There is a Mexican phrase that goes “tell me who you surround yourself with and I’ll tell you who you are.” Such appears to be the sentiment of philosopher Charles Taylor in his 1989 book The Sources of the Self, where he claims the commitments and identifications of an environment – social, cultural, political- define an individual. Further, the loss of these commitments and identifications proves to be the loss of identity, leading to disorientation and identity crisis.
However, an individual can be able to be someone or rather, be himself outside the larger environment and be himself in a much more secluded, familiar environment. James Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” embodies the struggle of an individual that does not find comfort in the environment he grows up in because he instead finds suffering and disorientation. Nonetheless, it is through the rejection of the known, outer environmental commitments and the acceptance of the unknown, inner ones- typically a form of art- that a non-conformed individual can finally express and determine his identity.
There is a truth to Charles Taylor’s claim that an individual can determine who he or she is based on the commitments and identifications that arise from the individual’s environment. However, Taylor also suggests that when people “lose this commitment or identification, they would be at sea” and they “wouldn’t know anymore … what the significance of things was for them” (Taylor). This claim proves to be rather problematic because it suggests that individuals are “identity-less” without their commitments when really, individuals are lost when they do not conform to the commitments within their environment.
In other words, Taylor’s definition only addresses the people that conform and relate to the system the commitments portray; however, it does not include the people that reject or look beyond the system or systems that have attempted to shape their personalities like everyone else’s. To clarify, this does not mean that the commitments do not affect the individual that does not conform with the systems, but it does not have the individual mirror or project the system through their identity. For this reason, individuals that may be likely to experience non-conformity tend to be marginalized and oppressed in their society, such as a person of color.
Because people of color are marginalized groups within these cultural, social frameworks in their environment, they do not feel identified with these systems and are led to be either suppressed and trapped by them or are left to look outside of their framework into themselves. For instance, in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator states fighting with Sonny as unproductive because “Sonny just moves back, inside himself, where he can’t be reached” (Baldwin 114). The narrator mentions this specifically when Sonny and his father argued. The narrator also mentions the father saying, most likely drunk, that there was “’no place safe for kids, nor nobody;’”; in this memory, one can observe the non-conformity but acceptance of an oppressed system from the father (114).
Thus, the reader gets an idea that both the father and Sonny were feeling uncomfortable with the system, but whereas the father wanted to suppress that system through oblivion, that is through alcohol, Sonny decided to hide from it, into himself. Despite both Sonny and the father having “that same privacy,” one can appreciate how indeed Sonny’s father was greatly characterized by his external environment and how, in some way, he adjusted to it, and how Sonny was not succumbed by the system but rather pushed away from it (114). Ultimately, oppressed people are either broken down by the system or alienated away from it. As a result, a colored individual is only left with the option to look into himself for new frameworks he or she can conform to, which leads to alienation from family and thus to disorientation- an identity crisis.
While there is a sort of disorientation as Taylor mentions, one must note that the disorientation happens because of the pressure to fit into the framework these commitments strongly suggest the individual conform to and not because of the process of rebelling against said system. The disorientation, thus, results in the inability to adapt to the values from the established system. In “Sonny’s Blues” Sonny’s brother, the story’s narrator, shortly begins his story by affirming that “Sonny was wild, but he wasn’t crazy” (103). In this statement, the reader gets a distant, yet caring view of Sonny from his brother. His brother endorses the oddity Sonny encapsulates through his wild nature but shows a sort of understanding about Sonny’s differences from the rest of the family and even the community.
Further, he does not attribute any illegitimacy to Sonny’s feelings or actions, because he stated Sonny was not crazy. While he does not fully understand Sonny’s thoughts, the narrator does illuminate the reader of Sonny’s struggles and doubts. After attempting to convince Sonny to finish school, Sonny feels cornered and displays his worry and thoughtfulness “the way shadows play on a face which was staring into the fire” (124). Baldwin’s constant use of light and darkness helps illustrate this point much better. Using the typical symbolism of light as truth (or the known) and darkness as the unknown, Baldwin portrays a struggle at this moment; a struggle of looking ceaselessly for the truth, or even for some understanding, while being haunted by something familiar, by his inner “shadows” that provide more comfort than fear. As a result, the non-conformist individual feels lonely in his struggle and to avoid feeling like this, he attempts to adjust to the system and its frameworks, for the sake of remaining close to his loved ones.
Nonetheless, the non-conformist individual fails to readjust because he ultimately escapes back into the familiar unknown that provides a better framework of commitments he identifies with. Consequently, his friends and relatives that have succumbed and adapted to the normal, oppressive system regard him as the Other, questioning his identity and humanity. Despite Sonny telling his brother he “don’t want to stay in Harlem no more,” Sonny decides to try to adapt to the environment (Harlem) and to find a balance between going to school, a commitment from the system, and playing music, a commitment from his unknown (123).
Through time, it becomes apparent Sonny’s inclination to the commitment of his unknown (music) is far greater than to his commitment to the known (education). Sonny is too immersed in his music that he does not act like other “people” within the system and this leads to Isabel, the narrator’s wife, confessing to the narrator that living with Sonny “wasn’t like living with a person at all, it was like living with sound” (124). Isabel noticed Sonny’s presence in the house but not its humanity because the humanity, or rather the identity, of Sonny was not identified within the frameworks of their social system. As a result, Sonny was reduced to a sound, something that exists but that is out of touch, “as though Sonny were some sort of god, or monster” (125).
Therefore, when it became apparent Sonny was dedicating more time to music than education, his close social circle- Isabel and her family- reacted through indignation and confusion: emotions familiar to Sonny. Because of the volatile and familiar nature of these feelings, they were able to “penetrate his cloud … and reach him;” not the sound, but the person (125). As a result, Sonny quietly left them to find meaning in his loneliness through a bit of violence.
The non-conformist individual needs to be alone to have a clear space and develop new social frameworks that help define who he is or who he can be. However, this lonely process requires some sort of violence and suffering. On an occasion where Sonny had been living with his brother and his family, the narrator encountered Sonny outside of the house looking at a revival meeting and saw Sonny carrying a notebook that “made him look … almost like a schoolboy” (129). The narrator portrays a picture of innocence from the angle he observes Sonny; his brother looks at the revival with a curiosity and yearning to learn, to understand what the actors in the revival were attempting to get across. Ultimately, the only thing Sonny can relate with the actors is the suffering they portray through their art.
As a result, the narrator and Sonny began conversing about suffering and Sonny begins to question why someone must go through suffering to express who they are or what they believe in. Sonny admits to his brother that one tries to “keep from drowning in this” suffering, or disorientation, “and to make it seem- well like you” (132). Identity is what determines the choices one makes, thus when Sonny states the aforementioned, it implies there is a disconnection- leading to the suffering- between the environment and the identity of the individual. In other words, the suffering involved is like the body rejecting an organ that does not belong to it; the difference is that in this case, the mind and soul reject the commitments because it does not suit the identity. Therefore, there is a sort of external violence the non-conformist individual experiences so that the internal and familiar unknown is not affected. Thus, to escape the external rejection, the individual looks into himself for comfort and identification.
As a result, after the suffering and failure to conform to one’s environment, the non-conformist individual begins to look into himself to finally start developing their identity; this process is cathartic and sensual for the individual and those that surround him. After finally agreeing to see Sonny play with his friends, the narrator feels outside of his world, in “Sonny’s world. Or rather, his kingdom” where, like Taylor would state, the given “name and genealogy” did not matter, only the empathetic connection one had with others (136). Already at the beginning of this scene, one can observe the narrator’s difficulty in adjusting to this unknown world, but also of Sonny’s comfort and adaptation in an environment that provides new frameworks he can finally identify with.
Further, the unknown that was inside of Sonny is exposed as a “roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air” (137). Once again, a small hint of violence was present for the breakthrough but, most importantly, the sound finally gained an identity: Sonny. Through the remainder of Sonny’s performance, the narrator’s senses are enhanced, and he feels, he observes, and he listens. In the end, “Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life” and in spite of the fact Sonny began playing the initial song that was not his, “he began to make it his” (140). The fact Baldwin decided to end the story with so much released, so much noise and so much identity creates the freedom that Sonny kept hidden throughout the story but that he at last released. After the battle with the environment’s social and cultural commitments and identifications, Sonny was able to discover its own and release it to have others see “there was no battle in his face” anymore (140).
Charles Taylor’s claim of an environment shaping an individual’s identity is something that is not easily refuted. An individual’s experiences are what molds his identity and most of these come about from an environment he is in. However, the influence of the environment on the individual depends on the magnitude and nature of said environment. As a result, an individual in the wrong type of environment will find a loss in their identity because of the lack of connection the individual has with the surrounding. Thus, the disorientation occurs as a symptom, not of the lack of either the individual or the environment, but of the lack of connectivity with both.
Ultimately, those oppressed will sometimes find comfort from a particular and not a general, social environment; perhaps amongst the shadows, where they are driven to hide and die or grow. As a result, those that are the exception like Sonny, grow into something, or rather someone, different and powerful; they become music in the midst of silence.