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The Complexity of Family
Anyone who has a family can attest to the complexity of the relationships built within. Families are at times supportive and encouraging, while other times they are alienating and destructive. In the short story “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin we are clearly shown just how complex the family dynamic can be. This story shows the relationships between family members that are close and distant, caring and closed off, understood and misconstrued, yet through it all you are given the message that family is always there, even when they appear not to be.
In the opening of “Sonny’s Blues” we show the distant aspect of a family relationship. Here the narrator is recounting how he just heard of his brother being arrested via a story in the local newspaper. At this point we know nothing more of the relationship between brothers, yet immediately it begs the question, how little does he speak with his brother? It is clear that there has been a divide in this family, though the reason is not apparent quite yet. It is also clear that he has shut himself off from thinking of his brother and this incident has begun to crumble that barrier, “I was scared, scared for Sonny. He became real to me again.” (Baldwin, 1957, p.23) The narrator had obviously closed himself off from his brother for a time, to the point that he refused to think of him at all. Yet one incident in the newspaper has quickly opened his heart and his mind, and the first thoughts he has of his brother are filled with concern and love.
As the story moves on we see how stubbornly people can hold to their disassociation with their families despite what their heart tells them. Even after learning of his brother’s fate, the narrator still does not contact him. It takes a tragedy in his own family for him to realize the importance of the relationship and finally reach out to his brother, “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, he wrote me back a letter which made me feel like a bastard.” (Baldwin, 1957, p. 23) When a family bond is strained there is something stubborn in us that will cling to the belief that we are doing the right thing, keeping the silence and ignoring our own hearts. It sometimes takes a strong life event, such as the unexpected death of a very close person, to open our minds to what our hearts are telling us all along. Family is family, and no matter what happens along the way your love and concern for that person will never go completely away. Sometimes you just have to break down that wall yourself and reach out, and usually that is all they were waiting for themselves.
In this story we also see the opposite side, how sometimes it is the pain itself that keeps you from talking about family. When the narrator’s mother tells him that his father had a brother, he is at first shocked that the family kept this secret. As his mother unfolds the details of his unknown uncle’s tragic death it is apparent why it was never discussed. Sometimes the pain of remembering a lost family member is too much to bear, and so we close it off and only discuss it with the one person we know can handle seeing the pain and suffering it can bring up, “I know you never saw your Daddy cry. But I did-many a time, through all these years”. (Baldwin, 1957, p. 23) In his article “James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”: Complicated and Simple” Donald C. Murray points out that this mirrors the situation that the narrator has been facing with his own daughter’s death and the two events create a sense of reality to his brother’s situation that he had been trying not to acknowledge, “The revelation of the father’s brother’s murder and the fact of Grace’s death make Sonny’s troubles real for the narrator…” (1977, p. 355). Though the narrator’s father never showed this painful family loss to his sons, he shared it with his