"Sonny's Blues" James Baldwin
The following entry presents criticism on Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues" (1957). See also James Baldwin Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 15, 17, 127.
The short story "Sonny's Blues" is Baldwin's most highly acclaimed treatment of his signature themes: the nature of identity, race relations in the United States, human suffering, and the function of art. Set in the early 1950s in New York City, the story is narrated by an unnamed man who relates his attempts to come to terms with his long estranged brother, Sonny, a jazz musician. John M. Reilly, noting that an "outstanding quality of the Black literary tradition in America is its attention to the interdependence of personal and social experience," has concluded that "Sonny's Blues" both depicts and manifests the belief that the "artful expression of personal yet typical experience is one way to freedom."
Plot and Major Characters
After reading in a newspaper of Sonny's arrest for the possession and sale of heroin, the narrator—a high school algebra teacher aspiring to middle-class values, tastes, and security—recoils from the idea of getting involved in his brother's life. As he ponders the meaning of Sonny's situation and of his own fraternal obligations, the narrator recalls scenes and impressions from his childhood. He remembers in particular the story his mother told him about the murder of his uncle, a blues musician, the effect this had on his father, and his mother's subsequent entreaty to the narrator to always look after Sonny. After his relatively brief time in jail, Sonny comes to live with the narrator and his wife. The awkward, tentative conversations that ensue result in Sonny inviting his brother to hear him play at a Greenwich Village bar. Accepting the offer as an attempt at reconciliation, the narrator experiences—through the nuances of the music and the subtle interplay of the musicians—a sublime understanding of his brother and of the importance of music as a release from existential suffering.
Major ThemesLike much of Baldwin's writing, fiction as well as nonfiction, "Sonny's Blues" addresses specific racial issues and themes regarding the human condition. Displaying the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, whose works were largely responsible for articulating the philosophy of Existentialism, Baldwin depicts a world in which suffering characterizes man's basic state. The story's principal characters, however, not only struggle through an absurd world devoid of inherent meaning, but must also persevere in a society that tolerates racism. Baldwin thus sees black Americans suffering doubly: from the existential angst of the human condition, and from the humiliation, poverty, and violence imposed on them by a prejudiced society. In "Sonny's Blues" Baldwin addresses these issues by employing metaphors of darkness and anxiety, incorporating images of confinement, and offering portraits of life in contemporary Harlem and, through the narrator's recollection of his childhood and family, the American South. Another of the story's major themes concerns music, specifically jazz and blues. Baldwin uses these forms, which are African American in origin, for various purposes. Music is associated with particular eras and places-blues with the South's past and jazz, specifically bebop, with the modern urban setting. Also, Baldwin characterizes the narrator, in part, by his lack of musical knowledge; critics note that the emotional distance between the brothers is symbolized by the narrator's unfamiliarity with bebop and his ignorance of the great saxophone player Charlie "Bird" Parker. Moreover, commentators note that the narrator's epiphanic experience at the end of the story, when he hears Sonny's playing, instantiates the theme of the redemptive powers of music and signals the rebirth of the brothers' relationship.
"Sonny's Blues" is generally considered one of Baldwin's finest works. Many commentators have discussed the story in relation to the author's role as a civil-rights leader. John M. Reilly has noted that "Sonny's Blues" "states dramatically the motive for Baldwin's famous polemics in the cause of Black freedom." A minority of critics have commented negatively that the social and political messages in "Sonny's Blues" are presented in a heavy-handed manner. Joseph Featherstone, for example, remarked that at various points in the story one hears "not the voice of Sonny or his brother, [but] the intrusive voice of Baldwin the boy preacher." Most critics, however, agree with John Rees Moore, who stated that "Sonny's Blues" is "unequivocally successful."
The story begins as an unnamed algebra teacher reads something disturbing while riding the subway to school. The teacher, the story’s narrator, exits the subway and continues towards his school, his fear and anxiety growing about the fate of his brother Sonny, who has been arrested for selling heroin. Thinking of his brother reminds him of his students, who face limited possibilities in a hostile world. The narrator speculates that many of his students may already be experimenting with drugs like heroin.
At the end of the school day the narrator listens to the laughter of his students for the first time and realizes it is mocking and cruel. Yet he also notices a boy whistling a complex tune that cuts through all the laughter and noise. As he exits, he is met at the gate of the school by one of Sonny’s old friends, a fellow addict, who has come to tell him about Sonny’s imprisonment.
The narrator is repulsed by Sonny’s friend, who always asks him for money; nonetheless, he greets him. They begin smoking and walking toward the narrator’s subway stop. When the friend agrees with him that nothing can be done for Sonny, the narrator feels the comment is presumptuous and experiences a surge of anger. Sonny’s friend muses that he should have ended his life long ago and the narrator snaps back in agreement. Immediately afterward he feels guilty and attempts to change the conversation back towards Sonny’s fate. As they approach the subway stop Sonny’s friend asks the narrator for money. Feeling compassion, the narrator hands him five dollars.
The narrator fails to write or visit his brother in prison until the death of his daughter, when he is finally pushed to pen a letter. Sonny’s response, which highlights just how much he needed to hear from his brother, makes the narrator feel “like a bastard” (109). Sonny writes about his anguish and even admits that he is glad his parents aren’t still alive to see him in this condition.
Sonny and the narrator continue to exchange letters and, upon Sonny’s release, they meet in New York City, where the narrator lives in Harlem. They exchange some brief, stunted conversation before hailing a cab. Sonny asks if the cab can drive alongside the park so he can see the city again. As they head towards Harlem, the “vivid killing streets of [their] childhood” (112), Sonny and the narrator become lost in contemplation, thinking of the parts of themselves they have left behind.
They enter the narrator’s apartment in a run-down housing project and sit down to dinner. Isabel, the narrator’s wife, mitigates any initial awkwardness by making Sonny feel welcome. However, the narrator scrutinizes Sonny for signs of heroin addiction.
The narrator reminisces about the brothers’ childhood, explaining that his father was a loving, if tough man, with an alcohol problem. He remarks that Sonny and his father never had a good relationship because they were too much alike; they were both very private men.
He remembers that as a child the adults would sit in the darkening evening and tell stories of the suffering they had endured. The children were afraid; they vaguely understood that this suffering would one day be theirs to bear.
The narrator recalls that after his father’s funeral his mother spoke to him about Sonny, asking him to be, essentially, his brother’s keeper. The narrator’s mother explains that his father had a brother who was killed one night when drunken white men ran him over with their car. The incident permanently traumatized his father, who viewed the scene from the side of the road. She reminds the narrator that “the world ain’t changed” (118) and makes him promise to look after Sonny.
The narrator forgets this promise until his mother’s death, when he returns home on furlough to see Sonny. Sonny attempts to explain his passion for music, but the narrator is unable to listen, thinking jazz music is beneath his brother. Similarly, he refuses to listen when Sonny explains his desperation to leave Harlem and join the military like the narrator. The narrator insists Sonny live with his then-fiancée Isabel and her family. He reminds Sonny that Isabel owns a piano, trying to cheer him up.
Sonny moves in with Isabel and her parents but creates tension in the household by constantly playing strange music on the piano. Yet Isabel, her parents, and even the narrator sense that they cannot begrudge Sonny his time on the piano, as it is too important to him. Eventually, Isabel’s mother receives a letter from Sonny’s school explaining that he has not been attending classes. When questioned Sonny admits that he has been spending time with musicians in Greenwich Village. After the resulting argument Sonny realizes his music, which is so important to him, has been bothering the family. Soon afterward he packs up his records and disappears, having joined the military.
After the end of the war the narrator and Sonny see each other once again. The narrator visits Sonny in his apartment in Greenwich Village and the brothers’ fight. It is clear the narrator neither understands nor approves of Sonny’s bohemian life-style.
The narrator details his daughter’s death of polio: she collapsed one afternoon, suffocating. Isabel, who rushed to her side as she died, is permanently traumatized. The narrator experiences a depth of suffering he never has before. His suffering reminds him of his brother’s trials and allows him to begin to understand what Sonny endured. He finally decides to write him.
Back in the present, it has been two weeks since Sonny has been living with the narrator. The narrator contemplates searching Sonny’s room, presumably for drug paraphernalia, but is stopped by a street revival occurring outside his window. He watches a man and three women testify and sing. One woman has a particularly moving voice that seems to offer people a brief reprieve from their suffering. The narrator spots Sonny standing in the crowd.
Sonny walks up to the apartment, praising the woman’s singing, if not the song. He then invites the narrator to come hear him play music. The narrator, sensing the importance of this moment, accepts the invitation.
Sonny begins to explain that heroin and music help him make his suffering his own, which keeps him from drowning in otherwise overwhelming pain. The narrator objects but forces himself to listen. Sonny continues to talk about the universal nature of suffering and the ways drugs and music have helped him cope. He admits that the reason he wanted to leave Harlem after his mother’s death was to escape his increasingly serious drug addiction. He ends by reminding the narrator that his addiction could come back at any time. The narrator accepts this.
Sonny and the narrator go to the nightclub where Sonny is scheduled to play. Everyone at the club knows and respects Sonny well. Sonny introduces his brother to the musicians he will be playing with. One of them, a fiddle-player named Creole, seems particularly proud of Sonny and happy to see the narrator supporting him. The narrator is seated back in a dark corner and prepares to watch his brother play.
The musicians tentatively walk into the spotlight shining over the bandstand and Creole leads Sonny to his piano. The band begins to play. Creole is leading the band, holding the other members back to allow Sonny to find his rhythm. Sonny struggles during the first set but during the second set he finds himself.
Sonny plays movingly, making the narrator understand, truly understand for the first time, his suffering. Yet Sonny speaks to more than just his own experience. He speaks of the experience of his mother and father, and of their community. The narrator is reminded of his own suffering and of his heritage. By understanding Sonny, he has come to understand himself.
After the song the narrator sends Sonny a glass of scotch and milk. Sonny nods toward his brother and sets the drink atop his piano. As he begins to play again it shakes like “the very cup of trembling” (141).
“Sonny’s Blues” is set in Harlem, a historically African American neighborhood in New York City. Despite the cultural revival known as the Harlem Renaissance, which bloomed in the 1920s, the neighborhood remained impoverished and oppressed in the 1950s when “Sonny’s Blues” takes place. James Baldwin’s birthplace and home for much of his young life, Harlem plays an important role in the short story. Harlem is depicted as a trap from which the narrator and his brother must struggle to escape. Imprisonment becomes a motif in “Sonny’s Blues”: not only is one brother physically jailed during the story but the narrator repeatedly uses the word “trapped” when describing the brothers’ neighborhood.
The brothers, like the narrator’s students, are trapped in a ghetto brimming with anger. Housing projects are described as “rocks in the middle of a boiling sea” (112), an apocalyptic description of the anger that roils in Harlem. Angry figures appear throughout the story: from the narrator’s students, to a furious man at the street revival, to the narrator’s father. In one scene Sonny wonders at how the sheer pressure from all the hatred doesn’t explode, ripping the neighborhood apart (135).
“Sonny’s Blues” is not recounted by Sonny, but by his brother, the unnamed narrator. The story is not simply about Sonny’s music, but about how that music leads to a rapprochement between two estranged brothers. Using Sonny’s brother to tell the tale allows the focus of the story to be on this growing sense of brotherly love and not solely on Sonny. Using an unnamed character also allows the reader to more easily place himself in the narrator’s position.
The narrator moves back in forth in time as he is informed of Sonny’s imprisonment, reminisces lengthily about their shared past, and then moves back into the present for the story’s climax. Baldwin’s technique disrupts the reader’s sense of chronological time, making each event seem immediate. The accumulated suffering throughout the brothers’ lives comes into relief, as does the tension between the brothers.
The narrator has, what one critic termed, a “selfish desire to assimilate and lead a ‘respectable,’ safe life” (Albert 178). He aspires to conform to white bourgeois culture and in doing so alienates himself from his family and parts of the wider African American experience. When he learns of his brother’s imprisonment, he cannot find room inside himself for compassion. He has held himself at a distance for too long. Likewise, he is unfamiliar with contemporary African American culture: he admits to not knowing Charlie Parker, a famed jazz musician. He even treats aspects of his heritage with disdain: when he sees a barmaid dancing to something “black and bouncy” (107) and is overcome with contempt.
Music plays a tremendous and complex role in “Sonny’s Blues”. Perhaps most obvious is the allusion in the title, which has a seemingly odd discrepancy: Sonny is a jazz musician, not a blues musician. Yet Baldwin’s understanding of the blues is broader: the narrator explains that the blues are the story “of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph” (139). Jazz, then, simply “represents a revision of the blues” (Sherard 693). It is one of the “new ways” of expressing the same old blues (139). Thus in playing jazz, Sonny is still playing the blues. Both blues and jazz are important African American musical forms and as such are appropriate to the story’s focus on community.
Given the descriptions of Sonny’s music it is clear that he is playing not just jazz, but bebop, a technically complex form that focuses on extended solos. Its emphasis on solos makes bebop the perfect sub-genre to bear Sonny’s need for self-expression; its cultural position as “an assertion of Black identity” (Reilly 57) makes it the perfect vessel for reinforcing Sonny’s connection to his community and heritage. Charlie Parker, Sonny’s idol, was considered one of the founders of bebop. Parker, who was nicknamed Bird, was known for experimental solos and, like Sonny, for a crippling heroin addiction, one that ultimately killed him.
On the other hand, Louis Armstrong, the jazz musician the narrator prefers, represents a form of jazz Sonny considers to be coopted by white culture. As one critic explains, Sonny’s protestations against Armstrong carry a “strong Uncle Tom implication” (Albert 180). The narrator’s knowledge of Armstrong and ignorance of Parker highlight his alienation from black culture.
‘Creole’, the name of Sonny’s bandleader, is also an allusion to musical culture. Creole is used to refer to hybrid languages, which parallels the new, hybrid forms of the blues Sonny experiments with (Sherard 702). Moreover the “first authentic jazz style” was known colloquially as the New Orleans style, and creole culture is strongly associated with Louisiana and New Orleans in particular (Albert 182). Creole can thus be seen to represent the hybrid jazz form that Sonny and his band play.
Baldwin’s decision to use “Am I Blue” in the story’s climax is somewhat confusing. “Am I Blue” was composed by two white musicians and originally sung by Ethel Waters, a singer who, like Louis Armstrong, was popular with white audiences. This is an odd song to mark the moment of redemption and reunion shared by two African American brothers in a story that emphasizes the importance of African American culture. Critics have suggested that the song represents an “amalgam of many ingredients that have become fused over the centuries” and thus is appropriate given the story’s focus on hybrid variations of the blues (Albert 184).
But it is not just Sonny who uses the blues to express himself. Given Baldwin’s understanding of the blues, “Sonny’s Blues,” the story itself, is a form of the blues. It follows the same essential structure: it begins with a lost and anxious man, follows two brothers growing together, and ends with a moment of redemption. Baldwin uses the blues to shape his short story, paralleling Sonny’s musical use of the blues. For both men the blues are a means for expressing themselves.
Music is the only way for Sonny to express himself. Throughout the story he struggles to communicate with a brother who refuses to hear him. The narrator rejects outright his passion for music and his desire to leave Harlem. The first time in the piece that the narrator truly hears Sonny is during the conversation the brothers have after witnessing the street revival. Listening to the honest and beautiful singing of one of the women has opened the brothers to each other and allowed them to communicate. More dramatically, the narrator’s moment of redemption occurs while finally listening to his brother play; Sonny’s music allows him to understand his brother’s struggles and through them understand his own.
Like music, suffering fills “Sonny’s Blues.” The darkness that menaces Harlem is a symbol for the suffering borne by the community. The narrator describes the darkness as what his parents “endure[d]” and what he is destined to “endure” (115). The darkness is everywhere, waiting outside a subway car, leaking in through the windows, reflected in a pair of lost eyes. Suffering is, as Sonny explains to his brother, inescapable. Sonny’s addiction, Grace’s death, and the murder of the narrator’s uncle all seem to support this assertion.
Yet suffering has both “humanizing power and redemptive potential” (Nelson 28). Suffering allows an individual to understand the suffering of another, creating true compassion and humanizing the other. The narrator cannot understand Sonny’s plight until he has suffered similarly after the loss of his daughter. It is only then that he contacts Sonny.
Moreover, suffering, when channeled through art, carries tremendous redemptive potential. Suffering is integral to the production of art. Sonny recognizes this when he comments on the extent to which the revival singer must have suffered to sing so beautifully. When borne creatively, suffering can become a means of expression that connects people. It is Sonny’s music that releases the redemptive potential of suffering by connecting the brothers in understanding. The narrator’s redemption is only possible because of the suffering endured by his brother, community and self, and his brother’s ability to express that suffering through music. Music and art in general offer a path to redemption.
If suffering is represented by darkness then redemption is represented by light. The narrator explains the redemptive nature of the blues by describing them as “the only light we’ve got in all this darkness” (139). Similarly, the bandstand where Sonny plays is bathed in a bright spotlight.
Despite the narrator’s epiphany, the ending of “Sonny’s Blues” remains ambiguous. Deep in his moment of redemption, the narrator notes that trouble still “stretched above [the brothers], longer than the sky” (140). Sonny’s struggle during his first set may not only represent past struggles, but struggles to come. As he reminded his brother, his addiction could return. The drink the narrator sends Sonny, a scotch and milk, symbolizes the ambiguous nature of the ending. The scotch, an alcoholic drink, represents the darkness and the milk, a drink often associated with the innocence of children, represents the light. When Sonny sets it above his piano, the drink shakes “like the very cup of trembling”, a biblical allusion to the suffering endured by God’s people. Whether Sonny’s suffering has ended is unclear.
Women play a limited, but not unimportant, role in “Sonny’s Blues.” By smoothing over the awkward moments during Sonny’s homecoming visit, Isabel helps support the brothers’ relationship. Likewise, the narrator’s mother encourages him to strengthen his relationship with Sonny. Much of what his mother foresees—her own premature death, Sonny’s struggles, and the narrator’s mistreatment of Sonny—comes to pass, giving her warning to the narrator a prophetic cast. The narrator’s mother supports her husband as she does her sons, holding the family and its individual members together. Even women outside of their immediate family help bring the brothers closer; it is a woman’s singing at the revival that pushes the narrator and Sonny towards their first real conversation. Women support the relationship between the two brothers.
Though rarely overtly mentioned, racism is present throughout “Sonny’s Blues.” The Harlem Baldwin describes has been shaped by systematic racism. The decrepit projects are the result of segregationist housing policies; the limited opportunities available to the narrator’s students, the result of discrimination. The suffering borne by the community is in large part due to racism: the narrator explains he will inherit the darkness that haunts his parents. The depiction of racism becomes overt when the death of the narrator’s uncle is described. His violent death, being run over by a car full of drunken white men, permanently traumatizes the narrator’s father and worries his mother that a similar incident could befall Sonny.
Given James Baldwin’s background as a preacher, many critics have posited religious interpretations for “Sonny’s Blues.” Like in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, the narrator refuses to be his brother’s keeper, leaving Sonny to languish in prison without human contact, figuratively ‘killing’ him. However, unlike Cain and Abel, the brothers are united and redeemed at the story’s climax. Other critics have asserted that Sonny is a Christ-like figure, citing “his descent to the underworld through drugs and his resurrection through jazz” (Ognibene 36). Like Christ, Sonny also suffers to redeem others, particularly his brother. Still other analyses hold that Sonny represents the prodigal son, who strayed and has returned to help his family. These religious interpretations, while contested, merit being considered.
Salvation is widely accepted as a religious theme in “Sonny’s Blues.” The narrator’s moment of redemption is precipitated by an act of heavenly, if painful grace: the death of the narrator’s aptly named daughter. Grace’s death, an act firmly beyond the narrator’s control, allows him to finally connect with his estranged brother and, ultimately, through his brother’s music, to be saved. The narrator’s redemption is of a religious as well as secular nature.
Given the time of its writing and publication, the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, “Sonny’s Blues” has wider political implications. The story’s focus on the importance of embracing heritage and community was extremely relevant to the political struggles then occurring in the African American community. The narrator cannot be redeemed until he reconnects with his family and with his wider heritage; aspiring to assimilate into white systems of control has not alleviated his suffering. Only understanding and identifying with his heritage can offer him a reprieve. Baldwin likely intended audiences to apply this moral to their own situations.