“If they moved into the light too suddenly …they would perish in the flame.” This is a line from the James Baldwin classic short story, Sonny’s Blues. The story is an account of the narrator’s encounter with his younger brother and the discovery of who he truly is. Set in Harlem, there is a menacing darkness that looms over the city throughout the book, and even takes on the role of a character itself who antagonizes Sonny, his parents, and the entire city. Themes such as brotherly love and the prevalence of rage and fury are explored in the story that remains a perfectly crafted fiction.
Here is a little history on the Harlem Renaissance which produced writers such as Baldwin:
WWI created an influx of African-American families to New York, where there was a need for industrial labor. An “overt racial pride” developed and an emergence of the “new negro” took place. You can best translate this as a group of Black artists who wanted to move away from the stereotypes placed on them after years of bondage and an inability to express their God-given gifts and talents. Through intellect and the production of literature, art, and music, they would go on to challenge pervading racism. My favorite line from the story comes when the narrator finally gets to see his brother as a pianist on stage. His observance of the scene is profound and moving for those who understand the complexity of music, and even for those who do not.
Sometimes students get on a roll of receiving accolades and awards for doing well on tests or making the goal in the game from the night before. Then the weekend rolls around, everyone forgets about last week’s games and tests, and the fifteen minutes of fame are over. How can educators prolong the spotlight for students, as to not perish in the flame?
Helping students to develop confidence in their abilities is a great first step. By helping students realize their abilities and then putting them into action by joining clubs, sports, or other extracurricular activities, you can indulge their efforts and figure out how to make them last. Much of the music listened to by youths today is inspired by the Harlem Renaissance—dances too. These include the shuffle, certain jazz combinations, and the contemporized swing. All of these dances contributing to pop culture also help to motivate students to try new things. This is exactly what creatives from the Harlem Renaissance did. They saw their talents, worked at them, and presented them when ready. This helped them connect during a time that was incredibly difficult for people of color.
Sonny did not have the support of his brother at first. Students who do not have the support of their family often struggle in eliciting talents and exuding positivity. By making sure parents get involved via PTA or homework checks, you can make sure they are playing a role in their student’s life. The Harlem Renaissance was a rebirth for many artists and an opportunity to step into the spotlight without fear of perishing in the flame, we can do the same for students.
Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” [Online PDF] Purdue.edu, https://www.cla.purdue.edu/from-plessy-to-brown/activities/James%20Baldwin.pdf