On February 26, lanky African-American teen Trayvon Martin, armed with an Arizona Iced Tea and Skittles from the local 7-Eleven, returned to the Sanford, Fla. gated community where his father's girlfriend lived.--- Martin's 6'3" frame, hoodie sweatshirt and, according to many, the color of his skin provoked a deadly response from George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old local crime watch volunteer. Zimmerman reported the suspicious-looking Martin to the police, who essentially instructed him to stand down. Instead, Zimmerman confronted Martin; a struggle ensued; and Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin dead.
The ensuing fervor touched open wounds of racism that author James Baldwin so powerfully portrays in his 1957 short story, "Sonny's Blues." Ironically, the profound social frustration experienced by Baldwin's Harlem protagonist of the 1950s may shed as much understanding upon Zimmerman's violent motivations as on the sadness of Martin's family, friends and supporting community.
The classic short story "Sonny's Blues" begins one morning before school in Harlem, when the narrator (Sonny's brother) reads in the newspaper that Sonny has been arrested for heroin possession in Greenwich Village. Estranged for several years from his brother, the narrator reflects upon the increasingly edgy disenchantment of the adolescent students he teaches throughout the day, the gritty Harlem neighborhood and the decayed housing project where he lives. All around the narrator are the walls of a racist system that cage his opportunities for happiness and fulfillment. He reflects upon the struggles of his parents, both of whom died prematurely in this environment—his father from the bottle and his mother from exhaustion, despite her devout belief in God. Neither religion, drink nor work can transcend the disillusionment of a life pigeonholed by pigment.
The narrator tries several times to escape racism. He joins the armed forces and ventures overseas for many years, and upon return, trains for a professional life as a math teacher. Nothing proves uplifting, as the narrator ends up living only a few blocks from the razed home of his youth.
Sonny, the narrator's younger brother, attempts transcendence through art, namely piano. Sonny studies the great jazz keyboardists and practices with integrity, searching for the key that transcends his qualified existence. Sonny eventually quits school and gravitates to the jazz clubs of Greenwich Village, but he cannot escape the dark social forces at work there. Somewhere along the way, heroin becomes his only genuine avenue to lay out all that black and white suffering sincerely upon the piano keys.
“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” Sonny says, “—that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You gotta find a way to listen.”
"Sonny's Blues" ends with reconciliation, when the narrator attends his brother's jazz show in a Village nightclub, Sonny's first performance since arrest and heroin withdrawal. Sonny is nervous and shaky to begin, but soon, all suffering floods back through the music and the moment.
In many ways, the suffering within "Sonny's Blues" is the same tragedy faced by Trayvon Martin, his family, a community and our nation. Oddly enough, this very institutionalized classism may explain the uber-aggressiveness of George Zimmerman. The volunteer neighborhood watchman was not a "white" man shooting down a "black" man; he was a Latino attempting his own transcendence through a Captain America moment. Zimmerman strove upward through a fading, yet longstanding prism of "white male dominance" in America. His powerlessness and frustration fueled Zimmerman's most dangerous dance, just as Sonny's fingers stroked the powerful heroin needle.
Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of Mrs. Sona Choudhury's raising of her family amidst the ingrained sexual stereotypes of 20th Century India.