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James Baldwin provides several constructions of black masculinity through his two texts Everybody’s Protest Novel and Sonny’s Blues. Since this essay is comparing works from the same author, it is essential to look at what these constructions are and also the consistency of them within his work. For the purpose of viewing black masculinity as a construct, Everybody’s Protest Novel serves as the basis for which this construct is viewed in the two main characters of Sonny’s Blues. Through this analysis, Baldwin will be held up to the standard of his own work – a standard which he has created for himself. The way that Baldwin constructs the characters of Sonny’s Blues is contingent upon his discussion of “the protest novel” and also how he constructs the differences between true images of the Negro and the falsely constructed images in texts such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Sonny and the narrator are depictions of the ideal and faltering constructions of black masculinity in Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues.
Everybody’s Protest Novel is a criticism of the portrayal of the Negro in literature. Baldwin uses the behavior of the black characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as examples of the ways that black masculinity is portrayed. Tom is the character that Baldwin criticizes the most, stating that Tom is a product of white America. He is content in the image of blackness that America has created for him. Tom is comfortable in his complacency and thereby seen as siding with his white oppressor. To this character of “Uncle Tom”, Baldwin pairs the narrator of his story, Sonny’s Blues.
The first impression of a black male given in Sonny’s Blues is of the narrator. At a glance, it appears he is living the American Dream. He is a quiet-as-kept high-school teacher who has followed the ‘straight’ path in life. He helped his mother with her responsibilities and acted as a father figure to Sonny, joined the military, educated himself, married, and had children. In the latter ways, these descriptions resemble the archetypal image of the (white) American Dream. The narrator is disconnected from black culture and portrayed as feeding into the system in an attempt to live a ‘cookie-cutter’ life. The narrator even admits his disconnection in a conversation he and Sonny have about a jazz musician:
‘Well look Sonny, I’m sorry, don’t get mad… Name somebody – you know, a jazz musician you admire.’ ‘Bird.’ ‘Who?’ ‘Bird! Charlie Parker! Don’t they teach you nothing in the goddamn army?’ I lit a cigarette. I was surprised and then a little amused to discover that I was trembling. ‘I’ve been out of touch….'” (Baldwin 1738)
Baldwin uses this revelation as a turning point for the narrator to move towards becoming ‘in touch’ and more representative of a Negro in American culture verses the American outside of Negro culture he has formerly been. A second point to note is that the narrator does not have a name. It is probable that Baldwin uses this as a ploy to further his idea of this faulty construction of masculinity. What better way to discredit a character than to take away his identity as Baldwin does? The realization that the narrator is forced into is constructed through Sonny. It carries the message that the American Dream is unobtainable to the black man, and is essential to our understanding of Baldwin’s construction of black masculinity. It is here that the character of Sonny becomes instrumental in shaping the role of black masculinity and the way that it should be constructed to achieve truth and righteousness as a black man.
In opposition to the any of the characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Sonny is Baldwin’s example of how the true black man should be represented in protest literature. At first, Sonny is seen as a drifter, an addict trying to escape his destruction. This point is in compliance with Baldwin’s idea that “The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being….” (Baldwin 1705). In order to exemplify Baldwin’s ideal of a real black man, Sonny has to endure real strife. As a result, he embraces life and is made true through his relatedness to a real human with faults. Soon Sonny becomes the focal point of the story as his struggle to do what is right emerges. In his encounters with the narrator (his brother), Sonny quickly becomes Baldwin’s example of what black masculinity should entail. In his decision to pursue his music, Sonny embodies Baldwin’s definition of truth with relation to blackness as seen in Everybody’s Protest Novel, “…[T]ruth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted,” (Baldwin 1700). To put this definition into the context of Sonny, he does what makes him happy, rather that what he feels he is supposed to (as mandated by the American Dream which excludes black identity). Through the development of Everybody’s Protest Novel and Sonny’s Blues Baldwin uses the “Uncle Tom”-like character of the narrator to set an example of the misinterpretation of black masculinity. The narrator depicts every aspect that Baldwin protests and for this reason, he uses the character of Sonny to rectify the ideals of true black masculinity. Baldwin creates this dichotomy between the narrator and Sonny to show the ideal form of black masculinity. While the narrator is trying to obtain the unobtainable, Sonny is just trying to maintain. And maintaining, in Baldwin’s view, is what black identity, and ultimately masculinity, is all about.
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