In 1950s Harlem, biblical language seemed to be inextricably intertwined with African American culture. Spirituals and hymns were sung both inside and outside of church, people testified on the streets, and God was unashamedly referenced in everyday conversation. In James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues,” one can find such dialogue scattered throughout the lengthy text, which so eloquently and meaningfully describes the plight of Sonny, the narrator’s brother who struggles with a heroin addiction. Baldwin’s spiritual references flow smoothly and seamlessly throughout this story, effortlessly averting offense and confusion on the part of the reader—until the last line of the story, that is. Even the most avid of biblical scholars risks altogether missing the meaning of the following sentences:
…after a while I saw the girl put a Scotch and milk on the top of the piano for Sonny. He didn’t seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and nodded. Then he put it back on top of the piano. For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling (Norton, 93).
The “cup of trembling” mentioned here is representative of the wrath of God. In Isaiah 51:22-23, God promises Israel that He will take this “cup” from them and put it into the hands of their adversaries. Thus, the following questions arise: who are Sonny’s enemies, and how will the “cup of trembling” be passed to them? Rather than bringing torment on the individual “enemies” Sonny might have, the passing of the “cup of trembling” is intended to relieve Sonny of the broader circumstances that have tormented him all his life, including his discouraging social environment and his harrowing internal struggles.
The above-mentioned environment in which Sonny grows up leaves him all at once surrounded and alone—brutal racism, overwhelming class disparity, disinterested teachers, and drug-pushing friends pressing in on him from all sides with no help in sight. Perhaps the most shocking parallel to Sonny’s “cup of trembling” lies in the horrifying act of racism that ended the life of his uncle, a musician like Sonny. In the words of the narrator’s mother, “Your father says he heard his brother scream when the car rolled over him, and he heard the wood of that guitar when it gave, and he heard the strings go flying, and he heard them white men shouting, and the car kept on a-going and it ain’t stopped till this day” (Norton, 77). These words bear striking resemblance to Isaiah 51:23: “But I will put [the cup of trembling] into the hand of them that afflict thee; which have said to thy soul, Bow down, that we may go over: and thou hast laid thy body as the ground, and as the street, to them that went over.” Sonny’s uncle, so like Sonny himself, embodied this verse in the most literal sense possible: his adversaries (a group of drunk white men) “laid [his] body as the ground” (King James Bible, Isaiah 51:23) beneath their car tires. In a broader sense, the same is gradually being done to Sonny—not by a car full of white men but by the society that such men have created. Growing up in Harlem, in the middle of this culture, children’s “…heads bumped abruptly against the low ceilings of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage” (Norton, 67). With uncaring, indifferent teachers and authority figures (Norton, 68), children like Sonny were left to the influences of their peers when it came to dealing with this rage. “I never give Sonny nothing,” confesses his old friend from high school, “but a long time ago I come to school high and Sonny asked me how it felt… I told him it felt great” (Norton, 70). In Sonny’s case, it didn’t take the deliberate action of another person to destroy his life. He was so downtrodden by his circumstances that the mere suggestion of finding happiness in drugs was enough.
This personal weakness on Sonny’s part is also a formidable enemy to his well-being—yet another receptacle for the “cup of trembling.” In a letter he writes to his brother from prison, he confesses, “I can’t tell you much about how I got here. I mean I don’t know how to tell you. I guess I was afraid of something or I was trying to escape from something and you know I have never been very strong in the head…” (Norton, 71). Sonny’s struggles with fear and their translation to addiction torment him inwardly as much as his surroundings do outwardly. He lacks stability, peace of mind, contentment, freedom—all vital, to an extent, to human happiness. In an effort to fill this void, he allows the unstable hand of addiction to take the wheel. After he is released from prison, he feels compelled to remind his brother that “it can come again” (Norton, 89). Out of desire for escape, he has given in to the inescapable, allowing his demons to entrap him even further in the darkness he fears. In a way, Sonny himself is his own oppressor. The torment he feels and the poor choices he makes as a result stifle him just as his surroundings have. In this instance, the recipient of the “cup of trembling” matters far less than the fact that it is being taken away from Sonny, freeing him of the burdens he carries within.
The question remains, however: is Sonny truly free? As the story concludes, neither Sonny’s internal nor external struggles are done away with for good. The “cup of trembling” still “[glows] and [shakes] above [his] head” (Norton, 93), ready to return to him at any time. Perhaps vengeance on racism and the elimination of mental turmoil are not the only way for this story to end well. Even if only for a moment, the “cup” has been taken from Sonny as his fingers glide across the keys—and that is where the significance of this story lies. The passing of the “cup of trembling” does not symbolize final victory or immediate vengeance for any party involved. Instead, it represents the moments of triumph that shine through in times of trembling—the raw beauty and freedom that come from acknowledging pain and allowing others to hear it, feel it, and understand it, so that they might do the same.
Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, Mays, Kelly J., 2017, pp. 67-93.
King James Version. Bible Gateway, www.biblegateway.com. Accessed 19 Sep. 2018.