Throughout the story, Baldwin uses imagery of darkness to signal the dangers and traumas of growing up black in Harlem. This begins early on; in the first paragraph, when the narrator is reeling from the news of Sonny’s arrest, his face is “trapped in the darkness which roared outside.” From then on, Baldwin’s mentions of darkness are always significant—they come at times of fear, despair, and hopelessness. Important instances of Baldwin dwelling on darkness include the narrator’s meditation on the futures of his algebra students (“All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness…”), the darkness of the night in which the narrator’s father’s brother was killed, and the darkness that surrounds the living room in the narrator’s memory of being a child in a room of adult conversation. In both of these instances, darkness is a menace. Baldwin also (less frequently) uses light to symbolize the opposite of darkness. In moments of optimism, Baldwin will describe light on people’s faces, and at the jazz club the narrator observes that music is “the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” The opposition of light and dark is, of course, Biblical—there’s the pervasive danger of falling into evil and despair, but also the insistent hope of salvation, symbolized by the light.
Darkness Quotes in Sonny’s Blues
I feel like a man who’s been trying to climb up out of some deep, real deep and funky hole and just saw the sun up there, outside. I got to get outside.
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.
You can see the darkness growing against the windowpanes and you hear the street noises every now and again, or maybe the jangling beat of a tambourine from one of the churches close by, but it’s real quiet in the room. For a moment nobody’s talking, but every face looks darkening, like the sky outside…Everyone is looking at something a child can’t see.
The silence, the darkness coming, and the darkness in the faces frightens the child obscurely….The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure. The child knows that they won’t talk anymore because if he knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon, about what’s going to happen to him.
“He says he never in his life seen anything as dark as that road after the lights of that car had gone away.”
I think I may have written Sonny the very day that little Grace was buried. I was sitting in the living-room in the dark, by myself, and I suddenly thought of Sonny. My trouble made his real.
They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.