“I couldn’t believe it: but what I mean by that is that I couldn’t find any room for it anywhere inside of me. I had kept it outside me for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to know."
Some analysts have argued that the narrator represents the "'white' Negro" (Ognibene 26), or the segment of the African American community that has assimilated into white culture. By striving towards what the white community views as respectability, the narrator has closed himself to part of the African American experience. Tragically this includes his brother, who has been pulled into the Harlem underworld, experimenting with heroin at an early age and later becoming a dealer. When the narrator discovers his brother Sonny has been arrested and jailed for selling drugs he finds himself unable to accept the reality of this revelation. He has kept everything he considered unsavory about his community at a distance for so long that he cannot let it "inside" of him now.
“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."
Describing his students, the narrator attempts to explain the "pain of institutional racism and the limits its places on [African American] opportunity" ("Sonny's Blues" 245). His students are becoming adults. Like Sonny, in doing so they become more and more aware of the limits that have been placed on their lives. Racist institutions and societal forces work to keep the narrator's students impoverished and trapped. Even the narrator, who manages to secure a middle-class job as a teacher, cannot escape these forces. His ostensibly middle-class lifestyle doesn't save him from the embarrassment of having to live in a run-down tenement or the pain of his child dying or the frustration of caring for a drug-addicted brother. These students are realizing the severity of their community's predicament as they grow into adults.
“'Look. Don’t tell me your sad story, if it was up to me, I’d give you one.’ Then I felt guilty—guilty, probably, for never having supposed that the poor bastard had a story of his own, much less a sad one, and I asked, quickly, ‘What’s going to happen to him now?’”
When Sonny's friend claims he should have "reached for a pistol a long time ago" (106), the narrator responds insensitively. Immediately afterwards, he feels guilty for failing to imagine that Sonny's friend is a human being with a life story. To an outsider, both Sonny and Sonny's friend could easily be perceived as just a couple more drug-addicted African American criminals. The narrator, who understands just how human Sonny is, finds himself dehumanizing Sonny's friend. The narrator feels guilty about his lack of compassion and attempts to move the conversation forward.
“Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap."
Both Sonny and the narrator have managed to escape the suffocating pull of Harlem in distinct ways. Though troubled, Sonny manages to move to Greenwich Village and to see the world by joining the Navy. The narrator finds a good job and establishes a quiet middle-class life. Yet both characters are still entranced with the "vivid, killing streets of [their] childhood" (112). The neighborhood, which the narrator refers to several times as a trap, sucks young people into a downward spiral of poverty, depression, and loathing. In order to escape it, the narrator believes that a person must sacrifice a part of themselves. Accordingly the narrator has sacrificed much of his connection to his culture and family in order to leave.
“The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure. The child knows that they won’t talk any more because if he knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon, about what’s going to happen to him."
Excepting the death of the narrator's uncle, racism is not explicitly depicted in "Sonny's Blues," particularly when compared to James Baldwin's other works. Yet racism acts as a strong undercurrent in the short story, shaping the lives and realities of the characters. The darkness that presses in from the windows represents the cruelty and suffering that the African American community has had to endure. This suffering is primarily a function of a world in which the state and its institutions use their power to disenfranchise, marginalize, and oppress African Americans. The adults want to protect their children from this brutal reality as long as they can. Yet the child knows that his parents' pain will one day become his pain.
“They certainly couldn’t throw him out. Neither did they dare to make a great scene about that piano because even they dimly sensed, as I sensed, from so many thousands of miles away, that Sonny was at that piano playing for his life."
Sonny struggles to be heard throughout the story, particularly by his brother. Ultimately, it is music that allows Sonny to communicate with his brother and express himself. The jarring music that baffled Isabel and her parents was Sonny's only form of communication and self-discovery. Even though they were confused by the constant music emanating for their piano, they sensed that somehow Sonny needed this music. In the midst of his depression and struggle with heroin, Sonny was literally "playing for his life." Music was his only road to salvation: he used it to understand himself and communicate with others. The narrator, physically and emotionally distant though he is, senses the importance of Sonny's playing.
“I was sitting in the living room in the dark by myself, and I suddenly thought of Sonny. My trouble had made his real."
After Sonny is arrested, the narrator doesn't contact him for several months. It isn't until the death of his daughter, when he experiences tremendous suffering, that he can understand his brother's suffering. Given Baldwin's history as a preacher, the daughter's name, Grace, is not incidental. Her death grants the narrator the opportunity to reconnect with his brother and, ultimately, to be redeemed by his brother's music.
Throughout "Sonny's Blues," suffering acts as key element of communion. Suffering ties families, the African American community, and even the wider human world together. The narrator must suffer in order to gain compassion and truly understand his brother's experience. He finally thinks of Sonny as he sits surrounded by the darkness that represents not just his own personal pain, but the pain of his community.
“’No there’s no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem—well, like, you. Like you did something, all right, and now you’re suffering for it. You know?’ I said nothing. ‘Well you know,’ he said, impatiently, ‘why do people suffer? Maybe it’s better to do something to give it a reason, any reason."
Sonny cannot passively accept the suffering and pain that have been imposed on him by the outside world. He attempts to assert control over his suffering by manufacturing a reason for his suffering. By using heroin or engaging in criminal activity, Sonny can imagine that his suffering is a consequence of his actions, instead of an effect of societal and institutional forces far beyond his control. The perception of personal control allows Sonny to live with his pain without becoming overwhelmed or incapacitated by it. Sonny argues that all human beings, including the narrator, must suffer, and that each has his own way of coping with that suffering. Drugs are simply one of the ways in which Sonny copes.
“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, and 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."
The narrator posits that the Blues, which are primarily stories of suffering and redemption, are not particularly original, but that they allow the musician and his audience to connect -- and that connection and understanding is the only true reprieve humanity will ever have from suffering. This reflection on the meaning of the Blues is relevant not only to music but to writing. "Sonny's Blues" is, much like the musical form it was inspired by, a tale of pain and salvation. The narrator, lost and disconnected from his roots, finds himself by reconnecting with his younger brother and experiences, when listening to Sonny's music. Baldwin's writing therefore can be understood as an attempt to connect with his audience and foster true understanding.
“I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy."
Music allows Sonny not only to discover himself, but to reconnect with his heritage. Through playing jazz, an African American musical form, Sonny becomes part of a wider community. His music reminds the narrator of his own suffering, his mother and father's suffering and a wider legacy of African American suffering. Listening allows the narrator to connect with the part of himself he was alienated from: his roots. Yet Sonny is not simply mimicking those that have come before him. He invokes his heritage but is not overwhelmed by it. Through experimentation he asserts his own identity. His music is both universal and personal, both steeped in community history and uniquely Sonny's.
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.