. We are told in various ways that the unjust system cannot be sustained, and the oppressed must somehow rebel. This is first shown to us through drug use.

When the narrator and Sonny finally discuss Sonny’s drug use, Sonny says it is to be in control. “When she was singing before,” said Sonny, abruptly, “her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes-when it’s in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant. And- and sure.” He sipped his beer, very deliberately not looking at me. I watched his face. “It makes you feel in control. Sometimes you’ve got to have that feeling” (288-9).

Sonny’s music is more than just a backdrop for his drug use. When he first tells the narrator that he wants to play jazz the narrator tries to indicate he will have to play the music that will pay, not necessarily what he wants to play. ‘No, I don’t know that,’ said Sonny, surprising me. ‘I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for’” (283)? Here Sonny represents the proletariat against the capitalist system. Sonny is saying we should not let the system dictate who we are. The author makes a veiled statement about rebellion against the system later. When Sonny is looking out the window of his brother’s apartment and says “‘All that hatred down there,’’ he said, ‘’all that hatred and misery and love. It’s a wonder it doesn’t blow the avenue apart’’ (291). While this is not a call to action by the author, it is a warning. Baldwin is telling the ruling capitalist class that their system of class and racial oppression will result in rebellion, in the avenue blowing apart.

“Sonny’s Blues” is in essence a tale of two brothers, both black and both near the bottom rung of society. One brother, the narrator, lives in a racist and classist society. Sonny chooses the (softer) rebellion of jazz and drugs. He chooses an attempt to control his own life. Through both of them, we are informed of the hopelessness of black America imposed by the ruling caste.

We see how societal structures, even religion, serve only to hide the issue, not solve it. And we realize that the only solution is rebellion. This may be the soft rebellion of choosing another way. However, if society fails to change and find a way to fix the problem, it will result in violence in the streets to overthrow the system in place. In a way, Sonny is prophetic, telling us what is to come. It is best summed up while Sonny is playing piano with a small band led by Creole.

Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen.

For, while the tale of how we suffer, how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell; it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness (293).

With all of this being said the readers can infer that “Sonny’s Blues” had a lot of examples of how readers can take a look into how African Americans were treated during this time period. “Sonny’s Blues” demonstrates a great example of how older and modern times are similar in many different ways, such as how we still treat different cultural backgrounds differently strictly because of their nationality.

Work cited page

  1. Baldwin, James. Sonny’s Blues. Dial Press, 1965.
  2. American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association,
  3. Whiteman, Shawn D. “Sibling Relationships and Influences in Childhood.” Ncbi, J Marriage Fam., 24 2012,
  4. Shinha, Rajita. “Chronic Stree, Drug Use, and Vulnerability to Addiction.” NCBI, HHS Public Action, 2008,

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