In James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” a man finally comes to understand the darkness and suffering that consumes his brother, and he begins to appreciate the music that his brother uses to calm those blues.
The main theme of “Sonny’s Blues” is suffering, particularly the sufferings of black people in America. Although James Baldwin presents only one example of overt racism in the story—the death of Sonny’s uncle under the wheels of a car driven by a group of drunken whites—the repercussions of the treatment received by black people is omnipresent. Sonny’s father is tormented by the memory of his brother’s death and suffers from a hatred of white people as a result. This hatred, Baldwin suggests, warps his soul. Sonny’s mother also suffers from the harshness of life in Harlem and from her knowledge that her younger son feels this suffering more strongly than most.
Sonny’s brother, the narrator of the story, also suffers. Although he tries to block them out, the blues become apparent in the darkness that he sees everywhere, even in his students. He imagines them using heroin in the bathroom between classes and says that “their laughter … was not the joyous laughter which—God knows why—one associates with children.” For him, childhood has no joy.
His neighborhood, too, is “filled with a hidden menace” that the new housing project in which he and his wife live cannot hide.”It looks like a parody of the good, clean, faceless life—God knows the people who live in it do their best to make it a parody…. The minute Sonny and I started into the house I had the feeling that I was simply bringing him back into the danger he had almost died trying to escape.”
Baldwin makes Sonny’s blues the focus of the story. Sonny has not experienced anything significantly more traumatic than his brother has, but he feels it more intensely. Sonny always “moved … in a distant stillness,” his brother says. For that reason, his mother urges his brother to watch out for him. “You may not be able to stop nothing from happening. But you got to let him know you’s there.”
For Sonny, heroin is a seductive outlet for his blues, but he knows that in the end it will kill him. Sonny is looking for a way to conceal the blues within him but admits in a letter to his brother that “trouble is the one thing that never does get stopped.” Music promises freedom from these blues, though, and during Sonny’s solo at the end of the story his brother sees this: “he could help us to be free if we would just listen, that he would never be free until we did. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth.”
Race and Racism
The fact that race is only a contributing factor in Sonny’s blues is characteristic of Baldwin’s beliefs. For him, the fact that he was black formed only part of his identity but did not ultimately define him Similarly, Sonny’s blues result in large part from the circumstances of his race—his upbringing in Harlem, the temptations of the streets, and the limits on his economic opportunity—but they also result from the natural human obligation to suffer. Additionally, the biblical reference at the end of the story serves to universalize Sonny’s troubles.
The history of oppression that blacks in America have suffered, however, certainly informs Sonny’s blues. This history is made distinctly personal when Sonny’s brother hears how his uncle died— run over by drunk white men in the South. Sonny’s brother also reminds readers of the circumstances of black people in the city when he details the poverty and neglect in his Harlem neighborhood.
Art and Expression
Baldwin believed in the power of art to save people from suffering, or at least to minimize their suffering. Correspondingly, Sonny uses blues and jazz as an outlet for his feelings, an outlet which his brother at first does not understand. Once Sonny’s brother visits the jazz club and hears Sonny play, however, he begins to comprehend the power and importance of music in Sonny’s life.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, James Baldwin, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.