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Sonny's Blues by James Baldwin

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Sonny's Blues by James Baldwin
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Sonn
n y
n 's B
s lu
B es
e

I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn't believe
it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name,
spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces
and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared
outside.

It was not to be believed and I kept telling myself that, as I walked from the subway station
to the high school. And at the same time I couldn't doubt it. I was scared, scared for Sonny.
He became real to me again. A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting
there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra. It was a special kind of ice. It
kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less.
Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come
spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream. This would always be at a moment when I
was remembering some specific thing Sonny had once said or done.

When he was about as old as the boys in my classes his face had been bright and open,
there was a lot of copper in it; and he'd had wonderfully direct brown eyes, and great
gentleness and privacy. I wondered what he looked like now. He had been picked up, the
evening before, in a raid on an apartment down-town, for peddling and using heroin.

I couldn't believe it: but what I mean by that is that I couldn't find any room for it anywhere
inside me. I had kept it outside me for a long time. I hadn't wanted to know. I had had
suspicions, but I didn't name them, I kept putting them away. I told myself that Sonny was
wild, but he wasn't crazy. And he'd always been a good boy, he hadn't ever turned hard or
evil or disrespectful, the way kids can, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem. I didn't want
to believe that I'd ever see my brother going down, coming to nothing, all that light in his
face gone out, in the condition I'd already seen so many others. Yet it had happened and
here I was, talking about algebra to a lot of boys who might, every one of them for all I knew,
be popping off needles every time they went to the head. Maybe it did more for them than
algebra could.

I was sure that the first time Sonny had ever had horse, he couldn't have been much older
than these boys were now. These boys, now, were living as we'd been living then, they were
growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their
actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the
darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies,
which had blinded them to that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively,
dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone.

When the last bell rang, the last class ended, I let out my breath. It seemed I'd been holding
it for all that time. My clothes were wet-I may have looked as though I'd been sitting in a
steam bath, all dressed up, all afternoon. I sat alone in the classroom a long time. I listened
to the boys outside, downstairs, shouting and cursing and laughing. Their laughter struck me
for perhaps the first time. 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. Perhaps I was listening to
them because I was thinking about my brother and in them I heard my brother. And myself.

One boy was whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple, it seemed to be
pouring out of him as though he were a bird, and it sounded very cool and moving through
all that harsh, bright air, only just holding its own through all those other sounds.

I stood up and walked over to the window and looked down into the court-yard. It was the
beginning of the spring and the sap was rising in the boys. A teacher passed through them
every now and again, quickly, as though he or she couldn't wait to get out of that courtyard,
to get those boys out of their sight and off their minds. I started collecting my stuff. I thought
I'd better get home and talk to Isabel.

The courtyard was almost deserted by the time I got downstairs. I saw this boy standing in
the shadow of a doorway, looking just like Sonny. I almost called his name. Then I saw that it
wasn't Sonny, but somebody we used to know, a boy from around our block. He'd been
Sonny's friend. He'd never been mine, having been too young for me, and, anyway, I'd never
liked him. And now, even though he was a grown-up man, he still hung around that block,
still spent hours on the street corners, was always high and raggy. I used to run into him
from time to time and he'd often work around to asking me for a quarter or fifty cents. He
always had some real good excuse, too, and I always gave it to him. I don't know why.

But now, abruptly, I hated him. I couldn't stand the way he looked at me, partly like a dog,
partly like a cunning child. I wanted to ask him what the hell he was doing in the school
courtyard.

He sort of shuffled over to me, and he said, "I see you got the papers. So you already know
about it."

"You mean about Sonny? Yes, I already know about it. How come they didn't get you?"

He grinned. It made him repulsive and it also brought to mind what he'd looked like as a kid.
"I wasn't there. I stay away from them people."

"Good for you." I offered him a cigarette and I watched him through the smoke. "You come all
the way down here just to tell me about Sonny?"

"That's right." He was sort of shaking his head and his eyes looked strange, as though they
were about to cross. The bright sun deadened his damp dark brown skin and it made his
eyes look yellow and showed up the dirt in his kinked hair. He smelled funky. I moved a little
away from him and I said, "Well, thanks. But I already know about it and I got to get home."

"I'll walk you a little ways," he said. We started walking. There were a couple of lads still
loitering in the courtyard and one of them said goodnight to me and looked strangely at the
boy beside me.

"What're you going to do?" he asked me. "I mean, about Sonny?"


"Look. I haven't seen Sonny for over a year, I'm not sure I'm going to do anything. Anyway,
what the hell can I do?"

"That's right," he said quickly, "ain't nothing you can do. Can't much help old Sonny no more,
I guess."

It was what I was thinking and so it seemed to me he had no right to say it.
"I'm surprised at Sonny, though," he went on-he had a funny way of talking, he looked
straight ahead as though he were talking to himself-"I thought Sonny was a smart boy, I
thought he was too smart to get hung."

"I guess he thought so too," I said sharply, "and that's how he got hung. And how about you?
You're pretty goddamn smart, I bet."

Then he looked directly at me, just for a minute. "I ain't smart," he said. "If I was smart, I'd
have reached for a pistol a long time ago."

"Look. Don't tell me your sad story, if it was up to me, I'd give you one." Then I felt guilty-
guilty, probably, for never having supposed that the poor bastard had a story of his own,
much less a sad one, and I asked, quickly, "What's going to happen to him now?"

He didn't answer this. He was off by himself some place.

"Funny thing," he said, and from his tone we might have been discussing the quickest way to
get to Brooklyn, "when I saw the papers this morning, the first thing I asked myself was if I
had anything to do with it. I felt sort of responsible."

I began to listen more carefully. The subway station was on the corner, just before us, and I
stopped. He stopped, too. We were in front of a bar and he ducked slightly, peering in, but
whoever he was looking for didn't seem to be there. The juke box was blasting away with
something black and bouncy and I half watched the barmaid as she danced her way from
the juke box to her place behind the bar. And I watched her face as she laughingly
responded to something someone said to her, still keeping time to the music. When she
smiled one saw the little girl, one sensed the doomed, still-struggling woman beneath the
battered face of the semi-whore.

"I never give Sonny nothing," the boy said finally, "but a long time ago I come to school high
and Sonny asked me how it felt." He paused, I couldn't bear to watch him, I watched the
barmaid, and I listened to the music which seemed to be causing the pavement to shake. "I
told him it felt great." The music stopped, the barmaid paused and watched the juke box
until the music began again. "It did."

All this was carrying me some place I didn't want to go. I certainly didn't want to know how it
felt. It filled everything, the people, the houses, the music, the dark, quicksilver barmaid,
with menace; and this menace was their reality.


"What's going to happen to him now?" I asked again.

"They'll send him away some place and they'll try to cure him." He shook his head. "Maybe
he'll even think he's kicked the habit. Then they'll let him loose"-he gestured, throwing his
cigarette into the gutter. "That's all."
"What do you mean, that's all?"

But I knew what he meant.

"I mean, that's all." He turned his head and looked at me, pulling down the corners of his
mouth. "Don't you know what I mean?" he asked, softly.

"How the hell would I know what you mean?" I almost whispered it, I don't know why.

"That's right," he said to the air, "how would he know what I mean?" He turned toward me
again, patient and calm, and yet I somehow felt him shaking, shaking as though he were
going to fall apart. I felt that ice in my guts again, the dread I'd felt all afternoon; and again I
watched the barmaid, moving about the bar, washing glasses, and singing. "Listen. They'll let
him out and then it'll just start all over again. That's what I mean."

"You mean-they'll let him out. And then he'll just start working his way back in again. You
mean he'll never kick the habit. Is that what you mean?"

"That's right," he said, cheerfully. "You see what I mean."

"Tell me," I said at last, "why does he want to die? He must want to die, he's killing himself,
why does he want to die?"

He looked at me in surprise. He licked his lips. "He don't want to die. He wants to live. Don't
nobody want to die, ever."


Then I wanted to ask him-too many things. He could not have answered, or if he had, I could
not have borne the answers. I started walking. "Well, I guess it's none of my business."

"It's going to be rough on old Sonny," he said. We reached the subway station. "This is your
station?" he asked. I nodded. I took one step down. "Damn!" he said, suddenly. I looked up
at him. He grinned again. "Damn it if I didn't leave all my money home. You ain't got a dollar
on you, have you? Just for a couple of days, is all."

All at once something inside gave and threatened to come pouring out of me. I didn't hate
him any more. I felt that in another moment I'd start crying like a child.

"Sure," I said. "Don't sweat." I looked in my wallet and didn't have a dollar, I only had a five.
"Here," I said. "That hold you?"


He didn't look at it-he didn't want to look at it. A terrible, closed look came over his face, as
though he were keeping the number on the bill a secret from him and me. "Thanks," he said,
and now he was dying to see me go. "Don't worry about Sonny. Maybe I'll write him or
something."

"Sure," I said. "You do that. So long."

"Be seeing you," he said. I went on down the steps.
And I didn't write Sonny or send him anything for a long time. When I finally did, it was just
after my little girl died, and he wrote me back a letter which made me feel like a bastard.

Here's what he said:
Dear brother,
You don't know how much I needed to hear from you. I wanted to write you many a time but I
dug how much I must have hurt you and so I didn't write. But now I feel like a man who's
been trying to climb up out of some deep, real deep and funky hole and just saw the sun up
there, outside. I got to get outside.


I can't tell you much about how I got here. I mean I don't know how to tell you. I guess I was
afraid of something or I was trying to escape from something and you know I have never
been very strong in the head (smile). I'm glad Mama and Daddy are dead and can't see
what's happened to their son and I swear if I'd known what I was doing I would never have
hurt you so, you and a lot of other fine people who were nice to me and who believed in me.


I don't want you to think it had anything to do with me being a musician.


It's more than that. Or maybe less than that. I can't get anything straight in my head down
here and I try not to think about what's going to happen to me when I get outside again.
Sometime I think I'm going to flip and never get outside and sometime I think I'll come
straight back. I tell you one thing, though, I'd rather blow my brains out than go through this
again. But that's what they all say, so they tell me. If I tell you when I'm coming to New York
and if you could meet me, I sure would appreciate it. Give my love to Isabel and the kids and
I was sure sorry to hear about little Gracie. I wish I could be like Mama and say the Lord's will
be done, but I don't know it seems to me that trouble is the one thing that never does get
stopped and I don't know what good it does to blame it on the


Lord. But maybe it does some good if you believe it.
Your brother,
Sonny

Then I kept in constant touch with him and I sent him whatever I could and I went to meet
him when he came back to New York. When I saw him many things I thought I had forgotten
came flooding back to me. This was because I had begun, finally, to wonder about Sonny,

about the life that Sonny lived inside. This life, whatever it was, had made him older and
thinner and it had deepened the distant stillness in which he had always moved. He looked
very unlike my baby brother. Yet, when he smiled, when we shook hands, the baby brother
I'd never known looked out from the depths of his private life, like an animal waiting to be
coaxed into the light.

"How you been keeping?" he asked me.

"All right. And you?"

"Just fine." He was smiling all over his face. "It's good to see you again."

"It's good to see you."

The seven years' difference in our ages lay between us like a chasm: I wondered if these
years would ever operate between us as a bridge. I was remembering, and it made it hard to
catch my breath, that I had been there when he was born; and I had heard the first words he
had ever spoken. When he started to walk, he walked from our mother straight to me. I
caught him just before he fell when he took the first steps he ever took in this world.

"How's Isabel?"

"Just fine. She's dying to see you."
"And the boys?"

"They're fine, too. They're anxious to see their uncle."

"Oh, come on. You know they don't remember me."

"Are you kidding? Of course they remember you."

He grinned again. We got into a taxi. We had a lot to say to each other, far too much to know
how to begin.

As the taxi began to move, I asked, "You still want to go to India?"

He laughed. "You still remember that. Hell, no. This place is Indian enough for me."

"It used to belong to them," I said.

And he laughed again. "They damn sure knew what they were doing when they got rid of it."

Years ago, when he was around fourteen, he'd been all hipped on the idea of going to India.
He read books about people sitting on rocks, naked, in all kinds of weather, but mostly bad,
naturally, and walking barefoot through hot coals and arriving at wisdom. I used to say that it
sounded to me as though they were getting away from wisdom as fast as they could. I think
he sort of looked down on me for that.



"Do you mind," he asked, "if we have the driver drive alongside the park? On the west side-I
haven't seen the city in so long."


"Of course not," I said. I was afraid that I might sound as though I were humoring him, but I
hoped he wouldn't take it that way.

So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels
and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets
hadn't changed, though housing projects jutted up out of them now like rocks in the middle
of a boiling sea. Most of the houses in which we had grown up had vanished, as had the
stores from which we had stolen, the basements in which we had first tried sex, the rooftops
from which we had hurled tin cans and bricks. But houses exactly like the houses of our past
yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found
themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and
found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn't. Those who got
out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave
it in the trap. It might be said, perhaps, that I had escaped, after all, I was a school teacher;
or that Sonny had, he hadn't lived in Harlem for years. Yet, as the cab moved uptown
through streets which seemed, with a rush, to darken with dark people, and as I covertly
studied Sonny's face, it came to me that what we both were seeking through our separate
cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind. It's always at the hour of
trouble and confrontation that the missing member aches.
We hit 110th Street and started rolling up Lenox Avenue. And I'd known this avenue all my
life, but it seemed to me again, as it had seemed on the day I'd first heard about Sonny's
trouble, filled with a hidden menace which was its very breath of life.

"We almost there," said Sonny.

"Almost." We were both too nervous to say anything more.

We live in a housing project. It hasn't been up long. A few days after it was up it seemed
uninhabitably new, now, of course, it's already rundown. It looks like a parody of the good,
clean, faceless life-God knows the people who live in it do their best to make it a parody. The
beat-looking grass lying around isn't enough to make their lives green, the hedges will never
hold out the streets, and they know it. The big windows fool no one, they aren't big enough to
make space out of no space. They don't bother with the windows, they watch the TV screen
instead. The playground is most popular with the children who don't play at jacks, or skip
rope, or roller skate, or swing, and they can be found in it after dark. We moved in partly
because it's not too far from where I teach, and partly for the kids; but it's really just like the
houses in which Sonny and I grew up. The same things happen, they'll have the same things
to remember. The moment Sonny and I started into the house I had the feeling that I was
simply bringing him back into the danger he had almost died trying to escape.


Sonny has never been talkative. So I don't know why I was sure he'd be dying to talk to me
when supper was over the first night. Everything went fine, the oldest boy remembered him,
and the youngest boy liked him, and Sonny had remembered to bring something for each of
them; and Isabel, who is really much nicer than I am, more open and giving, had gone to a
lot of trouble about dinner and was genuinely glad to see him. And she's always been able to
tease Sonny in a way that I haven't. It was nice to see her face so vivid again and to hear her
laugh and watch her make Sonny laugh. She wasn't, or, anyway, she didn't seem to be, at all
uneasy or embarrassed. She chatted as though there were no subject which had to be
avoided and she got Sonny past his first, faint stiffness. And thank God she was there, for I
was filled with that icy dread again. Everything I did seemed awkward to me, and everything I
said sounded freighted with hidden meaning. I was trying to remember everything I'd heard
about dope addiction and I couldn't help watching Sonny for signs. I wasn't doing it out of
malice. I was trying to find out something about my brother. I was dying to hear him tell me
he was safe.


"Safe!" my father grunted, whenever Mama suggested trying to move to a neighborhood
which might be safer for children. "Safe, hell! Ain't no place safe for kids, nor nobody."

He always went on like this, but he wasn't, ever, really as bad as he sounded, not even on
weekends, when he got drunk. As a matter of fact, he was always on the lookout for
"something a little better," but he died before he found it. He died suddenly, during a
drunken weekend in the middle of the war, when Sonny was fifteen. He and Sonny hadn't
ever got on too well. And this was partly because Sonny was the apple of his father's eye. It
was because he loved Sonny so much and was frightened for him, that he was always
fighting with him. It doesn't do any good to fight with Sonny. Sonny just moves back, inside
himself, where he can't be reached. But the principal reason that they never hit it off is that
they were so much alike. Daddy was big and rough and loud-talking, just the opposite of
Sonny, but they both had-that same privacy.
Mama tried to tell me something about this, just after Daddy died. I was home on leave from
the army.

This was the last time I ever saw my mother alive. Just the same, this picture gets all mixed
up in my mind with pictures I had other when she was younger. The way I always see her is
the way she used to be on a Sunday afternoon, say, when the old folks were talking after the
big Sunday dinner. I always see her wearing pale blue. She'd be sitting on the sofa. And my
father would be sitting in the easy chair, not far from her. And the living room would be full of
church folks and relatives. There they sit, in chairs all around the living room, and the night
is creeping up outside, but nobody knows it yet. You can see the darkness growing against
the windowpanes and you hear the street noises every now and again, or maybe the jangling
beat of a tambourine from one of the churches close by, but it's real quiet in the room. For a
moment nobody's talking, but every face looks darkening, like the sky outside. And my
mother rocks a little from the waist, and my father's eyes are closed. Everyone is looking at
something a child can't see. For a minute they've forgotten the children. Maybe a kid is lying
on the rug, half asleep. Maybe somebody's got a kid in his lap and is absent-mindedly
stroking the lad's head. Maybe there's a kid, quiet and big-eyed, curled up in a big chair in
the comer. The silence, the darkness coming, and the darkness in the faces frighten the

child obscurely. He hopes that the hand which strokes his forehead will never stop-will never
die. He hopes that there will never come a time when the old folks won't be sitting around
the living room, talking about where they've come from, and what they've seen, and what's
happened to them and their kinfolk.

But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already
ending. In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light. Then the old folks will
remember the children and they won't talk any more that day. And when light fills the room,
the child is filled with darkness. He knows that every time this happens he's moved just a
little closer to that darkness outside. The darkness outside is what the old folks have been
talking about. It's what they've come from. It's what they endure. The child knows that they
won't talk any more because if he knows too much about what's happened to them, he'll
know too much too soon, about what's going to happen to him.

The last time I talked to my mother, I remember I was restless. I wanted to get out and see
Isabel. We weren't married then and we had a lot to straighten out between us.

There Mama sat, in black, by the window. She was humming an old church song. Lord, you
brought me from a long ways off. Sonny was out somewhere. Mama kept watching the
streets.

"I don't know," she said, "if I'll ever see you again, after you go off from here. But I hope you'll
remember the things I tried to teach you."

"Don't talk like that," I said, and smiled. "You'll be here a long time yet."

She smiled, too, but she said nothing. She was quiet for a long time. And I said, "Mama,
don't you worry about nothing. I'll be writing all the time, and you be getting the checks...."

"I want to talk to you about your brother," she said, suddenly. "If anything happens to me he
ain't going to have nobody to look out for him."

"Mama," I said, "ain't nothing going to happen to you or Sonny. Sonny's all right. He's a good
boy and he's got good sense."

"It ain't a question of his being a good boy," Mama said, "nor of his having good sense. It
ain't only the bad ones, nor yet the dumb ones that gets sucked under." She stopped,
looking at me. "Your Daddy once had a brother," she said, and she smiled in a way that
made me feel she was in pain. "You didn't never know that, did you?"

"No," I said, "I never knew that," and I watched her face.

"Oh, yes," she said, "your Daddy had a brother." She looked out of the window again. "I know
you never saw your Daddy cry. But I did-many a time, through all these years."

I asked her, "What happened to his brother? How come nobody's ever talked about him?"


This was the first time I ever saw my mother look old.

"His brother got killed," she said, "when he was just a little younger than you are now. I knew
him. He was a fine boy. He was maybe a little full of the devil, but he didn't mean nobody no
harm."

Then she stopped and the room was silent, exactly as it had sometimes been on those
Sunday afternoons. Mama kept looking out into the streets.

"He used to have a job in the mill," she said, "and, like all young folks, he just liked to
perform on Saturday nights. Saturday nights, him and your father would drift around to
different places, go to dances and things like that, or just sit around with people they knew,
and your father's brother would sing, he had a fine voice, and play along with himself on his
guitar. Well, this particular Saturday night, him and your father was coming home from some
place, and they were both a little drunk and there was a moon that night, it was bright like
day. Your father's brother was feeling kind of good, and he was whistling to himself, and he
had his guitar slung over his shoulder. They was coming down a hill and beneath them was a
road that turned off from the highway. Well, your father's brother, being always kind of frisky,
decided to run down this hill, and he did, with that guitar banging and clanging behind him,
and he ran across the road, and he was making water behind a tree. And your father was
sort of amused at him and he was still coming down the hill, kind of slow. Then he heard a
car motor and that same minute his brother stepped from behind the tree, into the road, in
the moonlight. And he started to cross the road. And your father started to run down the hill,
he says he don't know why. This car was full of white men. They was all drunk, and when
they seen your father's brother they let out a great whoop and holler and they aimed the car
straight at him. They was having fun, they just wanted to scare him, the way they do
sometimes, you know. But they was drunk. And I guess the boy, being drunk, too, and
scared, kind of lost his head. By the time he jumped it was too late. Your father says he
heard his brother scream when the car rolled over him, and he heard the wood of that guitar
when it give, and he heard them strings go flying, and he heard them white men shouting,
and the car kept on a-going and it ain't stopped till this day. And, time your father got down
the hill, his brother weren't nothing but blood and pulp."

Tears were gleaming on my mother's face. There wasn't anything I could say.

"He never mentioned it," she said, "because I never let him mention it before you children.
Your Daddy was like a crazy man that night and for many a night thereafter. He says he
never in his life seen anything as dark as that road after the lights of that car had gone
away. Weren't nothing, weren't nobody on that road, just your Daddy and his brother and
that busted guitar. Oh, yes. Your Daddy never did really get right again. Till the day he died
he weren't sure but that every white man he saw was the man that killed his brother."

She stopped and took out her handkerchief and dried her eyes and looked at me.

"I ain't telling you all this," she said, "to make you scared or bitter or to make you hate
nobody. I'm telling you this because you got a brother. And the world ain't changed."


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