“Sonny’s Blues” is a story which is seen in the atmosphere of Harlem, which is the historic neighborhood of African American natives in New York City. The neighborhood is subjected to the oppression and hatred by white supremacists where the people of color are bashed at their hands everyday despite of the Harlem Renaissance in 1920 where their rights were restored.
The story is a short description of the narrator’s life experiences who described Harlem as a trap for him and his brother. The storyline ahead describes how the author and his brother try to escape this imprisonment. The neighborhood is filled with hatred and the author explains the scenario of housing projects by stating that they are “rocks in the middle of a boiling sea” which is a catastrophic account of the anger that has invaded most of Harlem. The expressions of loathe and anger are prominent all over the story including the narrator’s students and a violent man at the street revival. Sonny is seen wondering all over the story “how the sheer pressure from all the hatred doesn’t explode, ripping the neighborhood apart”.
The narrator was earlier built with a desire to attain a respectable life and become a part of the lifestyle enjoyed by the whites, so he selfishly leaves his entire family and wider African American culture as he aspires to conform to white conformist values. Even when his brother faces charges of imprisonment, he doesn’t give much attention as he is now devoid of compassion for his family owing to being distant from them for far too long. However, it is impertinent to note that “Sonny’s Blues” is not a story of Sonny himself but an unaccounted narrator known as his brother. The underlying theme of the story is to highlight how Sonny’s music was a source of reunion and rapprochement among two alienated brothers. Being a tale of the struggles that the brothers faced together, the facts of story represent how loss and grief can motivate any individual to transform themselves each day.
The narrator of sways back in forth in the story as he gets to know about Sonny’s imprisonment and is reminded of their shared past for a brief time, and then returns to the present for the story to reach its end. What makes the story interesting is how the process of loss and accumulated suffering in both of their lives brings them together and eradicates their differences all the while helping their lives achieve some relief, as does the tension between the brothers.
The story’s very name suggests the understanding of the blues as the storyline extends. It follows the theme of losing and gaining and initiates with a lost and apprehensive man and leads with a strong bond between two brothers which grows together, and ends with a moment of redemption. The author uses the musical concept of the blues in parallel to the story of two brothers as a means for expressing themselves.
For Sonny the only forum to express his hidden feelings is music. He struggles to inform his brother of his inner most feelings with his musical compositions as the narrator continually refuses to hear him. The passion and desire to reach out to his brother finally happens when a street survival leads two of them to talk to each other and listen to the honest musical compositions (which helped them overlook their animosity and communicate more freely). The final moment of redemption for the narrator comes along in the same manner while he listens to his brother’s music which aid him understand the pain and struggles of his brother which he had turned a blind eye to all throughout his life. The realization helped him understand his hidden battles and assisted him grow to be a better man.
The concept of suffering and loss is dominant all over the story. The obscurity of the night that nuisances Harlem is symbolic for the sorrow tolerated by the African American community. The narrator relates the darkness to the sufferings endured by his parents and “what he is destined to “endure”. He sees the gloominess spread by the darkness as a silent ghost which exists everywhere, waiting outside a subway car, leaking in through the windows, reflected in a pair of lost eyes. Sonny explains to his brother how the ghost of Suffering is inevitable and inescapable. The facts of story assimilated together like Sonny’s addiction, Grace’s death, and the murder of the narrator’s uncle testify the Sonny’s approach towards suffering.
As Nelson says “Yet suffering has both humanizing power and redemptive potential”. In the lieu of this quote, one can say that Suffering is the only fact which permits a person to realize the kind of grief the other individual may be going through which then allows him to sympathize with the other person creating true compassion and love for others. The narrator is unable to understand Sonny’s predicament until he finally losses his own daughter and only then he understands the turmoil bore by his brother and his family.
Wilner, Arlene. “Confronting Resistance: Sonny’s Blues–and Mine.” Pedagogy 2.2 (2002): 173-196.
Baldwin, James. Sonny’s blues. Ernst Klett Sprachen, 2009.
Reilly, John M. “” Sonny’s Blues”: James Baldwin’s Image of Black Community.” Negro American Literature Forum. Vol. 4. No. 2. St. Louis University, 1970.