An Examination of Black Oppression in “Sonny’s Blues” and “I have a Dream”

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Updated: Aug 18, 2023
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In functional subjects, like mathematics, it is commonly discouraged to locate your very own means of doing something. Pupils are expected to pay attention to their lessons and use the specific same methods that are taught to solve the problems presented to them. However, literature, a more liberal subject, allows an author to reach their conclusion through any means they please. This literary freedom results in several pieces that may share the same objective, theme, or message. James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Martin Luther King Jr.

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’s “I Have a Dream” speech utilize two different strategies and styles to discuss the issue of black oppression in America. Baldwin’s narrative employs the life of a fictional character to illuminate the disadvantages and hurdles endemic in the lives of black Americans. Conversely, King’s speech uses potent metaphorical language and repetition to encourage his audience to action and combat racial segregation. Both authors focus on the condition of black America, yet how they each approach the subject diverges greatly in style and methodology.

Baldwin uses a method for introducing the subject of racial inequality that conveys his message through his characters and their experiences. Using fiction to discuss real-world issues renders the writing more engaging and broadly accessible. The kind of political fiction evident in “Sonny’s Blues” aspires to combine captivating storytelling with a potent message. Baldwin’s aim in his technique is to make his message accessible to a wider audience. He writes so that his work comprehends all readers, not just his peers or others of the same intellect. The style Baldwin uses allows more people to read and understand his work than might have if he had written a scholarly nonfiction essay on the same subject.

In “Sonny’s Blues”, Baldwin unfolds the story of black people’s struggle with racial inequality using a nameless narrator. The narrator himself enjoys a respectable life with an unexceptional upbringing, a good job, and a family. Conversely, the narrator’s brother, Sonny, is less fortunate. Sonny, the character posited as the embodiment of black disadvantage, is a heroin addict and dealer. He confronts the challenges of incarceration due to drugs, the pressure to make his family proud, and the search for a passion in life. Through Sonny, Baldwin illustrates how young black men in America can quickly veer off-course due to the disadvantages they inherit at birth.

At the beginning of the story, the narrator reveals the day he discovered that his brother had been arrested for drug possession. In his tale, Baldwin writes, “… here I was, talking about algebra to a bunch of kids who might, for all I knew, be shooting up every time they went to the bathroom.” The narrator understands the susceptibility of all his young students to be negatively influenced by their environment. He realizes that they are just as likely to fall prey to societal evils, just like Sonny did. The narrator recognizes that his brother’s struggles are a result of the environment he was raised in and, therefore, can empathize with his students’ vulnerability to tread the same path. This is the point Baldwin makes. He suggests that black people grow up and make decisions influenced heavily by the systemic oppression in the society they inhabit. He also posits that the choices they make often tend to be negative and harmful.

Martin Luther King Jr., on the other hand, took the most direct path possible to address the problems facing his people. While Baldwin’s fictional narrative adapted a more observational stance on the issue, King’s speech was direct. He stared his audience in the eye and implored them to act, warning that if they remained passive, their situation would not improve. He evaluated the plight of Blacks in America and then presented them with appropriate solutions. In contrast to Baldwin’s relaxed style, King composed and delivered his speech with an acute sense of urgency. Recognizing the directness, and the non-fictional nature, of King’s speech does not diminish its skillful crafting.

“I Have a Dream” is one of the most influential speeches in American history. King’s speech is replete with figurative language, repetition, and other literary devices. It is a masterpiece, crafted to incite action. The recurring metaphors and repetition in the speech are designed to captivate the audience’s attention and stimulate emotional responses. King successfully achieved this objective, as the audience remained engrossed and reactive throughout the speech. They voiced their agreement, they applauded, they cheered. Like Baldwin, King’s intention in using writing techniques that make his text more accessible is to communicate his message to a wider audience. By connecting with his audience on their level, he made the speech incredibly effective.

While “Sonny’s Blues” and “I Have a Dream” employ two completely different structural methods to address the subject of racial inequality, they focus on similar points. A common theme between the two works is unity. In “Sonny’s Blues”, this topic is raised in the scene between the narrator and Sonny’s mother. The mother tells the narrator that he has to look out for Sonny, as Sonny has no one else. Baldwin uses this scene to discuss how familial support and togetherness are crucial in achieving success. Similarly, King’s speech also features unity as a core theme. Though not explicitly stated, the speech is directed to the collective audience. He uses the term “we” throughout the entire speech to convey that he, the audience, and every black person are united in this struggle. The turnout of the audience combined with the speech itself shows the importance of unity and the difference it can make.

Dialogue is a significant component of writing. Illustrated in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the method of presentation that an author chooses greatly influences a work’s effectiveness in reaching its audience. Although Baldwin and King traverse different paths, they arrive at the same destination: addressing racial segregation in America. Baldwin depicts the daily reality of it, whereas King issues an inspiring call to action.

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An Examination of Black Oppression in "Sonny's Blues" and "I Have a Dream". (2022, Dec 16). Retrieved from