In “Sonny’s Blues”, Sonny and his brother struggle to connect and understand one another, but music helps that relationship. Through Sonny and his brother’s journey amazing music is made. The journey of the artist is told through their artwork. The act of creating art and telling the story is transformative. Understanding these varied stories and their power will be discerned by the students and in turn will result in the students own creations.
“Sonny’s Blues” will be the central text because it explores the role of art in the lives of the artist and the consumer. Students will begin by reading the text. This will provide them with a framework for approaching the art we will be looking at and the art they will be creating.
In “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, Sonny’s older brother seeks to understand Sonny, his drug addiction, and his choice to be a musician. The journey in the story is really Sonny’s, but told from his brother’s (who remains nameless) point of view. The story starts with the brother reflecting on Sonny and his recent stint in jail. The story has flashbacks to provide us with the insight into Sonny’s life experience. turns his pain or channels his pain into the music he creates. His brother develops an understanding of both music and Sonny while watching him play. It is a spiritual experience for both men. Sonny has a serious drug problem and the music is a not only an escape and a channel of self acceptance for him, it is the life saving force. In Jacqueline C. Jones’ article, “Finding a Way to Listen: The Emergence of the Hero as an Artist In James Baldwin’s 'Sonny’s Blues’” argues that in a number of Baldwin’s pieces he uses the artist as a hero and the hero as an artist. It is the painful experiences in the artists’ life that drives them to their craft and is expressed in their craft. In the case of Sonny, his journey as an African American male struggling with drug addiction is the source of his pain and the conduit of self affirmation as an artist. Jones feels that Baldwin’s “primary identity” is of an artist and the focus on him and his writing as an African American and a gay man is a bit misguided. The point is well made, but even in her article it is clear that it is all intertwined. None of these things operate in isolation. She may just be making a point counter to many of the outspoken writers of Baldwin’s time that felt art by African Americans must fight racism and oppression with their work. The role of the individual as an artist can take the forefront of their identity because artist seeks truth, expresses it and saves through it.1
In Leah Turner’s podcast, The Whole Five Fifths with Reverend Cheryl Jones they discuss this exact topic of the healing power of music. Reverend Jones said that healing can be instantaneous, when spiritual, but for the most part it is a journey. She said that transformation is healing and it is a process. She said it is, “freedom from a painful place, turning from a painful place to a less painful place.” She continues to describe the process of such a journey. It starts with acknowledgment and being ready to let it go, not forget it, just let it go.2
Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art” describes this process well. She is talking about loss in the form of an imperfect villanelle. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” is the opening line of the poem. As the poem progresses she loses things that are more significant. The losses become more serious and more real until she loses a love and writes in the final two lines, “the art of losing’s not too hard to master/ though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” In this poem the art form and the purging of the pain are one. She sheds her pain through the act of writing and the writing cannot even capture the pain perfectly as she is not adhering the standard form. The act of writing about the loss reflects the difficulty she is having with it. It may be a true form of the healing journey that Reverend Jones describes in that Bishop relinquishes the pain through the poem. 3
In the podcast, Leah Turner turns the conversation back to the pain of racism. She mentions how black music was stolen by white musicians. She also talks about racism working in “darkness and silence.” This is exactly why these stories need to be told and revisited. Bringing the stories to light is an act of combating racism. A part of this healing process is the telling of the story. This is what I refer to above. The act of telling the story through art, music, or literature is part of the healing journey itself. 4
The students in this unit will be producing their own piece of art. The goal is to produce art and an artist’s statement. Although it would be ideal for the students to comment on an issue that they are passionate about or feel needs to be addressed, they should express their personal journey. By reading literature that exposes the subtle and not so subtle racism in America in Citizen: An American Lyric students will find a guide for how to express their own struggle or topic.
Citizen is a visual and literary view into microaggression and direct aggression toward Black Americans. Claudia Rankine writes in part prose and part poetry to provide insight into everyday encounters and the questioning mind of the targets of these aggressions. She explores everything from an everyday racist occurrence to the racist fueled calls against Serena Williams to police murdering Black people in this country. She collaborates with her husband. John Lucas, who makes short films and is part of Citizen. This text provides writing, film, and visual art for students to view and discuss.