In the 1980s, James Baldwin recognized that a major transformation had occurred in the
socio-political functions of religion. His critique adapted accordingly, focusing on the
ways in which religion—particularly white evangelical Christianity—had morphed into a
movement deeply enmeshed with mass media, conservativepolitics, and late capitalism.
Religion in the Reagan era was leveraged, sold, and consumed in ways never before seen,
from charismatic televangelists, to Christian-themed amusement parks, to mega-churches.
The new movement was often characterized as the “religious right” or the “Moral Majority”
and was central to both Reagan’s political coalition as well as the broader culture wars.
For Baldwin, this development had wide-ranging ramifications for society and the
individual. This article draws on Baldwin’s final major essay, “To Crush the Serpent”
(1987), to examine the author’s evolving thoughts on religion, salvation, and
transgression in the context of the Reagan era.
From the time of his early adolescence until his death, traveling was one of, if not the,
driving force of James Baldwin’s life. He traveled to escape, he travelled to discover,
and he traveled because traveling was a way of knowing himself, of realizing his
This is the first English language publication of an interview with James Baldwin
(1924–87) conducted by Nazar Büyüm in 1969, Istanbul, Turkey. Deemed too long for
conventional publication at the time, the interview re-emerged last year and reveals
Baldwin’s attitudes about his literary antecedents and influences such as Richard Wright,
Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen; his views concerning the “roles” and “duties” of a
writer; his assessment of his critics; his analysis of the power and message of the Nation
of Islam; his lament about the corpses that are much of the history and fact of American
life; an honest examination of the relationship of poor whites to American blacks; an
interrogation of the “sickness” that characterizes Americans’ commitment to the fiction
and mythology of “race,” as well as the perils and seductive nature of American power.
The webs of musical connection are essential to the harmony and cohesion of James
Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” As a result, we must explore the spectrum of musical references
Baldwin makes to unveil their delicate conjunctions. It is vital to probe the traditions
of African-American music—Spirituals, Blues, Jazz, and Pop—to get a more comprehensive
sense of how Baldwin makes use of music from the sacred and secular continuum in the
African-American community. Looking more closely at the variety of African-American
musical genres to which Baldwin refers in the story, we can discern even more the nuances
of unity that Baldwin creates in his story through musical allusions, and shed greater
light on Baldwin’s exploration of the complexities of African-American life and music, all
of which have as their core elements of human isolation, loneliness, and despair
ameliorated by artistic expression, hope, and the search for familial ties. Through
musical intertextuality, Baldwin demonstrates not only how closely related seemingly
disparate (in the Western tradition) musical genres are, but also shows that the elements
of the community that these genres flow from and represent are much more in
synchronization than they sometimes seem or are allowed to be. To realize kinship across
familial (Creole), socio-economic (the brother), and most importantly for this paper
appreciation and meanings of musical genres advances to Sonny the communal cup of
trembling that is both a mode and an instance of envisioning and treating music in its
unifying terms, seeing how they coalesce through a holistic vision.