Writing Catalog

Sam Mathews

Grade: 12

University School - Hunting Valley

Instructor: Scott Boehnen

Power Through James Baldwin

Critical Essay

Power Through James Baldwin

Power motivates man. Every human that has ever lived has been motivated by the enthralling dream of power. In the 15th and 16th centuries, white Europeans were the first to truly grasp this power ranging from new technologies to colonization, which they then used to their benefit. European, especially Anglo-Saxon, obsession with power created the blueprint for the United States: a country where white Anglo-Saxon Americans and white controlled institutions dominated its path. Other ethnicities, primarily African Americans, were stripped of any power. The introduction of slavery to the thirteen colonies in the 17th century laid the groundwork of whites viewing African Americans as less than and pushing them down the social hierarchy. Overtime, African Americans gained more power and control over their own lives with the abolishment of slavery in the 13th Amendment plus added rights in the 14th and 15th Amendments. However, whites and white institutions essentially maintained their power into the 20th century. African Americans continuously and more frequently pushed back against this. James Baldwin, an African American author, proposed a way to combat this Anglo-Saxon white power. In his essay "Notes of a Native Son," Baldwin explains that his proposal has two parts. Baldwin writes, "The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one's own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one's strength" (Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son," 67-68). According to Baldwin, African Americans should first accept that there was oppression and discrimination caused by whites and institutions, and then they should oppose and fight this oppression and create their own power. Baldwin's thesis on how to combat discrimination and oppression of African Americans works, which is shown through Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," where the main character creates individual and community power through music and Ralph Ellison's "King of the Bingo Game," where the main character fails to follow Baldwin's proposal and therefore does not obtain power.

In "Sonny's Blues," the narrator's younger brother Sonny succeeds in accepting the true hardships and oppression caused by whites and their institutions. This short story is doused with metaphors that explain the struggle to accept and fight against institutional and white power. Baldwin uses a metaphor of light and darkness to explain the acceptance and not being complacent. The first time Baldwin uses this metaphor is when the narrator is recounting family gatherings when he was younger. Baldwin describes the scene after a Sunday dinner with the perspective of a child. The night grows darker, and it brings a shade to all of the adults' faces. But there is comfort for the child, comfort in the arms of his parents without facing the harsh reality of the darkness. Initially, the kid does not have to face the contrast brought by the light, but eventually he does as Baldwin writes, "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" (Baldwin, "Sonny's Blues," 233). The darkness represents the harsh realities of the world with oppression and discrimination, while the light represents the knowledge and acceptance of that truth. The child experiences the light and sees the harsh truth, but he does not know how to act; he shies away from it. The kid does not fully accept the truth, but he begins to accept. Baldwin continues this metaphor when Sonny and his band are about to start playing music on stage. Baldwin explains that the musicians must not step into the light too quickly, suggesting that people need to accept the truth through their own will. Another metaphor about deep water and drowning is used to describe Sonny's acceptance of the harsh reality and control over his emotions and actions. Creole, the band leader, is guiding Sonny to accept the truth. As Sonny prepares to play the piano for the first time in a year, Baldwin writes, "He [Creole] wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny's witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing—he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know'' (Baldwin, "Sonny's Blues," 246). The deep water represents the truth that there is discrimination and oppression, and that power resides with whites and institutions. Because the water is deep, one can easily drown. In this metaphor, drowning means to either not accept the realities of the world or to become complacent to the reality and not fight against it. Sonny does not drown in the deep water, but he swims. Sonny swimming demonstrates him accepting reality and also fighting against the power of whites and institutions. Sonny stays afloat and this gives him the ability to control his life. After Sonny finishes playing music, Baldwin compares Sonny drinking a Scotch and milk to the cup of trembling from the Bible. This biblical passage is about suffering and pain being relieved. Instead of letting society push him down, Sonny uses the music genre blues to express his emotions and create his own path. Beyond this, the blues music creates a stronger African American community, bringing back the memories of all past examples of oppression. Baldwin's thesis about first acceptance and then fighting against injustice is demonstrated in "Sonny's Blues" through Sonny accepting reality and then creating a collective power in his community with music.

The short story, "King of the Bingo Game," is also about an African American who tries to fight against institutional and white power. After watching a movie, the main character participates in a bingo game and wins. The main character is called up to the stage to collect his prize by spinning a wheel with a button. He grasps the button and finds a new sense of power. The newly named character, "The-man-who-pressed-the-button-who-held-the-prize-who-was-the-King-og-Bingo," does not let go of the button because he thinks it gives him power as Ellison explains, "And gripping the button in despair, he discovered with surprise that it imparted a nervous energy. His spine tingled. He felt a certain power" (Ellison, 61). However, this power was quickly stripped away when security went into the auditorium and took the button away from the main character, knocking him down in the process. Critics would argue that Baldwin's thesis does not work because the main character tried to create his own power but failed because a white institution took it away. However, the main character only failed because he did not follow Baldwin's thesis about accepting reality. The main character fails to accept that the whites control the bingo game. First, the jackpot itself is only worth $36.90, which the main character thinks can fix all of his problems, but in reality it can't. The main character expresses his hunger after smelling peanuts during the movie and he explains how his wife is sick and needs help, but he doesn't have a birth certificate to obtain a job to earn the money he needs. He is solely relying on the jackpot for help, and he doesn't realize that it is a flawed system where he could never win. Also, when the main character goes on stage, there is a blinding spotlight on him. The light in this scenario is similar to the light in "Sonny's Blues" in which the light represents accepting the truth, but a key difference is that in this scenario the main character is blinded by the light, suggesting that he cannot accept this truth. The main character does not embrace the light but is harmed by it. The bingo caller also uses the spotlight on the main character to embarrass and humiliate him. Finally, in order to win the jackpot, the wheel must stop on double zero. This double zero has no material value, so this suggests that the main character has no real chance at winning. This is exemplified at the end of the book when the wheel stops on double zero, but the main character still loses. Even then, the main character doesn't believe the system is flawed, but just that he has simply run out of luck. The main character never accepts that he has no control in the bingo game; he fails to follow Baldwin's thesis, so he cannot gain power. On a wider scale, the main character never accepts that whites and institutions have power, but he only believes that luck influences his life.

"Sonny's Blues" and "King of the Bingo Game" are written through very different lenses. "Sonny's Blues" is about the depressing topic of drug abuse. "King of the Bingo Game" is about the fun, energetic game of bingo. It is ironic, however, that the dark short story, "Sonny's Blues," provides an optimistic outlook on African Americans' place in society, while the upbeat short story, "King of the Bingo Game," creates a pessimistic message. "King of the Bingo Game" shows that whites and institutions created a system of false hope and narrative for minorities, especially African Americans, about creating their own power. "Sonny's Blues" creates a message that even though African Americans were oppressed and discriminated against they could come together as a community and individually to develop their own power and control using Baldwin's thesis of first accepting the harsh reality and then fighting against it.