In James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues,” an unnamed narrator recounts his family’s struggle with death and addiction. The titular character, Sonny, is the brother of the aforementioned narrator and the focal point of the events that take place in the story. The narrator promised to always look out for his brother’s well-being to his dying mother, and it is the struggle of that promise that not only changes the narrator, but set young Sonny on a path of both destruction and redemption as well. Baldwin, using a dark lens, provides a stark commentary about at risk and troubled African American youth and their limited outlets to escape the harsh realities of growing up in 60’s Harlem.
The story begins when the narrator finds a newspaper article which reveals that Sonny had been arrested in connection with the trafficking and usage of heroin. He was on his way to teach his high school class, a thought that would linger with him throughout the lesson. Seeing the many similarities between his students and his brother, he is forced to both recognize the parallels and empathize with both respective struggles. The key imagery in this section of the story is the use of ice, cold and darkness to reflect the narrator’s feelings. The first instance of this is found after the news article reveals Sonny’s arrest. The narrator is making his way to the high school where he teaches and describes the journey as being “trapped in the darkness.“ (Feinstein and Rife 17). He then goes on to describe his emotional peaks and valleys artfully using imagery of contracting and expanding ice. “A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long…It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less” (Feinstein and Rife 17). As he teaches the class, this reoccurring idea of darkness is depicted as both an escape from the status quo and a reminder of the all-encompassing darkness that shrouds the lives of these young men. They use the movies as an outlet, and in the darkness of this outlet, the boys use it as relief and a form of solitude.
After school, the narrator is confronted by a friend of Sonny’s, who was himself struggling with drug addiction. He was looking for the narrator to give him news of his brother. There is something to be said about the connection the message given and the messenger himself. There is the literal message of the news, but there is also the subtext of the friend’s presence. He is yet another reminder of Sonny’s predicament. The narrator questioned the friend on why he wasn’t apprehended, to which the friend responded that he wasn’t associated with that particular group of people. It is hard to ignore the similar connection that the narrator has with the friend and Sonny. The narrator reveals that he struggled to maintain a relationship with the friend, mainly due to the age difference. “The seven years’ difference in our ages lay between us like a chasm” (Feinstein and Rife 17 21 This idea is also referenced later in the story, after the death of the mother. One can see that as the narrator has two take on a more fatherly role due to the loss of his parents, his relationship with his brother is strained due to conflicting ideas of what would be best for Sonny. Even though Sonny eventually sets off on his own path in the Navy, it still occurs to the narrator that he made a promise to his mom to take care of his little brother and to be there for him. In the same way, the narrator didn’t have a good relationship with Sonny’s friend, but that doesn’t stop him from giving him spare change in the past as well as after they part ways in the subway, where the narrator gives the friend above and beyond what he promised. This comes after the friend and narrator discuss the possibility that Sonny may never recover from his addiction and that he is caught in a cycle of drug usage and imprisonment.
This dedication to help is what fuels the narrator to fulfil his mother’s dying wish as the story progresses. To this point, the relationship between the two brothers is tumultuous. The reader learns in the latter part of the story that the death of mother caused another rift between the two brothers and placed at odds. The mother, worried about the safety of her youngest child, revealed to the narrator the death of his uncle and the importance of taking care of your kin. After a night of drinking, the uncle was run down by a truck of drunk white men. This setting evokes the previously mentioned ideas of darkness and drug use. The event took place in the darkness, which serves as both a cover from the reality of daily life and as a reminder of the unknown and dangerous. This does two things. The first, it creates a new dynamic in the relationship between brothers, as it was now on the narrator to make sure Sonny was taken care of and also acts as another divide to their connection as brothers. Secondly, it instills in the narrator a sense of purpose. This could also relate in the narrator’s choice of profession. Perhaps as a teacher, he could shape the minds of those who remind him of his brother as penance for ignoring his promise for so long.
It was only after losing his daughter did the narrator decide to write his brother while he was incarcerated. It was after this correspondence that the relationship between the brothers began to flourish. They began to exchange letters and the narrator even ventured to see him while in prison. Once Sonny finished his time and was released to start anew, it was his brother, the narrator, who was there to greet him after his first steps of renewed freedom. It was as if seeing each other for the first time. “He looked very unlike my baby brother. Yet, when he smiled, when we shook hands, the baby brother id never known looked out from the depths of his private life, like an animal waiting to be coaxed into the light.” (Feinstein and Rife 23). When the brothers are riding home in a taxi, Sonny requests that they take a longer ride around the city so that he can begin to become acclimated with it once again. The idea of physical changes in relation to structural sameness comes forth during this ride. Just as the narrator had a hard time recognizing this new Sonny, Sonny too has his own troubles recognizing the streets of his childhood. Where the houses of his youth once stood now are occupied by project housing. It took the feeling of each other’s hands and the warmth of a smile for the narrator to recognize Sonny. It was Sonny’s connection to the people that reminded him that the streets that he grew up on were the same. These “dark people” (Feinstein and Rife 25), whose lives were so similar to his own, who had experienced some of the same firsts and hung out in the same spots reminded the brothers that these were in fact the same streets that they grew up on, despite the structural changes. The feeling of the streets remained the same.
This connection to the streets eased the tension between the two brothers, but it was not dissolved completely. They had had a communication problem and Sonny’s silent nature didn’t help. They talked very little on the ride home and even still after they finished dinner. It was easier for the narrator’s family to find that connection with Sonny. This could be due to the previously mentioned divide between the characters. The narrator is filled again with “icy dread” which inhibits him from expressing to Sonny how he felt now that he was back (Feinstein and Rife 26). He was preoccupied with the matter of Sonny’s addiction. The narrator could not help but only look for signs of drug use, a feeling that was reinforced earlier in the story by Sonny’s begging friend. The narrator then goes on in this worried state throughout the rest of the story. He continues to struggle with respect for Sonny’s personal independence and the narrator’s need to know if Sonny was safe from the evils of drug use. An example of this could be found after the narrator recounts the passing of his daughter. On a Saturday, as Sonny had been gone, the narrator had been trying to work up the courage to search Sonny’s room for any drug paraphernalia and admits that he wouldn’t know what to do even if he found some. After witnessing a street side revival service, Sonny and the narrator finally talk about his drug use and how it relates to his selected craft. Sonny had dedicated himself to learning the piano after being forced to live with his family in law. He revealed his intention to become a jazz musician. At the time, the narrator felt it necessary to question his intention, believing that this was a fool hearty career path. This disagreement eventually leads to Sonny using the Navy to escape his school and home life. Sonny then provides the reader some insight as to why he would succumb to such an addiction. Sonny admits that there is something that heroin provides to his music that maybe would not come out otherwise. It gives a sense of connection to the reality of the music maker. It is the suffering that makes the music real.
At the end of the story, Sonny has invited his brother to watch him play. It turns out to be a cathartic experience for both individuals, as the narrator has an up close and personal view of Sonny’s musical interpretation of pain, and it appears to have an impact on how the narrator views his brother. To see him in his element gave the narrator insights about Sonny and about the people that hold him in such a high regard. He had played his pain for his brother to hear, and in this way, communicated more efficiently than words could. It was through his music that Sonny told his story, a story that contained a multitude of characters, both in terms of notes played and the feelings they stirred.
Sonny’s Blues does a great exploring family dynamics in times of crisis and hardship. Both Sonny and the narrator are forced to cope with the uncertainties of life. For the narrator, Sonny was a reminder of the realities of living as a poor African American in Harlem with only a limited number of opportunities to escape, with music and the military being the most prominent. For Sonny, the narrator served as a catalyst for change. It was after the disagreement that Sonny decided that the navy would be better than living in a home where he never felt accepted. Baldwin uses these characters to depict black life in Harlem. For many, there is always a feeling of uncertainty and in these uncertainties, people will make decisions based on avoiding or lessening that uncertain existence.
Feinstein, Sascha, et al. “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin.” The Jazz Fiction Anthology, Indiana University Press, 2009, pp. 17-48