Alice Walker and James Baldwin depict African American life in very different ways. Through these two short stories, “Sonny’s Blues” written by Baldwin and “Everyday Use” written by Walker, we are going to uncover how each author finds unique ways to describe what Baldwin calls the “ambiguity and irony of Negro life.”
“Sonny’s Blues” and “Everyday Use” are two short stories which display the struggle of African American people. Alice Walker and James Baldwin are two African American writers who wanted to assess and critique their own culture through their writings.
In both short stories, “Sonny’s Blues” and “Everyday Use,” readers discover the life of African American families who try to deal with the difficulties of living in a society where people are still “separate but equal.” Sonny’s parents and Dee’s parents had no education and they both lived during a time where black people were afraid to be killed by white people. In “Sonny’s Blues” and “Everyday Use,” the characters are trying to deal with the fact that they are African American who used to be called first ‘Negro’ and then ‘Black’ and then finally African American.
In “Sonny’s Blues,” Sonny has grown up in Harlem where most of the people were poor and plagued by drugs. Sonny feels trapped in this poor neighborhood where people were struggling economically and socially and they did not have a lot of chance of success. Sonny said, “Look, brother. I don’t want to stay in Harlem no more, I really don’t.” Sonny knew that he would be tempted by doing drugs because he was surrounded by people who were addicted to it. His rage and furry towards the racist political system kept him from thinking clearly like his brother and he descended in the world of drugs, prison, and poverty.
When Sonny left prison, he found his own way to deal with the “ambiguity and irony of Negro life.” He has found his freedom through music and he transformed his frustration of being only another unsafe black person in Harlem by playing Bebop. He remembers his father grunting to his mother whenever she wanted to move another neighborhood, looking for a safe haven, “Safe, hell! Ain’t no place safe for kids, nor nobody.” Therefore, Sonny, through music, has found the solution to his alienation and marginalization of his own society. By playing blues and Bepop, he was able to reconnect with the African Diaspora, which represents his roots, and he was escaping the economic and social problems of the ghetto. It was his only way to feel free. When Sonny plays blues, “freedom lurked around” them and the brother “understood, at last, that” the blues “could help them to be free.”
In contrast, in “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker, through her character Dee, finds her unique way to describe what Baldwin calls the “ambiguity and irony of Negro life.” Dee wanted to live differently and she did not want to resemble her mother and her sister Maggie. The mother did not have an education and Dee decided to win her freedom by being educated and graduate from college. Dee decides to change her name and she chooses an African name, Wangero. The readers can understand by the change of name that Dee decided to resist the white dominated society by rejecting her American culture and deciding to choose and keep only her African heritage. She says to her astonished mother, “She’s dead, I couldn’t bear it any longer being named after the people who oppress me.”
Dee, who is in conflict about her culture and heritage, decides to deal with the “ambiguity” of her life by seeking her cultural roots in Africa, the land of her ancestors. Through her education and her new knowledge of her African roots, Dee has transformed her life into something more acceptable, something which makes her feel dignified.