The Impact of Guilt in Sonnys Blues

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In the tale “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin, the narrator discusses the challenges that his brother, chiefly, had to face. Other family members also struggled during his childhood. Showcasing this, he continually tells stories that indirectly mirror the bigotry and segregation they encountered in their place of upbringing. Moreover, through this, the narrator highlights the deprivation of human rights experienced by people around him due to their circumstances.

Bigotry is a dark undertone that seeps through “Sonny’s Blues.” It is seldom mentioned explicitly, but its influence can constantly be felt.

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For instance, Baldwin refers to the housing projects rising from Harlem like “rocks in the middle of the boiling sea” (Baldwin 80). These buildings, the result of local and federal segregationist housing policies, depict the impact racism has on a community. Nevertheless, even in areas wherein racism seems more pronounced like housing projects, the narrative indicates that racism poses a continuous threat. As the narrator recalls, when his mother suggested moving to a safer place, the father would always respond, “Safe? Safe, hell! Ain’t no place safe for kids, neither anybody.” (Baldwin 81) Similarly, much of the narrator’s disdain for his pupils could be tied to the fact that they resemble Sonny and live in a system that perpetually and ruthlessly discriminates against them.

Throughout the story, it’s apparent that various factors contributed to the difficulties Sonny experienced in his life. However, the brunt of the blame for his ultimate downfall, ending him up behind bars, is placed upon the racist society in which he lived. Furthermore, this weighty responsibility falls onto the shoulders of Sonny’s brother. This is not only on account of the inherent expectations that come with being an elder sibling but also because of their mother’s plea for him to look after Sonny in her absence. Her request brought the enduring and ambiguous impact of bigotry to the forefront of the story. When the narrator’s mother recounted how drunken white men murdered her brother-in-law and warned that something similar could happen to Sonny, she implied that much of the tribulation depicted in the story can be ascribed to the aftermath of racism. The mother’s actions make sense when the narrator speaks of suffering as a legacy passed down through generations in the African American community. Thus, racism became the culprit behind the present tragic state of Sonny and his brother.

The subtle insertion of the ever-present theme of racism in the story also addresses human rights issues. Several characters – not least the narrator’s family members and people in their neighborhood – were systematically stripped of their human rights due to racism. For instance, he describes the housing projects as initially new but later dilapidated, despite the tenants’ earnest efforts to maintain them. This could imply that these homes were of poor quality since, despite concerted endeavors, they couldn’t be kept up to standard.

Being given these homes indicates an absence of human rights because one of the fundamental human rights is sanctuary. If the ‘shelter’ you live in is inferior to others, it might prevent you from moving towards accomplishing goals other than acquiring a more secure shelter. Also, there is the fact that Sonny’s difficulties result from the fact he had been engaged in tasks that would assist him in escaping the projects. The narrator acknowledges this, saying, “The minute Sonny and I stepped into that house I had a feeling that I was merely bringing him back into the danger he had almost died trying to escape.” (Baldwin 81). It suggests that their life in the project was unbearable to the extent that Sonny risked his life doing drugs and other illegal activities to avoid it. This shows how those in power had extreme disregard for certain individuals’ lives, placing those they have no respect for in positions they themselves would not want to be in.

As a result, the narrator’s recollections of his past reveal his sense of guilt towards the hardships that befell his brother. This sense of guilt is also heavily expressed through his foreboding about the future of his students. These conflicts are exacerbated by the constant presence of racism and the looming challenges expected to befall him and those around him in the future.

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The Impact of Guilt in Sonnys Blues. (2022, Dec 16). Retrieved from