The Great Escape
James Baldwin was an essayist, poet, playwright and novelist. He is regarded as a highly intellectual insightful writer, and iconic novelist in the post war 20’th century. Baldwin spent his early years in a prominently black, ghetto neighborhood called Harlem in new york. This neighborhood is equally well known for its drug problems, as well as the talented writers, poets, artists, and musicians it produced. After Baldwin lost his father he moved to paris. This became a turning point in his writing career. He told the New York Times "Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I see where I came from very clearly...I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both.” This tells us a lot about Baldwin, especially how he came to write the brilliant stories and poems he has. His childhood upbringing plays as integral part of his story writing. As per many people living in the area Baldwin grew up in, the thought of escape was extremely pleasing. This theme as well as the theme of drugs transfers into his work. In Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin, the author details themes of escapism by the way in which he incorporates drug addiction, career choice, and music.
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Escapism is a common theme that most people experienced one time or another. It is defined as a form of mental diversion in terms of entertainment or recreation, as an "escape" from the perceived unpleasant or banal aspects of daily life. Escapism serves as a self defense mechanism our brain uses in order to cope with reality (Tvtropes Editors). It provides a refuge within a situation in which a person is not able to cope. In this particular work, the author uses his fictional characters in order to push this theme.
One of the minor, but still relevant incorporations of the theme of escapism is in the characters use of their career in order to leave the harlem ghetto. For the narrator, also known as Sonny’s brother, the first avenue of escape was the military. After the narrator's mother asked him to watch over, and be by his brother's side he was married and shipped off to go into the military. The narrator states “and I pretty well forgot my promise to Mama until I got shipped home on special furlough for her funeral.” This is a prime and core example of the need to get away from the thoughts of Harlem. The narrator was not affected by the thoughts of Harlem and his promises until they came crashing down upon his shoulders. He used the military to escape his life in Harlem. Another example of the use of career as escape comes later in the timeline of this work. The narrator uses his education as another pathway of escape by becoming a school teacher. He moves into a housing project near the school, which he describes as “uninhabitably new, now of course, it's already rundown”, “a parody of the good, clean, faceless life”, “beat-looking grass lying around isn’t enough to make their lives green”, and “the hedges will never hold out the streets.” Though he uses his career in order to escape, soon reality sinks in and Sonny’s brother realizes the even though they are surrounded by the housing project, the Harlem streets feet away are pushing themselves in. He can’t escape from his surroundings, it is inevitable that he must face his reality. By incorporating career as a form of escape, Baldwin gives the narrator a seemingly simple way to escape the Harlem ghetto.
The second very key incorporation of escapism is in use of heroin. Because of the surroundings these characters have been placed in, drugs are a very typical thing. The narrator describes his brother’s drug addiction as “going down, coming to nothing, all that light in his face gone out.” He speaks of seeing this multiple times. He talks of the students he teaches stating “I was, talking about algebra to a lot of boys who might, every one of them for all I knew, be popping off needles every time they went to the head. Maybe it did more for them than algebra could.” This use of escapism is not only brilliant and subtle, but also a key point in recognizing the drug problems in Harlem. By stating heroin is able help the young children more than algebra can, is a core example of escapism, and the way in which the characters use drugs to escape from their reality. Another example of this comes near the conclusion of the work, from a scene in which Sonny is describing why he uses drugs to his brother. Sonny states “well, I needed a fix, I needed to find a place to lean, I needed to clear a space to listen.” Sonny’s need to escape from Harlem- and ultimately himself, caused him to use heroin in order to get away from reality. By incorporating heroin as a form of escape, Baldwin gives Sonny a pathway to escape the Harlem ghetto. Granted, this pathway is arguably one of the worst to choose, nevertheless Sonny uses heroin as a form of escape.
The most prominent use of escapism in this work is anchored in the way music is incorporated into this short story. Once Sonny gets over his heroin addiction he turn to music in order to escape the harsh realities of Harlem. In a scene in which Sonny is watching 4 singers, he states “her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes-when it’s in your veins”, “warm and cool at the same time”, “distant. And-sure”, “it makes you feel-in control”, “sometimes you got to have that feeling.” The way Sonny compares music to heroin is one of the reasons he moves to music to support his want and need to escape harlem, and himself. Another example of this is the scene in which Sonny brings his brother to listen to him play. The narrator states “Yet, it was clear that, for them, I was only Sonny’s brother. Here I was in Sonny’s world. Or rather: his kingdom. Here, it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood.” This is such a key example of how in this work music plays a key role in escaping Harlem. When playing or listening to music, the characters are able to escape into this world. By incorporating music as a form of escape, Baldwin gives Sonny and his brother the ability to escape from their reality and exist entirely in the world of music.
In conclusion, James Baldwin uses drug addiction, career choice, and music to incorporate escapism into Sonny’s blues. Their is a large amount of in text evidence proving these points such as, but not limited to the scenes stated above. By doing this Baldwin gives his characters a mean of escape from the harlem ghetto’s.