James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” opens as the narrator learns from a newspaper that his younger brother, Sonny, has been arrested for dealing heroin. The narrator is taking the subway to his high-school teaching job. At the end of the school day, the “insular and mocking” laughter of his students reminds him that as youths he and Sonny had been filled with rage and had known “two darknesses”—the one of their lives and the one of the movies that made them momentarily forget about their lives. Leaving the school, the narrator comes across an old friend of Sonny’s in the school yard.
While Sonny’s friend and the narrator talk about Sonny’s arrest, they tell each other some of their fears. In front of a bar that blasts “black and bouncy” music, the friend, who is not given a name, says that he “can’t much help old Sonny no more.” This angers the narrator because it reminds him that he himself had given up trying to help his brother because he had not known how; indeed, he had not even seen Sonny in a year. It disturbs the narrator to see his situation shared by someone who is not even related to Sonny. The friend mentions that he thought Sonny was too smart to get caught in a drug bust. In anger, the narrator criticizes the friend, sarcastically implying that the friend must have been smarter since he had not been arrested himself. The friend pauses and replies that he would have killed himself a long time ago if he were really smart, implying that he believes death is better than addiction. He then begins to explain to the older brother how he feels responsible for turning Sonny onto drugs, but the narrator breaks in and asks what will happen to Sonny next. The friend says that Sonny will be sent to a place where they will try and cure him and then he will be let loose to start his habit again. When the narrator questions why nothing else will occur, the friend’s response shows how separate Sonny and his brother are. The narrator asks why Sonny wants to die and is told that “don’t nobody want to die ever.” The two men part after the narrator gives the friend five dollars when the friend asks for change.
The narrator does not get in touch with his brother for a long time. After his daughter dies, he realizes he had begun to wonder about him. The narrator wonders if the seven-year age difference between himself and Sonny can ever be bridged. He meets with Sonny after Sonny gets out of prison. At Sonny’s request, they take a long cab ride around the elegant city before heading to the “vivid, killing streets” of their childhood where they each remember leaving part of themselves behind. The narrator begins to flashback to the childhood he and Sonny shared. The reader sees the family on a typical Sunday evening. As the skies darken, the adults sit quietly with faces darkening like the sky. The children are somewhat frightened as they witness this, and one hopes that the “hand which strokes his forehead will never stop.”
Immediately following this scene readers see the narrator and his mother in conversation. The narrator learns for the first time that his father had a brother who was killed by a car full of drunk white men. The narrator’s mother tells the story to let him know how important he and his brother are to each other and how he, as the older, more stable one, needs to let Sonny know he is “there” for Sonny. The narrator experiences a pang of guilt as he reflects on not having done as his mother asked, but he also remembers that Sonny’s choice of being a jazz musician instead of a classical one “seemed— beneath him, somehow.” The narrator relates the time when he asked Sonny to play like Louis Armstrong did, and Sonny told him that Charlie Parker was his model instead. This emphasizes the different lives the brothers are leading.
The narrator witnesses a revival scene from his window that sets him on the road to understanding his brother. Sonny watches the same scene from the sidewalk, and both are struck by the fact that the women in the meeting “addressed each other as Sister.” This leads to a conversation between the brothers where, for the first time, the narrator tries to understand his brother’s point of view. When Sonny tells him that the revival meeting reminded him of how in control he felt with heroin, the narrator realizes that Sonny is actually speaking of something much greater. Here it is learned that Sonny uses drugs to “keep from drowning in” the suffering all humans have to go through. He explains that in order to gain anything or learn anything from the suffering, there needs to be a way to make it your own. For Sonny, heroin accomplishes this, as does jazz.
The narrator goes with Sonny to a jazz club. Sonny is going to play and everyone there greets him with expectation. The club is dark, except for a spotlight on the musicians. While Sonny plays, the narrator defines the blues as something “personal and private.” Sonny plays a set that the narrator understands is not the best he can do; he watches the older musician give Sonny room to take the lead but Sonny ignores it until later in the next set. As he begins to play “Am I Blue,” Sonny takes control of the music, and becomes “part of a family again.” At the end of the set, the narrator realizes that the music has helped Sonny to stay free and avoid drowning in his suffering. Furthermore, the narrator recognizes that the blues can help everyone be true to what and who they are.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, James Baldwin, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.