Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Learning How To Hear

Twice today, I've been reminded why James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" is my favorite short story, and it seems like it happens several times a week. Like my other favorite stories--"The Lady with the Pet Dog," "Babylon Revisited," and "The Gilded Six Bits"--"Sonny's Blues" is a story that bucks easy answers to life's most intimate questions. Chekov would say why bother writing a story if you have the answers, a story's goal is to ask the right questions, and Baldwin manages to weave just about every damn one of them into a relatively simple tale about two brothers trying to connect.

"Sonny's Blues" tackles the particular issues surrounding brothers, addiction, heartbreak, education, parenting, and cultural prejudice. It's a story that captures the subjectivity of class division and the geography of racial segregation. It describes the insidious dynamics of social separation and the erroneous divisions between "high" and "low" culture. Set against the crushing disappointments of the Great Migration to the North, it celebrates the legacy of our roots and the promise of our posterity. Wrestling with the meaning of masculinity, the story reconciles seeimingly "right brain" arts with "left brain" sciences. Dreaming of liberation, the story finds the journey leads straight through our divine interdependence.... There is no ending to this list of the story's themes. Whenever I pick up "Sonny's Blues," it is speaking to what's going on in my life at that moment.

Baldwin does this by exploring how hard it is to truly be there for one another--what a feat it is to actually hear what is being said and how there is no other choice. No one line says it better than this, an epiphany Sonny's older brother has as he listens to Sonny play the notes that keep his soul alive--"Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did."

An article in Salon today, about Whitney Houston, quoted some things I had to say about Houston as it searched for a way to rationalize the way we've (American society's) felt compelled to give up on one of the most significant pop music voices of the past 20 years, why we want to feel okay about ourselves as we give good tough love and leave her to her own devices. I admire the writer's willingness to go there, but I was disappointed to find that she, more or less, gives up on Houston by the end of the piece.

I just don't think any of us can let ourselves off that easy. In one respect, what's happened with Whitney Houston is her fault, but, in another respect, every voice that slips away the way hers has, that never reaches its potential the way hers hasn't yet, is a loss we all suffer. And as "Sonny's Blues" insists, the key to our freedom comes with recognizing our need for one another, particularly when it fucks up our pretty picture of how things ought to be.

Baldwin doesn't have the answers. In fact, his argument is (if it can be so simply stated) that any easy answer is a lie. The choice between what's right and wrong in dealing with our responsibility to one another is, in the specific details, always changing, never absolute. All he can offer is a compass to help find our way, and that's what "Sonny's Blues" is for me. As in the ending of Chekov's "Lady with the Pet Dog," the moment when the older brother finally hears his little brother's song is the moment when he begins to grasp that the hardest part has only just begun.

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