Photographer Unknown, The Child is Filled with Darkness
“In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light. Then the old folks will remember the children and they won’t talk anymore that day. And when light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. He knows that every time this happens he’s moved just a little closer to that darkness outside. 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 any more 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.”
—-James Baldwin, Sonny’s Blues
“Sonny’s Blues” is a short story written by James Baldwin, originally published in 1957 in the Partisan Review, a small circulation quarterly New York City magazine dealing with politics, literature, and culture. Written in the first-person singular narrative style, the story presents the memories of a 1950s black teacher in Harlem as he reacts to his brother Sonny’s drug addiction, arrest, and recovery.
Baldwin’s story is set in New York City of the post–World War Two era, when an important political and cultural change was occurring. A diverse array of artists from all over the world, learning and borrowing ideas and techniques from each other, converged in the city and made New York a new cultural capital. Despite differences in style and subject matter, these artists were responding, through their work, to what they believed was America’s unique cultural and political crisis.
While the art scene in New York was rapidly expanding, thousands of African American soldiers were returning home from the war and heading north toward communities like Harlem. Instead of finding new job opportunities and equal rights, the returning men found newly constructed housing projects and vast urban slums. Hundreds of homes in Harlem had been leveled to build these housing projects, which would eventually become symbols of urban blight and poverty,. This experience would be faced by thousands of other African-Americans in the years after the war’s conclusion.
Although America in the 1950s was generally more conservative, the groundwork for the 1960s radical political movements was being laid. The civil rights movement, which had begun in the South earluer in the decade, had started to rapidly spread across the country as millions of African Americans began to seek equal rights. Written at this critical juncture in history, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” is a testament to the frustration of life in the cities of America and this frustration’s eventual transformation into a political and artistic movement.
Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” was adapted for a short film of the same name by Gregory Scott Williams Jr for his second year project at New York University’s Graduate Film Program. Written and directed by Williams, the short, seventeen-minute film was produced by Seith Mann and starred actor Charles Parnell as the narrator-brother David, and New York-based poet and verbal stylist Saul Williams in the role of Sonny. The cinematography was by Cybel Martin, featuring the music of Gil Scott-Heron and Ray Charles with an original score by composer and pianist John Bickerton. The film can be found in its entirely at YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Y9CDEfnKvQ