Sunday, March 19, 2023

Cultural Geo-tagging James Baldwin’s short stories

By Kenton Rambsy

What stands out when we take geo-tagging into consideration is how musical scenes showcase groups of people together. For Hurston’s southern settings, the porch serves as a key place where Black people gather. In urban environments, clubs, dance halls, bars, and cabarets offer a variety of social settings that prominently feature music.

Traveling to another environment facilitates the unnamed narrator’s ability to come to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of Sonny’s life as a musician. The narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” must take time to understand the properties of a place that is already quite familiar to his brother. Only when the narrator decides to attend a jazz club to listen to his brother perform does he understand their dissimilar experiences have shaped both of their lives in profound ways.

Overall, “Sonny’s Blues” presents worlds within worlds or subterranean, hidden environments. Through Baldwin, we gain views of Black New Yorkers who are a part of, and at times apart from, others in the city.

Stories by Rudolph Fisher, Henry Dumas, and Amiri Baraka, in addition to Baldwin’s, showcase the convergence of music and locations. These writers use New York City settings to present scenes showing the transformative power of music. Moreover, these stories reveal the gathering power of these spaces and how musical settings bring together an array of characters.

Musical environments are important locales for African American storytellers to combine several types of characters and incorporate sensory details related to the sound of instruments and even singing. These scenes are distinctive because they allow for writers to focus on the central conflict regarding a small group of characters while also emphasizing the musical performance taking place.

This entry is part of a series--A Notebook on The Geographies of African American Short Stories.

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