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Lingvistov Discussion Club: Sonny’s Blues

Intensive reading
SONNY’S BLUES
(an extract)

James Baldwin (born in 1924) is an American writer, the author of the novels, stories and literary political essays. The story “Sonny’s Blues” is dedicated to the fate of a young talented black boy from Harlem, whose life and talent are nearly ruined by poverty and bad company. His love for music drives him away from his brother who at first doesn’t take it seriously. It is only among the musicians that his talent is recognized.
 
2.1. Points to consider
1. Divide the text into logical parts.
2. While working at the text write out words and expressions to describe:
a) the city;
b) appearance and character;
c) feelings and state of mind.
 
Baldwin - Little Man Little Man0552.2. Read the text
I read it in the paper, in the subway[2], on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.
My brother Sonny was about as old as the boys in my class. His face had been bright and open and he had wonderfully direct brown eyes, and great gentleness and privacy. I wondered what he looked like now. He had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment downtown[3], for peddling and using heroin.
I couldn’t believe it. I told myself that Sonny was wild, but he wasn’t crazy. And he had always been a good boy, he hadn’t ever turned hard or disrespectful, the way kids can, so quick, especially in Harlem[4]. I didn’t want to believe that I would ever face my brother going down[5], coming to nothing, all that light in his face going out, in the condition I’d already seen in so many others.
Sonny was taken to prison and I didn’t write or send him anything for a long time. When I finally did, it was just after my little girl died, he wrote me back a letter which made me feel like a bastard.
Then I kept in constant touch with him I sent him whatever I could and I went to meet him when he came back to New York. When I saw him many things I thought I had forgotten came flooding back to me. This was because I have begun, finally, to wonder about Sonny, about the life Sonny lived inside. This life whatever it was, had made him older and thinner and it deepened the distant stillness in which he had always moved. He looked very unlike my baby brother. When he smiled, when he shook hands, the baby brother I had never known looked out from the depths of his private life, like an animal waiting to be coaxed into the light.
“How you been keeping?”[6] he asked me.
“All right, and you?”
“Just fine”. He was smiling all over his face. “It’s good to see you again”.
“It’s good to see you”.
The seven years’ difference in our ages lay between us like a chasm. I wonder whether these years would ever operate between us like a bridge. I was remembering and it made it hard to catch my breath, that I had been there when he was born; and had heard the first words he had ever spoken. When he started to work he walked from our mother straight to me. I caught him just before he fell when he took his first steps he ever took in this world.
“How’s Isabel?”
“Just fine. She is dying to see you”.
“And the boys?”
“They are fine too”.
“They are anxious to see their uncle”.
“Oh, come on. You know they don’t remember me”.
“Are you kidding? Of course, they remember you”.
He grinned again. We got into a taxi. We had a lot to say to each other, far too much to know how to begin.
“Do you mind”, he asked, “if we have the driver drive us alongside the park? On the west side – I haven’t seen the city in so long”.
“Of course, not”, I said.
So we drove along, between the green of the park[7] and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings[8], toward the vivid killing streets[9] of our childhood. These streets hadn’t changed, though housing projects[10] jutted up out of them now like rocks out of a boiling sea. Most of the houses in which we had grown up had vanished as had the stores from which we had stolen, the roof tops from which we had hurled tin cans and bricks. But houses exactly like the houses of our past dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in the houses, came down into the badly-kept, narrow 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, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap. It might be said, perhaps, that I had escaped after all, I was a school teacher; or that Sonny had, he hadn’t lived in Harlem for years. Yet, as the cab moved uptown[11] through streets which seemed with a rush, to darken with dark people, and as I covertly studied Sonny’s face, it came to me that what we were seeking through our separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind. It is always at the hour of trouble and confrontation that the missing member aches.
We hit the 110th street[12] and started rolling up Lenox Avenue. And I’d known this avenue all my life, but it seemed to me again, as it had seemed on the day I had first heard about Sonny’s trouble, filled with a hidden menace which was its very breath of life.
“We are almost there”, said Sonny.
“Almost”. We were both too nervous to say anything more. We live in a housing project. It hasn’t been up long. A few days after it was up it seemed uninhabitably new, now, of course, it’s already run down[13]. It looks like a parody of the good, clean, faceless life – God knows the people who live in it do their best to make it a parody. There is no sign of lawns or flower-beds, to say nothing of shady, well-paved streets. The big windows around aren’t enough to make space out of no space. They don’t bother with the windows, they watch the TV screen instead. The playground is most popular with the children who don’t play at jacks[14], or skip rope, or roller skates, or swing, and they can be found in it after dark. We moved in partly because it’s not too far from where I teach, and partly for the kids; but it’s really just like the houses in which Sonny and I grew up. The same things happened, they will have the same things to remember. The moment Sonny and I started into the house I had the feeling that I was simply bringing him back into the danger he had almost died trying to escape.
Sonny has never been talkative. So I don’t know why I was sure he’d be dying to talk to me when supper was over the first night. Everything went fine, the oldest boy remembered him, and the youngest boy liked him, and Sonny had remembered to bring something for each of them; and Isabel who is really much nicer than I am, more open and giving had gone to a lot of trouble about dinner and was genuinely glad to see him. It was nice to see her face vivid again and to hear her laugh and watch her make Sonny laugh. She wasn’t, or, anyway, she didn’t seem to be, at all uneasy or embarrassed. She chattered as though there were no subject which had to be avoided and so she got Sonny past his first, faint stiffness. And thank God she was there, for I was filled with that icy dread again. Everything I did seemed awkward to me, and everything I said sounded freighted with hidden meaning. I was trying to remember everything I heard about dope addiction and I couldn’t help watching Sonny for signs. I wasn’t doing it out of malice. I was trying to find out something about my brother. I was dying to hear him tell me he was safe.
 
[1] blues – a) melodies originally of Negroes in the Southern USA; b) condition of being sad, melancholy.
[2] subway – a) in the USA it is an underground electric railway; b) In Great Britain it means an underground passage or tunnel especially for people to get from one side of a busy street to another.
Note: USA – subway, Great Britain – underground, tube (colloq.)
[3] downtown – the main or business part of a town (esp. in the USA)
[4] Harlem – the area in New York City mainly known for its Negro population
[5] to go down – to degrade, to come to nothing
[6] “How you been keeping? = “How have you been keeping?”
[7] the park (here) the Central Park; it is situated in the center of Manhattan Island in New York City.
[8] apartment building (house) – USA; a block of flats – Great Britain.
[9] killing streets - (here) splendid streets.
[10] housing projects – new construction sites, modern housing developments.
[11] uptown – the residential, non-business, non-commercial part of a town.
[12] 110th Street – it is a peculiar feature of New York City that streets are running parallelly from south to north whereas avenues are crossing the streets from east to west.
[13] run down – old, dilapidated
[14] to play at jacks – to play a game of bowls (small white balls towards which bowls are rolled).

Baldwin - Little Man Little Man056
LEARNING ACTIVITIES
 
Skimming
2.3. Answer the following questions:
1. Where and when is the scene laid?
2. What and who are the characters?
3. What happened to Sonny?
 
2.4. Make up an outline of the text.
 
2.5. Formulate in short what the text is about.
 
Scanning
2.6. Read the text again and find the sentences proving that:
a) Sonny’s brother loved him and was anxious about his future;
b) the living conditions and the social environment were partly the reason for Sonny’s tragedy;
c) many other children were facing the same dangers that nearly ruined Sonny’s life.
 
2.7. Fill in these lines arranging the information from the story:

Problems

Reasons

Solutions

 
2.8. Comment on the following sentences:
1. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap.
2. The playground is most popular with the children who don’t play at jacks[17], or skip rope, or roller skates, or swing, and they can be found in it after dark.
3. The moment Sonny and I started into the house I had the feeling that I was simply bringing him back into the danger he had almost died trying to escape.
4. Everything I did seemed awkward to me, and everything I said sounded freighted with hidden meaning.
5. I was trying to remember everything I heard about dope addiction and I couldn’t help watching Sonny for signs.
 
2.9. To make sure that you understand the story answer these detailed questions:
1. What did the teacher read in the newspaper?
2. How did he feel when he learned the news?
3. Why couldn’t he believe it?
4. When Sonny was in prison he constantly kept in touch with him, didn’t he? If not, then why?
5. What made him write Sonny a letter?
6. How did he feel when he saw Sonny after all that time?
7. What places did they pass on their way to home?
8. Why did Sonny have the driver go past the Central Park?
9. What did each of them think about on their way home?
10. Where did Sonny’s brother live and why?
11. Sonny was very talkative at dinner, wasn’t he?
12. Everyone enjoyed the evening genuinely, didn’t they?
13. Why was Sonny’s brother filled with icy dread?
14. What was he trying to find out about Sonny?
15. What were the relations between the two brothers in the past and the present?
 
Related activities
Word study
fc,550x550,white2.10. Transcribe, mark the stress and read the following words and word combinations:

avenue
menace
malice
genuine
housing project
dope addiction
hotel
freight
to coax
to smother
to vanish
anxious
 
2.11. Explain the meaning of these words and word combinations. When speaking use:
this word means…
‘an apartment’ is…
‘to dominate’ means…
Apartment, housing project, downtown, uptown, hedge, lawn, playground, subway car, badly kept, to dominate the landscape, to jut up.
 
2.12. Match the synonyms in the right and left columns:

to escape

to look fixedly at

to grin

dilapidated

to stare

to throw violently

to be run down

tree-shaded

to kid

to smile broadly

to hurl

clean and tidy

to be uneasy

threat

to smother

to pull somebody’s leg

vivid

to get away

menace

to choke

malice

ill will

shady

bright and lively

well-kept

to be troubled

 
2.13. Find in the text the synonyms for the following:
to be confused, misfortune, to be worried, to degrade, to disappear, to look for, to be mad, to come upon, weak, fear, true (real).
 
2.14.
a) Study the difference between these verbs:
to know, to learn, to find out.
If necessary, use an explanatory dictionary.
 
b) Fill in the gaps with the proper verb:
  • Sonny’s brother _____ that Sonny was peddling and using heroin.
  • Sonny’s brother _____ about it from a newspaper.
  • He was trying to _____ something about his brother.
c) Make up your own sentences with these verbs.
d) Explain the difference between the verbs ‘to know’, ‘to learn’, ‘to find out’ using your sentences as examples.
 
2.15. Find the odd word out: open, giving, gentle, respectful, dread, direct, talkative.
 
2.16. Dwell on the polysemy of these words: to hit, vivid, anxious. State the meaning in which they were used in the story.
 
2.17. Give British-English equivalents for the following Americanisms: apartment, subway, downtown, store.
 
2.18. GivetheEnglishfor:
квартира, жилой дом, деловой район, грязные улицы, тенистые, хорошо мощеные улицы, газоны и клумбы, живая изгородь, яркий /оживленный/, зелень парка, опуститься, скованный, смущенный, открытый /взгляд, характер/, настоящий, выяснить, наркомания, игровая площадка, играть во что-либо, заставить кого-либо что-то сделать, не мог не беспокоиться, возвышаться над чем-либо, избежать несчастья, поддерживать отношения, сделать что-либо от злости /из любопытства/, избежать ловушки, жилые дома.
 
2.19. Give the three forms of the following verbs:
to steal, to shake, to fall, to trap, to forget, to feel, to fill, to catch, to lie, to lay, to hide, to drive, to find, to die.
 
2.20. Make verbs by means of the verb-forming suffix –en or prefix –en-:
wide, deep, broad, red, length, circle, rich, large, slave, cage.

2.21. Give words of the same root (derivatives). If necessary, consult a dictionary:
gentle, dark, to wonder, to inhabit, to respect, to believe, life, face, danger, disaster, to confront, house, circle, elegant, stiff, ice, malice, safe, to talk, dread, to be embarrassed.
 
2.22. Analyze the morphological structure of the compound adjective ‘badly-kept’. Give other compound words built on the same pattern. Here are the verbs you can use:
to illuminate, to light, to pave, to lay out, to build, to do, to make.
 
2.23. Consider the morphological structure of the words: ‘uninhabitable’, ‘disrespectful’. What sense do prefixes ‘un-’ and ‘dis-’ add to the words? Give your own examples.
 
2.24. Look at this:
‘… the baby brother I had never known looked out from the depths of his private life, like an animal waiting to be coaxed into the light’.
The author resorts here to a stylistic device called simile.
 
For your information
Simile is based on the likeness of objects or ideas belonging to different classes.
Find out in the text two more cases of this device. What is the effect of the simile in them?
 
Cover up the list below and remember these idioms based on the simile:
He                  eats                             like a              fish
                       drives                                                 log
                       smokes                                               trooper
                       drinks                                                 chimney
                       swears                                                lunatic
                       sleeps                                                 pig
 
 
 
2.25. Look at this sentence: ‘She is dying to see you’. Here the author resorts to a stylistic device called hyperbole.
 
For your information
Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement made for effect and not intended to be taken literally.
Write out from the text two more cases of hyperbole and say what effect it produces there.
 
2.26. Express the same idea in other words substituting for the italicized words and expressions:
1. He hadn’t ever turned hard or disrespectful. 2. He was smiling all over his face. 3. How have you been keeping? 4. I was remembering and it made it hard to catch my breath. 5. She is dying to see you. 6. They found themselves encircled by disaster. 7. A few days after it was up it seemed uninhabitably new. 8. The difference in our age lay between us like a chasm. 9. So we drove along, between the green of the park, and the stony lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid killing streets of our childhood. 10. As I covertly studied Sonny’s face it came to me that what we were both seeking through our separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind. 11. We hit 110th Street and started rolling up Lennox Avenue. 12. She got Sonny past his first, faint stiffness.
 
Speaking activities
 
2.31. Suppose you were Sonny’s brother. What would you say about Sonny? What do you think the future might have in store for him? For your children?
 
2.32. Suppose you were Sonny. What could you say about yourself? About your relations with your brother, your parents and mates? How do you visualize your future?
 
2.33. Draw character sketches of Sonny, his brother and the brother’s wife. Turn to the text for facts and proofs and use sentences of unreal condition e.g.: If he hadn’t been anxious for his fate he wouldn’t have done it (said it).
 
2.34. Imagine you are the members of the school teachers’ board and Sonny is your student.
 
Role-play
Situation: Discuss the incident and the ways of solving the problem for Sonny and other children.
Problems: You heatedly discuss the following problems:
a)     the living conditions in Harlem;
b)    the social environment in Harlem;
c)     the relations between children and parents;
d)    drug addiction among children;
e)     social measures taken against juvenile delinquency.

2.35. Make up the summary of the text.