“Sonny’s Blues” and Cultural Shadow


  • Inez Martinez University of Wisconsin-Madison




James Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” portrays a jazz artist’s transformation of an historic and ongoing aspect of America’s cultural shadow, treating black people cruelly as if they were not real. He is enabled to bring about this transformation through his becoming conscious of and owning his personal shadow, treating people regardless of race cruelly as if they were not real. His self-knowledge indicates an equality in the human potential of behaving oppressively and thus frees him from the self-pity and helpless rage of victimization possible to those having suffered the injustice of racism. It thus frees him to create music free of lament, music which in turn frees his brother, who has responded to American racism with repression of his emotions, to feel his grief. Baldwin’s story implies that art, such as the story “Sonny’s Blues,” can express a society’s unjustly caused suffering without lament if the artist has taken responsibility for having him or herself unjustly caused suffering. This art is portrayed as freeing its audience through new consciousness and feeling to develop a new relationship with cultural shadow, one suggesting a beginning of its integration.