James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is a short story that sounds like a memoir. Baldwin’s powerful un-clichéd writing stems from the details he uses, particularly his choice of words. “Sonny’s Blues” is about a black family in twentieth-century America, particularly about the un-named narrator and his younger brother Sonny. After time in jail for peddling heroin, Sonny returns to his brother’s home in a housing project in Harlem. In this excerpt, they are being driven north, in a taxi, through New York City:
So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, towards 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…(13)
Baldwin uses compelling detail to make this scene come alive. The hotels and apartment buildings don’t just have an elegance to them, they have a stony, lifeless elegance (emphasis added). This is an acute observation as it both tells us that poorer neighborhoods often have more life to them, probably because people are forced to co-exist in a small space, but also that rich people don’t care about poor ones. They are not going towards the streets of their childhood, but to the vivid, killing streets. The word ‘killing’ is an arresting word that shocks the reader because it precisely describes exactly what was happening on the streets of their childhood. (I believe that this phrase has now entered the cultural lexicon.) Baldwin’s word choices contribute to the theme of the book, the rage and helplessness of black people. The housing projects don’t just jut up from the street, they jut up like “rocks in the middle of a boiling sea.” This image makes us feel the bubbling rage and resentment of black people. Baldwin goes on to talk about the inhabitants of these houses, particularly the boys who, “smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster.”
With this arresting image, Baldwin makes us feel the trap they are in.