James Baldwin is best known for his novels, short stories and essays. Most of his work revolves around the themes of discrimination towards blacks and homosexuals. Most of his work is considered to be at least somewhat autobiographical because a reader can often detect the traces of his own past torture and dilemmas. The loneliness and the suffering from all the taunts which he faced all his life are reflected in his writings.
Baldwin was born in Harlem in August 1924. His mother was Emma Berdis Jones, who happened to be single and poor at the time. No one never really knew about his father, nor did his mother tell him about his whereabouts. James and his siblings only knew that their mother had left him because of his drinking habit. She later married David Baldwin, who was a preacher but he was not any better than his biological father. He never accepted Baldwin and other kids as his own and treated them with cruelty and malice, despite his profession. James was the oldest of nine siblings and it was he, after his mother’s death, who had to take care of everyone.
Baldwin, from the very beginning, was a literary soul. He attended DeWitt Clinton School, which was one of the most prestigious institutions of that time. Later, when he turned sixteen, he was told to work as a preacher. He did so and used to find solace in the peaceful environment. He also dreaded going home from the church because he didn’t want to face the torturous environment of his house. He also said that the idea of pulpit motivated him to write. He said: “being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked." (Baldwin 37)
At the age of seventeen, he left Harlem and moved to Greenwich Village. Here he gave up religion to devote his time to writing. It was in Greenwich that he embraced his homosexuality. When he saw the discrimination against blacks and homosexuals in America, he moved to Paris, where he spent the rest of his life creating masterpieces like “Giovanni’s Room,” Native Son and Go Tell It on the Mountain. He thanked God that his mother had died; otherwise, she would have witnessed all of the hatred. Time wrote about his efforts: “There is not another writer who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South.” (Polsgrove 21)
This was not only true in regard to his political orations and articles but also was another proof of his wonderful novels and essays. These essays depicted the racial discrimination of that time which he fought, along with such other activists as Martin Luther King. Baldwin also wrote a number of short stories among which the more renowned ones are “Sonny’s Blues,” “Going to Meet the Man” and “Come out the Wilderness.” Most of his work revolves around the themes of racism, homosexuality, sexual tension between black and whites, and loneliness. As these stories were written after World War II, they also represent the mental, emotional and social chaos that seemed to have no remedy. These are also among the themes of the short stories which will be analyzed in this paper.
“Sonny’s Blues” is one of those stories which have many incidents related to Baldwin’s life. It tells the story of two brothers who are not very close; they rarely communicate, and solely via letters. One day the narrator, who is the elder brother and lives in Harlem, reads in the paper that his brother has been arrested because of drugs. He still does not feel like writing to Sonny, the younger brother, because this news rehashes too many unpleasant memories. But when death takes away his own daughter, he writes to him, inviting him for dinner. Sonny comes to meet him and they both reminisce about their drunken father and how he used to beat them. They keep on reminiscing about various events and then Sonny leaves after telling his brother that he likes to play piano. Later he stays at his sister in law's parents’ home on the condition that he will be allowed to play piano if he goes to school. He agrees at that moment but later when everybody finds out that he had lied, Sonny leaves that home and goes to Greenwich, where he plays at the club and tells his brother about his heroin addiction. But he soon mesmerizes everyone with the soulful and enchanting music. At this, the elder brother, the narrator, realizes that Sonny is actually bleeding from the inside and only music can alleviate the severe ache that keeps on eating him.
In this story the theme of loneliness is quite evident. The two brothers live far away from each other – both emotionally and geographically -- because of the things they want to talk about but cannot find the strength to bring up. The narrator of the story tries to find consolation in his profession while Sonny tries to find his through his piano. Moreover, the autobiographical element is also there in the story when the narrator refers to the drunken father. Harlem is actually Baldwin's owns home, where he was born and spent his teen years. Another autobiographical message conveyed through this story is that art is representative of one's feeling; in Sonny’s case it was the piano while in Baldwin’s case, it was the passion of writing.
The theme of suffering is there alongside loneliness. In this way not only the character’s suffering is represented but also the author's own suffering due to racism and homophobia. In the story, even the disenchanted laugh of the characters conveys their suffering: “It was not the joyous laughter which- God knows why- one associates with children. It was mocking and insular, its intent was to denigrate. It was disenchanted, and in this, also lay the authority of their curses.”
Racism is an important part of Baldwin’s work and so it cannot be separated from any of his work. Like Baldwin used to think that a black man cannot enter into the realm of arts and imagination, likewise Sonny used to think that a black man can never play a piano. But like Baldwin he had talent and he made something out of it.
The narrator is also happy with his job but he has to cope with the taunts, sarcastic comments and racist remarks of the fellow white teachers. In the same way Baldwin was happy as a preacher but snide comments about his race didn’t let him stay there for long.
“Going to Meet the Man” is a horrifying story about a sheriff, Jesse, who takes pleasure in criticizing and discriminating against black people. Once his father took him to watch the brutal death of a black man; first his genitals were cut off and then he was burnt to death. He feels proud to see that incident and “feels like a man.” This is a direct comment on the brutality of white people who didn’t have an ounce of regret over their behavior toward black people. This direct commentary is evident in all three of his stories.
The story begins with Jesse thinking that he should enjoy sex with his wife who is sleeping beside him, but he knows that he won't be able to perform sexually. In his mind he further degrades black people by thinking that black women are only good for rough sexual intercourse. He calls them vulgar and dirty but still feels like having hisway with them. This is also a direct comment on the white man’s thinking. According to Baldwin, they think that black people are only good for one thing and that is their sexual prowess. In the story “Come out a Wilderness,” a similar theme has been explored- that how white people use blacks sexually and then toss them aside.
“Going to Meet the Man” is also representative of police brutality. Jesse is a cruel cop and so was his father. He likes to beat the black people severely even if they don’t do anything wrong. His father took Jesse to that event where a black man was burnt to death. Again the autobiographical element comes in- When James Baldwin was ten years old, he was arrested by the police for no reason and was beaten mercilessly. The police brutality also symbolizes the social circumstances of that time, after the Second World War
Moreover, in this story we also see the relationship between the husband and wife. Jesse wants to indulge in sexual games but his wife is half asleep. He tells her about the events of his day but she only moans in answer. After sometime Jesse only tells her that he is going to have sex with her and continues to do what he wants, without the consent of his wife.
The third story, “Come out the Wilderness,” is about a twenty-six year old black woman who is a personal secretary of a white man. She is also involved with him sexually. This story describes a day in Ruth’s life. The white man, Paul, who is an unsuccessful artist, has a strange relationship with Ruth. She knows that he will tell her to move out sooner or later; however, she loves him as well as hates him. Sje wants to be free of this relationship but she is also dependent on him.
In the morning when they get up, Paul talks about his work and how he is looking for different ways to get famous. Then they make love and go to work. Afterwards, Ruth thinks that she used to feel proud of how she had a white lover but now there is again that emptiness in her life from which she always runs away. She dreams of marriage, house, and kids but knows that her affair with Paul will not get her these things.
She then reminisces about her family. Her father and brother were very strict and when they thought she was physically intimate with another boy, they beat her and called her names. She thinks about how her family calls her “dirty.” This is also autobiographical- Baldwin’s step father used to behave very harshly with him. Ruth also suffers from hat loneliness and suffering which Baldwin went through. Moreover, these conflicts between the blood relations are also seen in “Sonny’s Blues.” In both the stories, the members of the family are not close and they feel more alienated in the white dominated society.
There are many similarities among the three stories but the basic difference is in the narration. “Come out the Wilderness” is one of the very few works by Baldwin featuring a female narrator. In the 50’s and 60’s, when this story was written, women were considered as prize possessions. They were not allowed to voice their feelings but in this story Ruth not only voices her feelings but says that she needs to get out of the wilderness as well. The wilderness not only surrounded her physically but there was emotional wilderness as well. James Baldwin once said: “You know it's not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.”
This saying can be very aptly applied to Ruth’s life. She lets Paul use her even though she knows he cannot be trusted. She also calls this her “guilt.” She feels guilty and suffocated because deep down in her heart she knows that she is letting a white man rule her and therefore she can’t complain much.
Another saying of Baldwin can be representative of Ruth’s life: “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”
If we read the story, we come to realize that Ruth has in fact shut her eyes from the reality. She so desperately wants a change but she does not know, that she stops thinking about it. This is the guilt that eats her and that is why she cries at her helplessness at the end. More than helplessness, there is anger and confusion. Baldwin also underwent this same stage when he was in Greenwich and Harlem but then he faced reality to bring a change in his life and to live peacefully.
Through these stories, Baldwin conveyed one main message- the attitude towards black which not only hurts them but is also unjust and downright cruel. His own disgust and disappointment are quite evident in the short stories. Baldwin sometimes gives explicit details like the burning of the black man in “Going to Meet the Man”, but these details show the perverse pride that whites took out of torturing blacks.
Benjamin DeMott, an English professor, wrote about Baldwin: “I would place him very high among writers, in part because his work showed a powerful commitment to the right values and had a profound impact for good on our culture.” (Daniels 1)
In his writing, we also notice that though he voices his feelings regarding the discrimination of the blacks, he also pinpoints their flaws, like in Come out the Wilderness, where the protagonist Ruth has made a compromise when it comes to white man. In fact at times she relishes in the fact that she has a white lover. Therefore Baldwin also pinpoints the weaknesses of the blacks. He said during an interview: ''A spokesman assumes that he is speaking for others, I never assumed that I could. What I tried to do, or to interpret and make clear, was that no society can smash the social contract and be exempt from the consequences, and the consequences are chaos for everybody in the society.'' (Daniels 1). Therefore we can see that he speaks about a collective society; what brings them together and what can cause a rift between the two.
In “Sonny’s Blues,” we see a communication gap between the two brothers; even when they want to say something, they back off wondering whether they should say it or not. In many instances, the elder brother wants to ask his brother about his addiction but he does not and ultimately he becomes a severe heroin addict.
Therefore in all the three stories, along with projecting the attitude of whites toward blacks, he also projects the attitude of blacks towards themselves. The suffering, the loneliness of the blacks is common in all three stories. We also see a communication gap in all three stories, between the brothers in “Sonny’s Blues,” between Jesse and his wife in “Going to Meet the Man” and between Ruth and Paul in “Come out the Wilderness.” He once said: “Americans use language to cover the sleeper, not to wake him, Baldwin said, which was why the writer as artist is so important. Only the artist could reveal society and help it to renew itself” (Pinckney 18). This is why we see that in all of his stories he writes about the social degradation and discrimination of the blacks. Through his stories, he wanted to motivate the blacks to start a new beginning and not to lose hope.
Baldwin, James. Come Out the Wilderness. 1st. Popular Library, 1965. Web.
Baldwin, James. Going to Meet the Man. Vintage Books, 1995. Web.
Baldwin, James. Sonny’s Blues. Penguin 60s. Penguin Books Ltd, 1995. Web.
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. 37. Print.
Daniels, Lee. "James Baldwin, Eloquent Writer In Behalf of Civil Rights, Is Dead." New York Times [New York] 2 December 1987, Final Edition Section A 1. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.
Pinckney, Darryl. "Jimmy Baldwin: Stirring the Waters."New York Review of Books. 25 Nov 2010: n. page. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
Polsgrove, Carol. "Divided Minds." Times. 17 May 1963: 175. Print.
Scott, Lynn Orilla and Lovalerie King, eds. James Baldwin and Toni Morrison: Comparative and Theoretical Essays. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.