Sonny’s Blues’ by James Baldwin revolves around Sonny and his elder brother, and the former’s drug addiction, arrest, his passion for music and his brother’s initial and eventual responses to it, all happening against the backdrop of racism in Harlem.
‘Sonny’s Blues’ was first published in Partisan Review in 1957. It was later published in the collection Going to Meet the Man.
Sonny’s Blues | Summary
The story opens with the narrator, who is unnamed throughout the story, reading in the newspaper that his younger brother, Sonny, has been arrested for ‘peddling and using’ heroin. The narrator is an algebra teacher and while taking a class that day he remembers the younger Sonny. The grave realization dawns upon him that his present students might someday become drug addicts themselves, given the hardships they face growing up in Harlem. As the narrator heads home that day, he comes across one of Sonny’s old friends, who is always ‘high and raggy’ and who always takes money from people. They walk together and talk about Sonny. The friend clearly tells the narrator how difficult Sonny’s life as a drug addict has been and how it will continue to be so even after he is released from prison. The narrator pities the man and gives him five dollars when he asks for one.
The narrator writes to Sonny in prison only after his young daughter, Grace, dies. Sonny writes a long reply, one that makes the narrator feel miserable and guilty. Sonny explains in that letter how he ended up as a drug addict but he makes it clear that it has nothing to do with his being a musician. The two brothers then stay in touch. When Sonny is released, the narrator takes him to his own home.
Now we get a long flashback where the narrator reminisces about his father who died before he could have things his way. Also, Sonny and their father used to fight with each other because they were very alike. The narrator recalls the last day he saw his mother while on leave from the army when she told him to take care of Sonny. She further told him that when his father was a young man, he watched his own brother get run down by a car full of drunken white men. This experience traumatized the narrator’s father and he grew suspicious of all white people. The narrator had never known about this brother his father had.
The narrator then went back into the army and did not think about his brother again until their mother died. After the funeral, the two brothers had a conversation about Sonny’s future. Sonny stated his dream of becoming a jazz pianist. The narrator was worried about his brother’s future. The narrator arranged for Sonny to live with his wife’s family until Sonny finished his college-education. Sonny agreed hesitantly. Sonny played the piano in the new house as much as he could, so much so that the other people felt as if they were living with not a man but sound.
While living with his sister-in-law, Sonny started skipping school. A letter from the school eventually made it to the house and revealed this. When his sister-in-law’s mother questioned him about the letter, Sonny admitted to spending all his time in Greenwich Village, hanging out with musicians in a white person’s establishment. The women let Sonny know how many sacrifices they were making in order to support Sonny. After two days, Sonny left the house and joined the navy. The narrator didn’t know whether Sonny was dead or alive until he got a postcard from him, from Greece. After the war, the two brothers returned to New York, but they didn’t see each other often. When they did meet, they would fight about Sonny’s future and his decisions in life. After one especially difficult fight, Sonny declared to his brother that he could consider him dead from then onwards. The narrator walked away in dismay.
In the present, after Sonny has lived with him for a few weeks, the narrator considers searching Sonny’s room for signs of the addiction coming back. As he paces back and forth, he sees a street-corner revival outside his window. Sonny attends the event for a while. When Sonny comes home, the two brothers have a long conversation that reveals several things about Sonny’s life and his passion for music. He invites his brother to watch him perform later that night. The two brothers go to a small jazz club. Sonny is immensely popular in the club; he is widely loved and respected. Sonny and the band get on stage and play, and as they play, the narrator watches Sonny struggle with the music at first. But gradually, Sonny’s talents and passions come to life and captivate the whole room. The two brothers share a poignant moment of bonding, as the story closes with the narrator seeing how Sonny uses music to keep his pains and frustrations at bay.
‘Sonny’s Blues’ | Analysis
The story takes place in Harlem. The famed Harlem Renaissance was a period in the 1920s when the region produced immensely talented artists from among its black population who had started migrating to the north of America from the south. But it also had the other side where Harlem was seen as the seat of vice and poverty, issues dealt with in the story. It is hard to say with certainty which war the story talks about but it could be anything from WW2 to the Korean War.
‘Sonny’s Blues’ | Themes
Drug addiction is a central theme of the story, no doubt, but it must also be understood against the backdrop of the race issue brought out in the story. People like Sonny resort to drugs as a means of coping with the various frustrations life presents to them because they are black in a racially divided country. When the narrator wonders how his students might as well be drug addicts themselves like Sonny, he observes:
These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses…
The rage and frustration of black Americans find constant mention in the story. And there are passages that remark on how the racial discriminations against them are yet to change after so many years. While going through Harlem with Sonny in a cab, the narrator ponders about the past and the present:
… houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by a disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, … It might be said, perhaps, that I had escaped, after all, I was a school teacher; or that Sonny had, he hadn’t lived in Harlem for years.
The mention of the ‘trap’ is significant. For the narrator and Sonny and for many others, Harlem is an obscure corner where opportunities do not trickle down. They have an urgent urge to leave this place (“Look, brother. I don’t want to stay in Harlem no more, I really don’t” says Sonny to the narrator when the latter suggests that he try to complete his college education before trying to start a career).
Against the theme of racism, and tied with it, is the theme of family. ‘Sonny’s Blues’ cannot be deemed just another tale of brotherly and filial encounters because here the relationships are very much guided by the fact that they are all black people. For example, Sonny’s parents and his elder brother worry about his future so much precisely because not many decent opportunities are available for black people, and it is easy to resort to ways like drug addiction when young black people encounter failures and rejections in life. When Sonny describes how drugs can make one feel ‘in control’ and how one has ‘got to have that feeling’ sometimes, it is clear that drugs conjure up a pleasant albeit transient amnesia that helps people like Sonny cope up with the harshness of the reality they face. To provide another example highlighting how race and family concerns are tightly linked in the story, the narrator’s father had a brother who was killed by a group of drunken white people who were trying to have some fun at his cost. This incident of losing his brother like that traumatizes the narrator’s father for the rest of his life. In the world where ‘Sonny’s Blues’ takes place, parents carry a bit more for their sons, and elder brothers for their younger brothers, because of the color of their skin.
In addition to highlighting the issue of drug addiction in the story, the author also subtly brings about the various discourses surrounding the same, giving the readers multiple perspectives on what might encourage people to take up drugs after all. One might consider pondering over the famous question posed by Langston Hughes in discussing this aspect of the story: ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’
There is a sense of futility and pessimism running through much of the story; the narrator remarks at several places how their parents witnessed racism and its consequences, how they did the same, and how their children in turn will do so too. To pick but one example, the narrator says, ‘We moved in partly because it’s not too far from where I teach, and partly for the kids; but it’s really just like the houses in which Sonny and I grew up. The same things happen, they’ll have the same things to remember.’ One may change houses here but the cycle of suffering remains. And yet, there is some place for resistance against this ever-solid system of oppression: one may escape the toxicity of the system by holding on to one’s dreams and creating an alternative space for existence for oneself. Sonny does this very thing through his music; when he plays the piano, he gives vent to all his sadness and miseries through the notes and what comes out acts as a catharsis for him. And through this aspect, the story brings out the potential for art to act as a literal lifesaver.
Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.
Art, and specifically music here, becomes the light in the darkness. This observation reminds one of the great artistic triumphs the Harlem Renaissance witnessed, and how the black artists from Harlem used art as a weapon to make their stories known and their passions felt.
‘Sonny’s Blues’ | Characters
The narrator: elder brother to Sonny and unnamed throughout the story. He is an algebra teacher. He is essentially a kind man, a dutiful son and eventually comes across as an understanding brother. Losing his little girl to polio is a big shock in his life.
Sonny: sensitive, passionate young man. He is a virtuoso with the piano. His brother dismisses him as an impractical dreamer at first but Sonny insists on doing with life whatever he alone wants. He turns his melancholy into music.
Isabel: the narrator’s wife. She is warm to Sonny when he comes to live with them after being released from prison. She still has nightmares involving her daughter’s death.
Narrator’s father: Sonny and he used to fight constantly. He had a brother who was killed by white men.
Creole: leader of the band Sonny plays with. Warm and encouraging, he is deeply affectionate towards Sonny and can fully appreciate the latter’s prowess