One of James Baldwin’s earliest works, “Sonny’s Blues” is a perennial favorite of college anthologies and perhaps his most widely read short story. Initially published in 1957, it was included in the 1965 collection entitled Going to Meet the Man. The compiled short stories in the book range from 1948 to 1965 and allow the reader to appreciate Baldwin’s development and evolution as a writer. Spanning over a decade, the works cover a wide range of topics, including racism, sexuality, and the creative process. Both inside and outside the context of this collection, “Sonny’s Blues” is an important and moving addition to Baldwin’s literary work.
Published in the Partisan Review, a well-known American literary magazine, in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, "Sonny's Blues" is a story of suffering, community and redemption. Set in Harlem, a community Baldwin knew intimately, the tale follows two brothers. The elder has strived to assimilate into a white-dominated culture and, as a result, remains disconnected from his heritage and his family. The younger, a heroin addict and jazz musician, struggles to transform his suffering and the suffering of his community into music. At the story’s climax the elder brother listens to his brother’s music and recognizes not only his own pain, but, for the first time, his brother’s pain, as well as the pain of the African American people. This moment of musical communion offers both brothers a brief reprieve from their suffering.
“Sonny’s Blues” is notable for its use of blues and jazz music to convey the importance of communication, art, self-expression, and heritage. Sonny, the titular younger brother, plays an experimental form of jazz known as bebop. A technically complex, African American musical sub-genre with an emphasis on solo performances, bebop is the perfect vehicle for both reaffirming the importance of heritage and also allowing for individual expression.