In Sonny’s Blues, readers see that African Americans can become professionals. Sonny’s brother is a teacher. Sonny and his brother both grew up in Harlem. Even though Sonny’s brother is the one who has become successful in the eyes of society by graduating college, getting married, having children, and having a career, he is not given a name. It is ironic that even though Sonny’s brother would be considered successful in conventional society, that he does not have a name. Perhaps that indicates that Sonny’s brother is just another nameless, faceless worker where race and name do not matter.
Sonny always wanted to be a musician and music is a big part of life in Harlem. Drugs are also prevalent in the music culture of Harlem. Sonny and his brother drift apart so much that Sonny’s brother has to find out about his arrest in the newspaper. His brother doesn’t really know what to do about it. All that college education but yet when it comes to real life situations, Sonny’s brother is clueless as to what to do.
The very day that Sonny’s brother reads about his brother’s troubles, another boy from the old neighborhood comes around and asks Sonny’s brother what he is going to do about Sonny. It is ironic that this boy is someone that Sonny’s brother never liked but yet this boy comes and tries to explain Sonny’s trouble with drugs to his brother and to get his brother to help out Sonny when he gets out of prison. This boy that comes to talk to Sonny’s brother is not given ha name either. Even though Sonny’s brother never liked this boy, this boy managed to keep himself off of drugs. Another irony. People turn out different than how some people expect.
Sonny’s brother admits to Sonny that he doesn’t understand Sonny’s music or his addiction to drugs. Sonny does an eloquent job of explaining to his brother what it feels like to want the drugs and to stay away from the drugs. So here is the uneducated brother, Sonny, explaining life to the educated brother. Yet another irony. This is ironic no matter what race the characters are.
One day Sonny invites his brother to attend a musical gig where Sonny is playing piano. Sonny is definitely the star and the other musicians treat Sonny’s brother with respect simply because he is Sonny’s brother. While Sonny is playing, his brother is deeply touched by the music and comes to understand Sonny’s addiction to both music and drugs and therefore comes to understand Sonny himself.
Everyday Use is told by Dee and Maggie’s Mother, Mrs. Johnson. Mrs. Johnson only has a second grade education and works in a slaughter house. Maggie still lives at home and was burned in a house fire many years ago. Maggie is severely scarred from the burns and does not appear to work. Mrs. Johnson’s other daughter, Dee, went away to a bigger city, Augusta, for high school. Dee has always been more elegant than Maggie and their Mother.
Mrs. Johnson and Maggie are content with their lot in life but Dee has always wanted pretty clothes and an education. Dee is ashamed of the way Maggie and their Mother live and says that she will not bring her friends home to visit. However, Dee is visiting today with her boyfriend. Actually, Dee and her Mother have drifted so far apart that Mrs. Johnson wonders if she is married to this man but is afraid to ask.
During this visit, Dee takes pictures of her Mother, sister, and their house as if they are exhibits in a museum and Dee wants to show them off. Dee has also changed her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. Dee claims that her old name of Dee is a sign of oppression and she doesn’t want to be reminded of that. Her Mother tells her that Dee was her Grandmother’s name. During the visit, it becomes obvious that Dee wants to pick and choose what she wants to claim as her African American heritage.
Dee takes the butter churn and dasher to show as museum pieces in her home. Then, Dee wants to take quilts that her Grandmother sewed. These quilts have been promised to Maggie when she marries. Dee wants to hang the quilts as exhibits and is horrified that Maggie would put the quilts to everyday use.
Mrs. Johnson realizes that Dee appreciates the quilts for all the wrong reasons. Maggie is used to giving in to Dee and says that Dee can have the quilts. Mrs. Johnson has had enough of Dee’s nonsense by now and snatches the quilts back out of Dee’s hands and says they belong to Maggie.
At this point, Dee leaves and tells her Mother that she just doesn’t understand her heritage and that she and Maggie should try to make something of themselves. Mrs. Johnson and Maggie are happy as they are. They are content to continue living the way they have been living and the way the generations that came before them lived. It is Maggie and her Mother who truly understand their heritage and where they have come from. Ironically, it is Dee who doesn’t understand or accept where she comes from and is trying to rewrite her history into one that is more acceptable to her and her new friends.
Both Sonny’s Blues and Everyday Use show how easy it is to misunderstand those closest to you regardless of your ethnic origin. Both stories show how wrong preconceived notions can be and how easy it is to forget who you really are. These short stories are excellent portrayals of ambiguity and irony of any life, not just the life of African Americans. That is the beauty of both of these stories and a gift that both of the authors have given to us.
Baldwin, James. Sonny’s Blues. Scribd, n.p., n.d. Web. 31 March 2011.
Walker, Alice. Everyday Use. XroadsVirginia, n.p., n.d. Web. 31 March 2011.