‘Talk To The Music’ by Arna Bontemps

Bontemps, Arna 1971

Talk To The Music by Arna Bontemps, 1971

The magic trick:

The single paragraph describing Storyville

It is only one paragraph, but it’s a remarkable description of the Storyville part of New Orleans. It is the part of town where Mayme Dupree sings. The part of town where the blues live. The part of town where the real-world struggle of adult southern black life exists. The part of town where our young narrator, Norman, longs to grow up. One paragraph sums it up brilliantly (especially the part about desire). And that’s quite a trick on Bontemps’s part.

The selection:

The lights were coming on in Storyville as we reached the district, and there was a good bit of going and coming in the streets. Saloons were hitting it up, and in some the tinkle of glasses dissolved into a background of ragtime piano thumping. But the overall mood, as I sensed it, was grim, and furtive shadows moved along the street. Can desire be anything but sad? I wondered as the carriage pulled up beside an ornate hitching post. I jumped out and waited for Mayme to put her foot on a large square-cut steppingstone.

‘One Christmas Eve’ by Langston Hughes

Hughes, Langston 1933

One Christmas Eve by Langston Hughes, 1933

The magic trick:

Showing how typical, happy white Christmas activities of the 30s could take away from the black Christmas experience

Just as we saw in Chekhov’s masterful “Gooseberries,” Langston Hughes reminds us that everyone functions as part of a community. The things you enjoy – even the seemingly innocuous pleasures of Christmastime – can have negative consequences for someone else.

In “One Christmas Eve,” the white characters of the story don’t commit any crimes; they don’t show any egregious hate beyond the norm of their 1930s American society. And yet their actions limit the Christmas cheer for the story’s black characters.

The family for whom Arcie works is late coming home from shopping, keeping Arcie away from her son on Christmas Eve. The Missus doesn’t have Arcie’s promised pay. Societal segregation keeps Arcie and her son, Joe, from fully enjoying the splendor of the town decked out for the holidays. When Joe innocently wanders into the white movie theatre, he is shooed away by the white man dressed as Santa Claus.

Hughes makes this point abundantly clear throughout the story by describing the scenes with positive adjectives. The tree is “lovely;” the snow is “pretty;” the children look “happy.” These descriptions contrast directly with the way in which Arcie’s point of view is related. She is stressed, angry, embittered, and world-weary. Nights like this, we are made to see, will soon do the same to young Joe as well. It is a sad, but important, side of Christmas in the 1930s. And that’s quite a trick on Hughes’s part.

The selection:

“O-oo! Lookee…,” little Joe kept saying, and pointing at things in the windows. How warm and pretty the lights were, and the shops, and the electric signs through the snow.

It took Arcie more than a dollar to get Joe’s mittens and things he needed. In the A&P Arcie bought a big bag of hard candies for forty-nine cents. And then she guided Joe through the crowd on the street until they came to the dime store. Near the ten-cent store they passed a moving picture theatre. Joe said he wanted to go in and see the movies.

Arcie said, “Ump-un! No, child! This ain’t Baltimore where they have shows for colored, too. In these here small towns, don’t let colored folks in. We can’t go in there.”

“Oh,” said little Joe.

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‘This Morning, This Evening, So Soon’ by James Baldwin

Baldwin, James 1960

This Morning, This Evening, So Soon by James Baldwin, 1960

The magic trick:

Jumping between present, past, and future to reflect the story’s ideas about time and identity

Time, place, and identity loom large over this story, so it makes sense that Baldwin jumbles up all three elements throughout the unfolding of the narration. Our narrator, a nightclub singer who is moving back to the United States after 12 years in Paris, discusses a morning and evening in the present tense. But he also bounces back and forth between different memories from his past in America and France, all the while anticipating his feelings about adapting to an uncertain future. Some of it has a tendency to ramble, and I’m not sure some of the racial comparisons and contrasts always add up, but the point is made clear: one’s sense of identity is a complex thing, especially for an African-American expatriate in the 1950s. And that’s quite a trick on Baldwin’s part.

The selection:

Once I had been an expert at baffling these people, at setting their teeth on edge, and dancing just outside the trap laid for me. But I was not an expert now. These faces were no longer merely the faces of two white men, who were my enemies. They were the faces of two white men in accordance with what I knew of their cowardice and their needs and their strategy.

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‘Sonny’s Blues’ by James Baldwin

baldwin, james 1956

Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin, 1957

The magic trick:

Getting to the essence of Sonnys character

So many stories – even the good ones – describe characters in only adjectives or maybe the author lets the characters show themselves through actions. And that’s OK, but Baldwin is on a whole other level here in the way he portrays Sonny. The narrator spends the entire story trying to get to fully understand his younger brother, so it allows the reader to take the same journey. And Baldwin delivers a complete picture.

The narrator blends a combination of analysis, family memories, and accounts of interactions with Sonny, to give the reader a multi-faceted vision of his brother. The most effective is the analysis, in which Baldwin – through his narrator – shows uncommon insight into the human condition. My favorite instance of this is the narrator’s description of both his father and brother as having “that same privacy.” It’s a subtle human characteristic – detachment without malice – that often escapes notice in art and even in real life. Baldwin catches it and highlights it beautifully in this story.

“Sonny’s Blues” is about many specifics: 1950s urban America, the pre-Civil Rights Era African-American experience, jazz, poverty, and drug addiction, to name a few. But the way in which Baldwin is able to cut to the core of his characters, especially Sonny, gives the story a timeless quality that transcends race, genre, and era. And that’s quite a trick on Baldwin’s part.

The selection:

They began, in a way, to be afflicted by this presence that was living in their home. It was as though Sonny were some sort of god, or monster. He moved in an atmosphere which wasn’t like theirs at all. They fed him and he ate, he washed himself, he walked in and out of their door; he certainly wasn’t nasty or unpleasant or rude, Sonny isn’t any of those things; but it was as though he were all wrapped up in some cloud, some fire, some vision all his own; and there wasn’t any way to reach him.