I have been very busy lately. I have been working six days a week:
Teaching an 1101 at FIU
Tutoring at Miami-dade
Waiting tables at Rubys

But I have been reading whenever I can. And I have a rough draft sample for my phd application:

Bearing Witness to the Darkness in “Sonny’s Blues”

James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues,” like the blues that Sonny, Creole, and the others play, is not a story about anything new. But like Sonny, Baldwin is:

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, and 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 (Baldwin 438).

The story that is being told is about bearing witness to life’s harshness, beauty, pain, and pleasure. This story illustrates two different ways to bear witness and, in the end, demonstrates as Derrida says that, “all responsible witnessing engages a poetic experience of language” (Derrida 67); furthermore, Baldwin will show that it is through music (music as poetic language), more so than through language, that one can responsibly bear witness. This is seen in the dialectic between the narrator’s constant verbal reflections, which end in frustrated communication between the Narrator and Sonny, and Sonny’s musical blues, which end in an understanding and communication break though between Sonny and his Brother .

Before looking at the short story, it might be necessary to explain what Derrida means when he says that all responsible witnessing is done through poetic language. What is meant is that an experience cannot be reduced to a singularity (a singular event) that can be passed on and experienced by anyone but the person who experienced it. Therefore, in bearing witness, it would be irresponsible to state “facts” in such a way so as to reduce the experience to those mere facts or to pass off those facts as what “actually” happened. It would also be false to try to take the place of the witness or to try and recreate the experience in such a way as to lead the observer thinking that he or she could possibly “live” the experience. Rather, if the experience is offered in a poetic expression, it is in this way that the experience is admitting its non-reducibility and non-totalization.

The poetic act is itself a singular event, but an event that holds a “secret,” that shows itself as poetic language as such. The poetic experience is done through non-representational language (through language that is not claiming to have direct access to meaning) and is not saying ‘this is exactly what I mean,’ but rather poetic language leaves itself open for interpretation as Derrida says, “It speaks to the other by keeping quiet, keeping something quiet from him. In keeping quiet, in keeping silent, it still addresses” (96). That is to say, poetic language does not claim to hold fully-present-meaning or point directly at meaning, or to be able to fully actualize an experience to the reader, and by being open, leaving words flickering with meaning, by ‘keeping something quiet’, the poetic act responsibly opens up bearing witness. This is what Baldwin’s story does.

The Narrator finds it difficult to relate to his brother Sonny because the Narrator is communicating in language that wants to have direct access to meaning and experience. This is seen in the contrast the story present. The Brother has a constant reflective internal dialogue. He is constantly trying to put everything into words, and it is only when he sees what happened to Sonny in the paper (in words) that “He [Sonny] became real to me [Narrator] again” (Baldwin 409). Furthermore, the Narrator was able to keep Sonny out of his life because he “didn’t name” (Ibid.) any suspicions he had of Sonny. Since it is through spoken words that the Narrator communicates to his world as long as he does not put Sonny into words, then the Narrator is able to keep Sonny out of reality.

The Narrator irresponsibly bears witness when he keeps Sonny out of the narrator’s reality and when he tries to take the place of the witness. The Narrator feels that his verbal reflection is the only way to tell the story of life in Harlem and the story of his brother Sonny. This is seen when the Narrator encounters one of Sonny’s old friends and does not want to hear the young man’s story, but then feels guilty “…for never having supposed that the poor bastard had a story of his own, much less a sad one” (Baldwin 412). The narrator, and one could say, of course, unintentionally, tries to take the place of the witness; such as when he picks Sonny up and they are in the cab, and the Narrator assumes “We had a lot to say to each other, far too much to know how to begin” (415). This is further seen after dinner when the Narrator worries that everything he says “sounded freighted with hidden meaning” (417), and then again later when he relates the story his mother tells him of his father and the uncle he did not know he had—the Narrator is left speechless. The reason that the Brother worries about the ‘hidden meaning’ and is left speechless is because it is through words that the Brother knows how to communicate. He does want his words to have direct meaning. He wants to bear witness for his mother and father. But language will always be interpreted by the one hearing it, and an experience can only be lived by the person who lived it.

The contrast to this is Sonny who has trouble expressing himself through words. Sonny’s brother tells us, “Sonny has never been talkative” (417) . Sonny is the dialectic antithesis of his brother, and when Sonny does try to talk to his brother after their mother died, we see how his brother finds himself “…in the presence of something I didn’t really know how to handle, I didn’t understand [sic]” (422). And when Sonny tries to explain what he wants to do with his life, he communicates by “…looking hard at me, as though his eyes would help me to understand, and then gestured helplessly, as though perhaps a hand would help” (423). Sonny is more in tune with other forms of communication besides verbal ones, and this makes it hard for the Narrator to understand Sonny. Sonny is into the poetic expression of jazz, ad we see just how out of touch his brother is when his brother does not know who Charlie “Bird” Parker is.

If this story is about communication—the communication of Brother through words and of Sonny through music—then it can be said that the story they are communicating is about darkness and about bearing witness to the darkness they live in. The story (and it must be kept in mind how responsible bearing witness is done and what is meant by poetic language) is a meta-bearing witness. Baldwin tells us a story of brother’s bearing witness while Baldwin himself is bearing witness. The story is [also] about darkness, but it never tells the reader what that darkness is exactly; it ‘keeps something quiet, but in keeping silent it is still addressing the reader and the darkness.

Darkness can be seen as lost of innocence, denial, troubles, the world that the Harlem residents are trapped in, Sonny’s troubles, and suffering. Darkness can be seen as a lost of innocence because it is something that only the adults see. The children are like a pure Adam and Eve before eating the apple and expulsion from paradise. Getting older and knowledge are taking the bite from the apple, “…[if the child] know too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon, about what is going to happen to him” (419). Not only is darkness the lost of innocence on the orizon it is also the place that will trap them when they get older. It is the darkness that Harlem is trapped in.

Darkness is also the Brother’s denial of Sonny and his awakening to his brother. It is the world that Brother lives in, which, “Through Brother’s further self-reflections, the story probes his feelings of being ‘trapped in the darkness which roared outside.’ Darkness outside reveals his own inner darkness” (Bieganowski 72). Darkness as denial, also awakens Sonny to him:

Denial makes many people unable to enter dialogue, for they might hear what they are totally invested in rejecting. Thus, it is only when the narrator himself suffers that he can begin to hear Sonny’s story; only when his daughter dies does he experience pain that cannot be outfaced by his denial (Norton 180).

The darkness can also be seen as Brother’s dark time when his daughter dies and he thinks of Sonny. It represents Brother’s denial of not being his brother’s keeper. It can also be the said that Brother was ‘in the dark’ about Sonny’s lifestyle and drug use. Darkness can be the guilt that Brother feels.

It is here, in trying to interpret Baldwin’s darkness, where one might be tempted to look at Baldwin’s life, key dates, biography, and other factual context surrounding the story. The darkness can be the darkness of Baldwin’s identity as a religious man who is also a gay, black writer, and thus he is doubly marginalized by society. Derrida warns against this temptation, and while Derrida is talking about Paul Celan, his reasoning can easily apply to Baldwin’s story:

…it is difficult not to think of as also referring, according to an essential reference, to dates and events, to the existence or the experience of Celan. These ‘things’ that are not only ‘words’: the poet is the only one who can bear witness to them, but he does not name them in the poem. The possibility of a secret always remains open, and this reserve inexhaustible (emphasis in original 67)

All one has to do is substitute Baldwin for Celan and poet for short story writer. Looking at the ‘facts’ of Baldwin’s life will not get the reader closer to the experience of Baldwin and what he intended in the story; rather, Baldwin is the only one who can ‘bear witness to them,’ and Baldwin’s experiences are not objective events in some sense that Baldwin names in the story. In language, the possibility of meaning is open to interpretation because the story is not in the realm of direct signification, and so the story always ‘keeps quiet about something,’ which is why darkness can be interpreted in so many different ways in the story. If anything is said about Baldwin, it is that he bears witness in this meta-way by leaving his story open to interpretations and by leaving Sonny’s “literal” blues (the one he plays in the story) open to interpretation by his brother and audience.

In Sonny’s Blues the communication problem between brothers stems from them not being able to get outside of the singularity of bearing witness, and it is only when Sonny plays the blues that they are able to understand each other and that the reader sees some light in all the darkness. Baldwin shows how it is not in the verbal-dialogue world of the Narrator that bearing witness was possible, but “Here…in Sonny’s world. Or, rather: his kingdom” (436), that a musical dialogue opened up everything that the Narrator was trying to say.

It is here at the end of the story where the reader might realize that the Narrator and Sonny are telling the same story—they are both bearing witness to their past, to their community, and to their parents. Both stories are bearing witness to the darkness, suffering, as well as beauty, and every else that life is because “There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness” (438). It is at the end when Brother realizes the “freedom [that] lurked around [them],” and it is here where Brother finally realizes, and is able to listen and understands “that [Sonny] could help us to be free if we would listen, that he[Sonny] would never be free until we did” (439).

Just how one can read a Celan poem and get sense of the horrors of the Holocaust, one can read Baldwin’s story and get a sense of the struggles of Harlem. Because it is done in this poetic expression it can convey that something is happening while not fully trying to relate what that ‘something’ is. It is in this way that brother is able to see his mother’s face again and feel:

…for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise.

The narrator is able to see and experience these things while he finally listens to his brother because Sonny is talking in poetic language, which means that the Narrator will interpret all these things in the music. The reader sees how it is only through poetic language that responsible bearing witness is carried out and how it is, wordlessly, able to bridge a communication gap between brothers, all while Baldwin does the same thing (bears witness for his community and his darkness, possibly) through his prose, which is done in poetic language.

Works Cited:
Baldwin, James. Sonny’s Blues. The version you gave us….

Bieganowski, Ronald. James Baldwin’s Vision of Otherness in ‘Sonny’s Blues’ and Giovanni’s Room. CLA Journal. V.43 no.4 (June 200). 443-53.

Derrida, Jacques. Poetics and Politics of Witnessing. Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan. Trans. & Ed. Thomas Dutoit and Outi Passanen. Fordham University Pres. New York, NY. 2005.

Norton, Sandy M. To Keep from Shaking to Pieces: Addiction and Bearing Reality in ‘Sonny’s Blues’. The Language of Addiction. Ed. Jane Lilienfeld and Jeffrey Oxford. St. Martin’s Press. New York, NY. 1999.