James Baldwin

James Baldwin


Mini Biography




“Sonny’s Blues”

Sonny's blues pic

“Sonny’s Blues,” 1957

YouTube Recording of “Sonny’s Blues”

Assignment #1

  1. Read and annotate James Baldwin’s “Sonny Blues.”
  2. Above, you will see a digital PDF of the short story. Please use this version if you do not have The Story and Its Writer with you.
  3. You might find it helpful to play the audio recording of the short story in the background as you read “Sonny’s Blues.” Remember that you must annotate the text, so I would strongly advise against listening to the recording without the text in front of you.
  4. It might be helpful to listen to the musician that inspired Sonny to play jazz. See below.

Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro

Peck's movie poster

In class, we will watch Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro documentary based on James Baldwin’s Remember This House. I cannot express how vital this piece is to understanding who James Baldwin was and why he wrote the texts he did. I hope you enjoy listening to Samuel L. Jackson read Baldwin’s words throughout the film.

Free Script of the Documentary via Scripts.com: Full Script Without Minute Markers

  • If you’re having trouble finding your place in the PDF, here’s a reference point I found that might help. Minute 44:38 (the clip from Imitation of Life by J.M. Stahl, 1934) is on page 27 of the PDF.

Assignment #2

  • Take notes while you view the film in class.

Assignment #3

Complete the following review questions for “Sonny’s Blues” & I Am Not Your Negro. You may work in groups of three to complete this assignment. Please upload your responses to Google Classroom.

Note: Format your Google doc based on our MLA guidelines, include each member’s name in your header, and add signed honor codes on the last page.

  1. What do we learn about Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X through the eyes of James Baldwin?
  2. How does Peck contemporize Baldwin’s words through his film?
  3. After watching Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, what is Baldwin’s story of America? Be specific here.
    • Although Baldwin speaks of the black experience in an America styled by socially acceptable white standards, how can you relate the experiences of other racial, ethnic, or cultural groups living in America today? (e.g.- You may discuss large geographical areas or specific communities: Chinese American, Caribbean American, Jewish, African, Latinx, Hispanic, Chicano, Indian, East Asian, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, etc.) How would these other groups describe their experience in America?
  4. What connections can be made between Baldwin’s story of America and other texts or videos we’ve examined this year? Please widen your scope and provide specific examples.
  5. Define the following vocabulary words:vindictively, insular, denigrate, repulsive, menace, coaxed, chasm, parody, malice, obscurely, grimly, earnest, afflicted, revival, sullen, belligerent, imposed, apprehensive, dispersed, contempt, confiding, corroborated, evocations, evoked, sardonic.
    • Once you define each term, add the line from the text below the definition so that you can see the term used in context. 
  6. Why does the use of the word it in the opening paragraph make for an effective opener for the reader.  To what does it refer?  What might the narrator’s use of the word it in the first paragraph suggest about the narrator himself?
  7. In the second paragraph, the narrator uses an extended metaphor of a “great block of ice” that “got settled in my belly.”  What different feelings is this metaphor meant to convey?  
  8. What does the description of Sonny in the 3rd paragraph tell us about him?  With what other character in the story is the word “privacy” associated?  How in the final scene of the story is Sonny’s need for “privacy” explained?
  9. What conflicting emotions does the narrator reveal in his encounter with one of Sonny’s former friends?  What does this suggest about the narrator? Explain the use of the pronoun he when Sonny’s friend says, “how would he know what I mean?”  What is the friend suggesting about the narrator?
  10. Compare the description of the barmaid with the descriptions of the revival singers and the woman with “her face scarred and swollen.”  What do the women in these descriptions have in common? What is the function of these descriptions in the story?
  11. Identify four places in the opening four pages of the story that reflect a state of hopelessness.  What is the cause of this hopelessness, and how does Baldwin reveal the cause to us?
  12. Why does the narrator finally write Sonny?  How does the story of the narrator’s family and the loss they suffer enhance the meaning of the ending of the story?
  13. We first meet Sonny through the letter he writes to the narrator.  What does this letter reveal about Sonny and about his relationship to his brother?
  14. What does the description of Sunday afternoon reveal about the narrator and Sonny’s family?  How does this family compare to Sonny’s figurative families at the end?
  15. What parallels can be drawn between Sonny and his uncle?  How, according to Sonny’s mother, is Sonny like his father?    
  16. The narrator says, “I had begun, finally, to wonder about Sonny, about the life that Sonny lived inside.”  “…I was trying to find out something about my brother.” “And, after the funeral, with just Sonny and me alone in the empty kitchen, I tried to find out something about him.” As Sonny is telling him of his dream to become a musician, the narrator comments, “I sensed myself in the presence of something I didn’t really know how to handle, didn’t understand.”  And again, he comments about Sonny, “I suddenly had the feeling that I didn’t know him at all.” Review the scene in which Sonny and the narrator are together; look for possible explanations for the narrator’s difficulty in knowing Sonny. Record parts of the text that hint at explanations.
  17. Study the uses of the words hear and listen.  What various meanings does this motif on listening have in relation to Sonny’s character?  In relation to the narrator? In relation to the blues? 
  18. Sonny’s mother tells the narrator, while asking him to take care of Sonny, “It ain’t a question of his [Sonny] being a good boy…nor of his having good sense.  It ain’t only the bad ones, nor yet the dumb ones that gets sucked under.” Who does Baldwin suggest are the ones that get sucked under, and why do they?
  19. Analyze the final image in the story: “For me, then, as they began to play again, it [the glass of scotch and milk] glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.”
  20. Which thematic ideas appear in both I Am Not Your Negro and “Sonny’s Blues”? Please explain each thematic idea you include.
  21. What reflections and lessons can you take away from Baldwin’s words?
    • Note: Since you are completing this assignment in groups of three, you might want to write three individual responses or discuss this question with your group members before you write one comprehensive answer.



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