Art plays an important role in "Sonny's Blues", acting as a bridge between the estranged brothers. Sonny's inability to speak and the narrator's inability to listen prevent the brothers from truly communicating with or understanding one another throughout their lives. Music becomes a channel through which Sonny can make himself understood. Witnessing the music of the street revival brings the brothers closer, prompting their first honest conversation in the work. More remarkably, at the climax, Sonny's music helps the narrator finally understand his life and trials. The connection art facilitates becomes the catalyst for a genuine epiphany in the narrator. As one critic explains, "By understanding Sonny's pain and accepting his humanity, his brother understands and accepts himself" (Nelson 28). Art then functions as a means not only for communication, but ultimately for redemption. Baldwin's commentary about the importance of stories suggests that writing, like music and other forms of art, serves this purpose.
Suffering is a constant presence in "Sonny's Blues." From the death of the narrator's daughter to Sonny's drug addiction to the cold-blooded murder of the narrator's uncle, suffering dominates the community. Suffering is, as Sonny passionately argues, inescapable. This suffering is symbolized throughout the work by darkness, which encroaches upon the lives of the narrator's family and community, something to be borne and endured. Sonny explains that his heroin usage is an attempt to cope with suffering that would otherwise paralyze him.
Yet suffering, for all the pain it causes, is essential to both art and redemption. Sonny comments on "how much suffering [the revival singer] must have had to go through" in order to sing so beautifully (132). One can imagine that Sonny's music comes from similarly dark experiences. Suffering and darkness, if used creatively, can produce works of unparalleled beauty. Suffering also confers the ability to understand and feel true compassion for others, which is essential for redemption. Indeed, it isn't until the painful death of his daughter that the narrator begins to walk down a path that leads to his salvation.
Racism and Segregation
Racism is the dark undercurrent that flows through "Sonny's Blues". It is rarely referenced directly but its pull can be felt continuously. For example, Baldwin mentions decrepit housing projects that rise out of Harlem like "rocks in the middle of the boiling sea" (112). The result of local and federal segregationist housing policies, the projects represent the impact of racism on a down-trodden community. Likewise, much of the narrator's anxiety on behalf of his students can be attributed to the fact that they, like Sonny, are young African American men living in a system that ruthlessly and endlessly discriminates against them.
Much of the darkness and suffering in the story referred to can be attributed to the effects of racism; the narrator speaks of suffering as something inherited from one generation to the next in the African American community. The constant and vague influence of racism finally becomes explicit and clear when the narrator's mother explains how drunken white men murdered her brother-in-law. She warns the narrator that a similar fate could befall Sonny, demonstrating her concern that racism is still a very real threat to the family.
Harlem, the setting of "Sonny's Blues," is packed with barely-contained anger. The community is forced to live in an oppressive and painful world; as a result, many are left deeply angry. The narrator describes the neighborhood as a "boiling sea" (112) and comments that his students are "filled with rage" (104). He then speaks of the "hidden menace" that permeates Lenox Avenue (112). Even the narrator's family has been impacted: the narrator's mother describes how the death of the narrator's uncle led his father to harbor a smoldering rage against white men. The anger and resentment of the community have built up to dangerous levels. Sonny senses the explosive potential of Harlem, when, looking down from the window, he wonders aloud how the anger and hatred "don't blow the avenue apart" (135). Through these examples, Baldwin attempts to communicate the anger and desperation that plague Harlem and the wider African American community.
"Sonny's Blues" is a story about pain, suffering, alienation, and anger; however, it is also a story about redemption. At the beginning of the work, the narrator is lost, disconnected from his family and isolated from his community. A painful act of grace--the death of his aptly-named daughter, Grace--allows him to begin to understand the depth of his brother's suffering. In that moment of pain, he contacts his brother, starting the long path to redemption. The brothers begin communicating and eventually Sonny is released from prison and stays with the narrator. When he finally listens to his brother play, the narrator understands and accepts the meaning of his brother's life. In accepting his brother, the narrator accepts himself and his heritage. The climax is a moment of discovery and redemption, in which the narrator is pulled back to his heritage and community, back to his brother and back to himself. He who was lost is now found.
Imprisonment is a recurring and persistent theme in "Sonny's Blues." Sonny is physically imprisoned when he is jailed for the sale of heroin. Being in prison is a devastating experience for Sonny, who longs for freedom. Yet much of the imprisonment in the story is abstract. The narrator refers to Harlem several times as a trap which individuals must struggle to escape. He comments that even those who successfully leave the neighborhood "always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap" (112). A pit of poverty, crime, depression, and anger, Harlem traps the individuals who call it a home. When Sonny pleads with his brother to leave Harlem for the military, the narrator notes that he looked "trapped, and in anguish" (123). Sonny's desperation to escape prison is reflected in his desperation to escape Harlem. Even the narrator fails to truly escape his neighborhood; despite his middle-class position he must still live in a decrepit tenement in Harlem.
Despite the story's title, evidence in "Sonny's Blues" strongly suggests that it is jazz, more specifically bebop, that Sonny plays. For Baldwin, the blues are not a specific genre of music, but rather something more universal. The narrator explains that the blues are "the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph" (139). Given this definition, the story "Sonny's Blues" is itself a blues piece: it begins with the suffering of two brothers, follows their growing sense of communion, and ends with the triumph of brotherly love over alienation and pain. The narrator admits that this formula isn't innovative, but claims that "it's the only light we've got in all this darkness" (139). The story "Sonny's Blues" is an attempt, much like Sonny's actual music, to commune with its audience and, through that bridge of understanding and compassion, to relieve suffering. Baldwin is not playing, but writing the blues. The title "Sonny's Blues" refers not to the specific genre of music Sonny plays but to Sonny's story of suffering and triumph, of loss and redemption through music.
Sonny’s Blues Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Sonny’s Blues is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
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