James Baldwin 1957
Frequently anthologized, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” tells the story of two brothers who come to understand each other. More specifically, it highlights, through its two main characters, the two sides of the African-American experience. The narrator has assimilated into white society as much as possible but still feels the pain of institutional racism and the limits placed upon his opportunity. Conversely, Sonny has never tried assimilate and must find an outlet for the deep pain and suffering that his status as permanent outsider confers upon him. Sonny channels his suffering into music, especially bebop jazz and the blues, forms developed by African-American musicians. “Sonny’s Blues” was first published in 1957 and was collected in Baldwin’s 1965 book, Going to Meet the Man.
The story also has biblical implications. Baldwin became a street preacher early in his life, and religious themes appear throughout his writings. In “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin uses the image from the book of Isaiah of the “cup of trembling” to symbolize the suffering and trouble that Sonny has experienced in his life. At the end of the story, while Sonny is playing the piano, Sonny’s brother watches a barmaid bring a glass of Scotch and milk to the piano, which “glowed and shook above my brother’ s head like the very cup of trembling.” As Sonny plays, the cup reminds his brother of all of the suffering that both he and Sonny have endured. His brother finally understands that it is through music that Sonny is able to turn his suffering into something worthwhile.
Born in New York City in 1924, James Baldwin grew up in the city’s Harlem section, which was then the center of black intellectual and cultural life in America. By 1938, while attending DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, he began to preach at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly. His early theological training echoes in the religious themes and allusions that appear in his work. By 1944, however, he had renounced the ministry and moved to Greenwich Village, where he met Richard Wright and many other important writers and artists of the time.
It was also at this time that he began to write seriously. As the beneficiary of numerous fellowships during the late 1940s, he was able to move to Paris, France, and apply himself to his writing. In 1953 his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain appeared. Over the next few years he produced a number of plays, novels, and essays, including The Amen Corner, Giovanni’s Room, and Notes of a Native Son.
Critics have seen his move to Paris as crucial to his development as a writer. Baldwin himself said that after moving to France, “I could see where I came from very clearly, and I could see that I carried myself, which is my home, with me. You can never escape that. I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both.” Also in Europe, Baldwin came to accept his homosexuality.
In the 1960s, Baldwin became involved in the civil rights movement in America. At this time, however, the movement was splintering into several factions. Baldwin found himself at odds with one, the “Black Arts Movement,” led by writer LeRoi Jones, who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka. Baldwin refused to call himself a “black writer,” feeling that a more fitting label for himself was “American writer.” He felt that his position as an artist was to speak for the entire human race. For this stance, Baldwin earned the enmity of, among others, the influential writer Eldridge Cleaver, who accused Baldwin of having a “shameful, fanatical fawning” love of white people.
In the 1970s and 1980s Baldwin continued to write best-selling books, but critics began to feel that his powers were declining. His attention remained fixed on the relations between blacks and whites in America. In one of his last works, The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), he took on the subject of the Atlanta child murders of 1979-81. Baldwin died of stomach cancer in 1987. Eulogizing Baldwin, his one-time adversary Amiri Baraka said that he “reported, criticized, made beautiful, analyzed, cajoled, lyricized, attacked, sang, made us think, made us better, made us consciously human.”
“Sonny’s Blues” opens as the narrator learns from a newspaper that his younger brother, Sonny, has been arrested for dealing heroin. The narrator is taking the subway to his high-school teaching job. At the end of the school day, the “insular and mocking” laughter of his students reminds him that as youths he and Sonny had been filled with rage and had known “two darknesses” —the one of their lives and the one of the movies that made them momentarily forget about their lives. Leaving the school, the narrator comes across an old friend of Sonny’s in the school yard.
While Sonny’s friend and the narrator talk about Sonny’s arrest, they tell each other some of their fears. In front of a bar that blasts “black and bouncy” music, the friend, who is not given a name, says that he “can’t much help old Sonny no more.” This angers the narrator because it reminds him that he himself had given up trying to help his brother because he had not known how; indeed, he had not even seen Sonny in a year. It disturbs the narrator to see his situation shared by someone who is not even related to Sonny. The friend mentions that he diought Sonny was too smart to get caught in a drug bust. In anger, the narrator criticizes the friend, sarcastically implying that the friend must have been smarter since he had not been arrested himself. The friend pauses and replies that he would have killed himself a long time ago if he were really smart, implying that he believes death is better than addiction. He then begins to explain to the older brother how he feels responsible for turning Sonny onto drugs, but the narrator breaks in and asks what will happen to Sonny next. The friend says that Sonny will be sent to a place where they will try and cure him and then he will be let loose to start his habit again. When the narrator questions why nothing else will occur, the friend’s response shows how separate Sonny and his brother are. The narrator asks why Sonny wants to the and is told that “don’t nobody want to the ever.” The two men part after the narrator gives the friend five dollars when the friend asks for change.
The narrator does not get in touch with his brother for a long time. After his daughter dies, he realizes he had begun to wonder about him. The narrator wonders if the seven-year age difference between himself and Sonny can ever be bridged. He meets with Sonny after Sonny gets out of prison. At Sonny’s request, they take a long cab ride around the elegant city before heading to the “vivid, killing streets” of their childhood where they each remember leaving part of themselves behind. The narrator begins to flashback to the childhood he and Sonny shared. The reader sees the family on a typical Sunday evening. As the skies darken, the adults sit quietly with faces darkening like the sky. The children are somewhat frightened as they witness this, and one hopes that the “hand which strokes his forehead will never stop.”
Immediately following this scene readers see the narrator and his mother in conversation. The narrator learns for the first time that his father had a brother who was killed by a car full of drunk white men. The narrator’s mother tells the story to let him know how important he and his brother are to each other and how he, as the older, more stable one, needs to let Sonny know he is “there” for Sonny. The narrator experiences a pang of guilt as he reflects on not having done as his mother asked, but he also remembers that Sonny’s choice of being a jazz musician instead of a classical one “seemed— beneath him, somehow.” The narrator relates the time when he asked Sonny to play like Louis Armstrong did, and Sonny told him that Charlie Parker was his model instead. This emphasizes the different lives the brothers are leading.
The narrator witnesses a revival scene from his window that sets him on the road to understanding his brother. Sonny watches the same scene from the sidewalk, and both are struck by the fact that the women in the meeting “addressed each other as Sister.” This leads to a conversation between the brothers where, for the first time, the narrator tries to understand his brother’s point of view. When Sonny
tells him that the revival meeting reminded him of how in control he felt with heroin, the narrator realizes that Sonny is actually speaking of something much greater. Here it is learned that Sonny uses drugs to “keep from drowning in” the suffering all humans have to go through. He explains that in order to gain anything or learn anything from the suffering, there needs to be a way to make it your own. For Sonny, heroin accomplishes this, as does jazz.
The narrator goes with Sonny to a jazz club. Sonny is going to play and everyone there greets him with expectation. The club is dark, except for a spotlight on the musicians. While Sonny plays, the narrator defines the blues as something “personal and private.” Sonny plays a set that the narrator understands is not the best he can do; he watches the older musician give Sonny room to take the lead but Sonny ignores it until later in the next set. As he begins to play “Am I Blue,” Sonny takes control of the music, and becomes “part of a family again.” At the end of the set, the narrator realizes that the music has helped Sonny to stay free and avoid drowning in his suffering. Furthermore, the narrator recognizes that the blues can help everyone be true to what and who they are.
Creole is a bass player who leads the band that Sonny plays in at the end of the story. He functions as a kind of father figure for Sonny; he believes it is his purpose to guide Sonny through his blues and teach him how to turn them into music. He also attempts to show Sonny’s brother how to understand Sonny.
Although the story is narrated by Sonny’s unnamed older brother, Sonny is the most important character. Sonny is described in a common stereotype of the time, a stereotype that his own brother holds until the end of the story: the heroin-addicted jazz musician. Sonny has just been arrested for “peddling and using heroin” and must do time in a prison upstate.
As the story progresses, however, the reader learns more about Sonny’s life before the arrest. He was the “apple of his father’s eye,” but in his youth he always had a tendency to stray from what his family thought would be the safe route. He decides that he wants to be a jazz musician, a choice that his brother finds regrettable. Sonny takes his music very seriously, and for a time he lives with his sister-in-law’s family while his brother is in the army. He takes his music so seriously that the family finds him strange—“it wasn’t like living with a person at all, it was like living with sound.”
Sonny and his brother fight periodically and are utterly unable to understand each other until Sonny returns from prison and his brother finally goes to Greenwich Village to hear Sonny play. A man named Creole leads the band, and Sonny admires his control of the music they play. As Sonny plays the piano in the jazz club, his brother begins to understand the deep suffering and the blues that have always preoccupied Sonny.
The experiences of Sonny are shown through the eyes of the story’s narrator, Sonny’s brother. The unnamed narrator is a high school algebra teacher who grew up in Harlem but has made an attempt to escape its cruel streets by getting a good job and integrating himself, as best he can, into white society. In subtle ways, however, he has internalized many of the prejudices of that society. When Sonny tells him that he wants to be a musician, his brother immediately assumes that this means a classical musician. After it becomes clear that Sonny wants to play jazz—a traditionally black genre—his brother thinks that “it seemed—beneath him, somehow.”
While Sonny has allowed his blues to dominate his life, his brother has internalized his own blues; only rarely do they make it to the surface. He is married to a woman named Isabel and seems happy, although one of their children dies while Sonny is in jail. He looks upon the streets of Harlem as a place he has left behind, but he is still comfortable there. He feels the blues that possess Sonny, but his moderate success has allowed him to keep them deep down inside himself.
Sonny’s father dies “during a drunken weekend in the middle of the war” when Sonny is fifteen. Little is revealed about him except that he was very strict with Sonny because his younger son was “the apple of his eye.” The father’s own brother was killed by a drunken group of white men long ago in the South. After that point, the mother tells Sonny’s brother, “he weren’t sure but that every white man he saw was the man that killed his brother.”
Sonny’s mother dies while Sonny is in school and his brother is still in the army, but she had already charged Sonny’s brother with Sonny’s care. “You got to hold on to your brother,” she tells him in their last moments together, “and don’t let him fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you gets with him.” Sonny’s brother accepts her request until Sonny begins to spend time downtown with jazz musicians.
In “Sonny’s Blues,” a man finally comes to understand the darkness and suffering that consumes his brother, and he begins to appreciate the music that his brother uses to calm those blues.
The main theme of “Sonny’s Blues” is suffering, particularly the sufferings of black people in America. Although Baldwin presents only one example of overt racism in the story—the death of Sonny’s uncle under the wheels of a car driven by a group of drunken whites—the repercussions of the treatment received by black people is omnipresent. Sonny’s father is tormented by the memory of his brother’s death and suffers from a hatred of white people as a result. This hatred, Baldwin suggests, warps his soul. Sonny’s mother also suffers from the harshness of life in Harlem and from her knowledge that her younger son feels this suffering more strongly than most.
Sonny’s brother, the narrator of the story, also suffers. Although he tries to block them out, the blues become apparent in the darkness that he sees everywhere, even in his students. He imagines them using heroin in the bathroom between classes and says that “their laughter . . . was not the joyous laughter which—God knows why—one associates with children.” For him, childhood has no joy.
His neighborhood, too, is “filled with a hidden menace” that the new housing project in which he and his wife live cannot hide. “It looks like a parody of the good, clean, faceless life—God knows the people who live in it do their best to make it a parody. . . . The minute Sonny and I started into the house I had the feeling that I was simply bringing him back into the danger he had almost died trying to escape.”
Baldwin makes Sonny’s blues the focus of the story. Sonny has not experienced anything significantly more traumatic than his brother has, but he feels it more intensely. Sonny always “moved . . . in a distant stillness,” his brother says. For that reason, his mother urges his brother to watch out for him. “You may not be able to stop nothing from happening. But you got to let him know you’s there. ”
For Sonny, heroin is a seductive outlet for his blues, but he knows that in the end it will kill him. Sonny is looking for a way to conceal the blues within him but admits in a letter to his brother that “trouble is the one thing that never does get stopped.” Music promises freedom from these blues, though, and during Sonny’s solo at the end of the story his brother sees this: “he could help us to be free if we would just listen, that he would never be free until we did. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth.”
Race and Racism
The fact that race is only a contributing factor in Sonny’s blues is characteristic of Baldwin’s beliefs. For him, the fact that he was black formed only part of his identity but did not ultimately define him.
Topics for Further Study
- Read about the development of bebop jazz music in the 1940s. Who were some of the important figures? How was bebop different from traditional jazz? Why was it controversial?
- How were black people treated in Northern cities in the 1940s and 1950s? How did daily life in the North differ from daily life in the South for a working-class black family? Was Sonny’s brother, with his middle-class life, an exception?
- Investigate the role of the church in Harlem today. What services does the church provide? How do the roles of religious institutions in neighborhoods like Harlem differ from their roles in other parts of the city?
Similarly, Sonny’s blues result in large part from the circumstances of his race—his upbringing in Harlem, the temptations of the streets, and the limits on his economic opportunity—but they also result from the natural human obligation to suffer. Additionally, the biblical reference at the end of the story serves to universalize Sonny’s troubles.
The history of oppression that blacks in America have suffered, however, certainly informs Sonny’s blues. This history is made distinctly personal when Sonny’s brother hears how his uncle died— run over by drunk white men in the South. Sonny’s brother also reminds readers of the circumstances of black people in the city when he details the poverty and neglect in his Harlem neighborhood.
Art and Expression
Baldwin believed in the power of art to save people from suffering, or at least to minimize their suffering. Correspondingly, Sonny uses blues and jazz as an outlet for his feelings, an outlet which his brother at first does not understand. Once Sonny’s brother visits the jazz club and hears Sonny play, however, he begins to comprehend the power and importance of music in Sonny’s life.
Narration and Point of View
“Sonny’s Blues” chronicles the relationship between two brothers at various points in their lives. Baldwin arranges the story’s events to show the building of an understanding between the two brothers. Sonny’s brother, who is never named in the story, narrates “Sonny’s Blues.” Although the story focuses on the events of Sonny’s life, the fact that readers hear his brother’s reactions to and feelings about Sonny’s actions broadens the scope of the story to include the brother’s life as well. Baldwin uses this double focus to bring out one of his most important themes: the growing understanding between estranged brothers.
The story is set in New York City, although at one point Sonny speaks in a letter from his prison cell upstate. Baldwin varies the time in which the story is set. By blending the time periods together with little separation or even clear notice, Baldwin establishes a sense of duration. Sonny’s brother narrates the important events of Sonny’s life as if they had happened at the same time. The fact that the events all share a sense of suffering or hardship or alienation hammers home the realization—which Sonny’s brother finally arrives at in the jazz club— that suffering has been the dominant mode of Sonny’s life. Baldwin arranges the story’s events thematically—as opposed to arranging them chronologically—to emphasize their content, instead of their sequence or causality.
In literature “catharsis” refers to the outlet given the audience’s emotions at the end of a story. In “Sonny’s Blues,” the cathartic moment occurs in the jazz club, when both Sonny’s brother and the reader watch Sonny overcome, for a moment, the troubles of the world through his music. The growing tension in the story is the reader’s and the narrator’s gradual understanding of Sonny and the burden he bears. The catharsis Baldwin grants both the reader and the narrator is seeing Sonny find a way to defuse his suffering. In this catharsis, the reader also watches Sonny’s own catharsis, as he uses his music as an outlet for his blues.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a new form of jazz music was being developed. The style, called “bebop,” “bop,” or later, “hard bop,” centered on a very complex and abstract type of soloing during familiar tunes. Often in the solo, only the chords of the original melody would remain the same, and the tune would bear no resemblance to more traditional versions. The soloist would also play at blistering speeds. The earliest bebop musicians were trumpet players Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, pianist Thelonious Monk, and saxophonist Charlie Parker. Parker is often credited as the originator of the genre.
Bebop became very controversial at a time when jazz was gaining respectability, and many of the traditional jazz musicians opposed it. Where traditional jazz music and its more popular subform, swing, encouraged audiences to dance and enjoy themselves, bebop focused attention on the soloist and on his technical virtuosity. In this way, it was akin to other forms of modernist art, which exalted difficulty and formal experimentation. The English poet Philip Larkin expressed this association between bebop and modernist art when he condemned what he considered the three main figures of modernism, “Picasso, Pound and Parker,” referring to artist Pablo Picasso, poet Ezra Pound, and musician Charlie Parker. Bebop was intellectualized where jazz and swing were pleasant and sensual, and the emotions that bebop expressed were often dark and brooding.
Contributing to bebop’s somewhat dangerous and seamy reputation were the highly publicized drug problems of many of bebop’s central figures. Charlie Parker, Art Pepper, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and many other important bebop innovators suffered from addictions to drugs; heroin was the most common drug in the jazz world. Most of bebop’s important figures lived in New York City by the late 1940s, playing clubs in Greenwich Village and on 52nd Street where heroin was easy to find. By the 1950s, bebop and heroin were virtually synonymous.
In Baldwin’s story, the character of Sonny represents bebop in both its positive and negative aspects. The brother thinks of jazz as “clowning around on bandstands,” while for Sonny music is deadly serious, life itself. When the brother finally
Compare & Contrast
- 1950s: Jazz innovators, such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Bud Powell either live in or spend a great deal of time playing in New York City. Clubs such as the Village Vanguard and Birdland are world-famous for their revolutionary jazz offerings.
Today: After a long period of drought, bebop-influenced jazz (now viewed as “traditional”) is again popular in New York City. Players such as Joshua Redman and Roy Ayres, known as “Young Lions,” bring the old sounds back to the old clubs like the Vanguard and the Blue Note, while jazzman Wynton Marsalis has an office at Lincoln Center, the epitome of musical classicism.
- 1950s: Heroin is an underground drug, synonymous with jazzmen, beatniks and lowlifes. Although many artists, musicians, and urban dwellers are addicted to the drug, the general population is primarily unaware of its existence.
Today: Heroin use is surging among young people after decades of unpopularity. Musician Kurt Cobain of the group Nirvana kills himself in 1994 after battling unsuccessfully with a heroin addiction.
- 1957: In Little Rock, Arkansas, federal troops are needed to integrate Central High School after Arkansas governor Orval Faubus refuses to let black children enter the building.
1997: President and former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton seeks to integrate his White House Cabinet, hoping to make his closest group of advisers “look more like America.”
does go to see Sonny play, he begins to understand what bebop is all about. The “clowning” that he previously felt was the essence of jazz is nowhere to be found, and in its place there is the blues. The deep emotional expression of the song Sonny plays— “Am I Blue” —connects with Sonny’s brother. “He hit something in me, myself.”
Race in New York City
James Baldwin grew up in New York City and therefore was spared the brutal racial oppression of the South in the 1930s and 1940s. Baldwin’s neighborhood, Harlem, had by the 1920s become a haven for blacks coming north from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. Although the North did not have the racist Jim Crow laws that characterized the South, it was by no means a land of equality. Blacks in the North suffered from limited educational and economic opportunities. They were the “last hired and the first fired” for most jobs. Harlem was often a rude shock to poor blacks fleeing the South. Expecting a friendly reception from a proudly black city, they were often greeted by crime, poverty, and the infamous New York attitude that disdains newcomers and country people.
However difficult life was in Harlem, though, it was better than life in the South. For that reason many of the leading lights of African-American culture congregated there, and in the 1920s the neighborhood enjoyed a cultural high point called the “Harlem Renaissance.” Writers such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, musicians such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and many other artistic and intellectual figures made Harlem and New York City a haven for culture.
Baldwin was born into this world, where extreme poverty and deprivation were often overshadowed by the achievements of a few of the neighborhood’s inhabitants. “You see, there were two Harlems,” Baldwin said in 1969. “There were those who lived in Sugar Hill and there was the Hollow, where we lived. There was a great divide between the black people on the hill and us. I was just a raggedy, funky black shoeshine boy and was
afraid of the people on the Hill, who, for their part, didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”
Although New York was often difficult and daunting, throughout his life Baldwin continued to feel most at home in Harlem. The city of New York, with its extremes, retained a central importance in Baldwin’s work until his death. In Harlem, he said in 1989, “people know what I know, and we can talk and laugh, and it would never occur to anybody to say what we all know.”
Though Baldwin published “Sonny’s Blues” as part of his only story collection, Going to Meet the Man, in 1965, the story had appeared in a periodical several years before. While stories in periodicals are generally not reviewed, the magazine in which “Sonny’s Blues” appeared does give some indication of Baldwin’s place in the literary world at that time. “Sonny’s Blues” led off the summer, 1957, issue of Partisan Review, which at the time was of America’s leading journals of culture and politics. Baldwin’s story was longer than most stories and was given the prestigious first position in the magazine, demonstrating the respect that the magazine’s editors felt Baldwin deserved.
Baldwin had long been a figure in New York’s intellectual community. He had moved to Greenwich Village from Harlem in 1944, where he met Richard Wright, then America’s most important black writer. Baldwin wrote for the Nation and the New Leader while in the Village, before moving to Paris in 1948. During the 1940s and early 1950s, he received fellowships and grants from important cultural organizations and wrote for major American magazines while producing important works of drama, fiction, and nonfiction.
Baldwin’s work was almost immediately lauded by the critics. His 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain announced the presence of a major American writer. Another book of the same time, Notes of a Native Son, was a collection of essays primarily concentrating on questions of race in America. Baldwin claimed Wright’s mantle as the most important black writer in America. His next novel, however, went in a direction that critics were not expecting and reviews were negative. Giovanni’s Room tells the story of a love affair between a white American student in Paris and an Italian bartender. Its frank depiction of homosexuality signaled Baldwin’s acceptance of his own sexual orientation but alienated many readers and critics. Baldwin continued to write about life as a gay man throughout his career. By the late 1950s it had almost become a “critical commonplace,” according to John M. Reilly in James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, that Baldwin’s nonfiction was of superior quality to his fiction and the plays that he wrote.
In 1965, Baldwin published Going to Meet the Man, and critics began to write about “Sonny’s Blues.” The story, like Baldwin’s career itself, was viewed from opposing perspectives: critics either reviewed it as a story specifically about the black experience in America or about suffering’s role in the human condition. Whichever side of this debate a critic came down on, though, almost all critics agreed that “Sonny’s Blues” was a major accomplishment in the short story form. “Nearly every word, every gesture in it, adds up toward the meeting of form, theme and meaning,” Stanley Macebuh held in James Baldwin: A Critical Study. Macebuh went on to state that “the meaning of the story is to be found in its structure. . . . of a blues song,” in which there are no “profundities of thought” or “events that are in themselves of cataclysmic import,” but simply a “ritualistic repetition of feeling, emotion and mood.”
Louis H. Pratt took the opposite viewpoint, believing that “Sonny’s Blues” is specifically a black story. He asserted in James Baldwin that the stories in Going to Meet the Man all deal with the “insurmountable fears—conscious and unconscious—which grow out of the experience of being black in a white-oriented society.” To overcome these fears, Pratt believed, Baldwin’s characters must “open a line of communication with the past.” “This channel can be opened only though personal suffering,” Pratt concluded. Where Sonny already has this channel open and is using the blues to overcome his fears and his suffering, Sonny’s brother must experience the death of his daughter first in order to open himself up to the blues.
Reilly, in James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, believed that the story “not only states dramatically the motive for Baldwin’s famous polemics in the cause of Black freedom, but it also provides an esthetic linking his work, in all genres, with the cultures of the Black ghetto.” For Reilly, as for Pratt, Baldwin’s story is essentially an African-American one.
More recent critics have taken different approaches to the story. Patricia R. Robertson, in The University of Mississippi Studies in English, examined the religious grounding of the story, while Suzy Bernstein Goldman, in Negro American Literature Forum, discussed jazz and blues parallels. In the last few years, the most popular approach to Baldwin’s work has been an examination of his themes of homosexuality, but few of those articles deal with “Sonny’s Blues.” In general, the critics agree that “Sonny’s Blues” is a masterpiece of the short story form, one in which Baldwin demonstrates his ability to illustrate the relationship between seemingly “black” literature and American literature.
Jennifer Hicks is a professor and director of the Academic Support and Writing Assessment program at Massachusetts Bay Community College in Wellesley, MA. In the following essay, she discusses the racial issues that serve as a backdrop in “Sonny’s Blues.”
Each of us wants to live a life where we feel fulfilled and joyous. A few of us accomplish this with seemingly little effort; others struggle on their journey through periods of self doubt, rejection, depression, or the blues. James Baldwin was no different; yet while he struggled toward his own individual fulfillment, he began to feel a driving need to tie the idea of individual effort and fulfillment to the black race. In fact, according to C.W.E. Bigsby, editor of The Black American Writer, the central point of conflict in much of Baldwin’s writing is to show that “the job of ethnic renewal [lies] in individual fulfillment rather than racial separatism or political revolution.”
Putting emphasis on the individual is also a way to portray blacks as unique “members of a community with its own traditions and values,” according to Irving Howe in Dissent. In part, this emphasis stems from racial bias against blacks. It also stems, however, from the realization that with the Harlem Renaissance, the black “writer has come to appreciate the relevance of his own experience to a nation searching for its own sense of identity and purpose,” according to Bigsby. For these reasons, the times and community in which Baldwin grew up
What Do I Read Next?
- Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin’s landmark novel about the condition of African Americans in the United States.
- Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin’s highly regarded collection of essays which discuss race issues.
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is another landmark novel about the position of blacks in American society.
- Mexico City Blues (1959) by Jack Kerouac is a song-like novel written in the style of jazz compositions. Kerouac was a leader of the Beat Movement in literature, a group of New York City writers in the 1940s and 1950s who were influenced by the milieu of Harlem, be-bop jazz music, blues, and drugs.
become important. They contributed to his need to find how “the specialness of [his] experience could be made to connect [him] to other people instead of dividing [him] from them.”
Baldwin’s early experiences became integral to his writings. The eldest of nine children, he was born in 1924 in Harlem to a preacher and his wife. At that time, Harlem was the country’s largest black community. It was home to many blacks who had come North to escape the severe repression of the Jim Crow laws in the South. According to Baldwin, Harlem was a “dreadful place. . . a kind of concentration camp,” where at the age of ten he was beaten by two police officers because of the color of his skin. It was also the place where his mother said no child would ever be safe. At the age of 24, Baldwin needed to get away from “the dehumanizing society of New York” to avoid becoming engulfed by “the fury of the color problem.” He accepted a literary prize that included a monetary stipend in 1948 and went to France to write.
Apparently the escape was worthwhile. Baldwin worked at finding the individual within himself after he had a breakdown and spent some recuperative time listening to the blues music of Bessie Smith. Within the next few years he produced the critically-acclaimed Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1953 and the controversial Giovanni’s Room in 1956. Although one of the reasons Baldwin had escaped to Europe was to avoid being categorized as a “Negro writer,” events occurring at this time in the United States made him think the time had come to accept the label. He saw the U.S. Supreme Court rule that segregation was illegal in the case of Brown vs. The Board of Education in 1954, and he also saw Rosa Parks arrested for not moving to the back of a bus a year after that. Then in 1957, he heard of the race riot in Arkansas that occurred after nine black students began attending an all-white school. As a member of an ethnic and cultural community that was experiencing rapid change, Baldwin felt obligated to return to the United States.
Baldwin published “Sonny’s Blues” the year he returned. The story contains evidence of the conflict Baldwin faced: between following an individual path and maintaining or renewing ethnic ties. According to John Reilly in James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays,“the discovery of identity is nowhere presented more successfully than in the short story of ’Sonny’s Blues’.” The story concerns two estranged brothers and their quest to find fulfillment. Their relationship undergoes change as they tentatively reach an understanding and begin to talk with one another again.
“Sonny’s Blues” powerfully shows the growth of Sonny’s older brother, the narrator, who had responded to his racial status by fitting in with the status quo. The narrator is an algebra teacher in a New York high school. His success in assimilating into the white-dominated society separates him from his brother and a world that “filled everything, the people, the houses, the music, the dark, quicksilver barmaid, with the menace [that] was their reality.”
On the other hand, his younger brother Sonny lives outside of the accepted white society. Sonny is initially portrayed as the family failure, the kind of character that Baldwin so easily criticized in his early essay “The Protest Novel.” Rather than fulfilling himself by assimilating into the mainstream culture and following the American Dream, he chooses to immerse himself in the blues world and become a heroin addict. It is within this portrayal of how individuals react to and deal with their circumstances that we see Baldwin looking both at individual importance and ethnic renewal.
Baldwin weaves images and concepts from his past into the story. He writes of a neighborhood quite reminiscent of his own. The students in the story are “smothering in these houses, [coming] down into the streets for light and air and [finding] themselves encircled by danger.” The brothers’ parents consider their environment unsafe, but then too the father says, “Ain’t no place safe for kids, nor anybody.” Like Sonny, he also uses the blues—an African-American folk music genre that originated in the South—as a key metaphor. (Metaphors are devices used in writing to show how something totally unlike something else may in fact share similar characteristics.) In “Sonny’s Blues,” the blues become the instrument that, as one critic says, helps rebuild relationships, either of the self or with others. The relationship being repaired belongs to Sonny and the narrator. In Baldwin’s own life the blues were his mainstay during his breakdown. The music helped connect him to who he was. Thus, Baldwin uses the blues in this story to show us an individual’s road to fulfillment. As Howe says, however, it is also used to depict the “living culture of men and women . . . who share in the emotion and desires of common humanity . . . as evidence of [Black] worth . . . moral tenacity, and right to self-acceptance.” The music becomes, therefore, a device to explain individual fulfillment and extend it to identify a culture.
When Baldwin writes of the narrator’s students “living as we’d been living then, . . . growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities,” he reminds readers of the realities for American blacks in the 1950s. When he describes in detail the revival scene on the sidewalk, he demonstrates a tradition with value in that same community. At the end of the story, when both brothers are in the nightclub and Creole steps aside to let Sonny solo, the narrator overcomes his isolationist position and feels a sense of empathy and community with his brother. He allows himself re-entrance into his culture while he listens to what Sonny plays: “He began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.”
Source: Jennifer Hicks, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
“It is within this portrayal of how individuals react to and deal with their circumstances that we see Baldwin looking both at individual importance and ethnic renewal.”
Patricia R. Robertson
In the following essay, Robertson explores the theme of the scapegoat in “Sonny’s Blues,” which she says is developed through the images of music and the street revival.
In James Baldwin’s only book of short stories, Going to Meet the Man,“Sonny’s Blues” stands out as the best, most memorable. This story is both realistic and symbolic, part autobiography and part fiction. So memorable is “Sonny’s Blues” that a student once put it at the top of a list of thirty stories read for a course in fiction. She commented, “The story haunts you; its beauty continues in your mind long after the original reading and discussion.” The story’s haunting beauty comes from our participation in the scapegoat metaphor that creates the intricate tracery which holds the story together, forming a graceful spiral, a pattern of correspondences which informs and entices as it helps us to be free.
The scapegoat metaphor is developed through several images, the most important of which is music, with its links to suffering and brotherhood. But we are only dimly aware of this scapegoat pattern until we see the final, startling biblical image of the scotch and milk drink, “the very cup of trembling,” which follows Sonny’s playing of the blues and which clarifies the story’s meaning. This “cup of trembling,” then, is at once the Old Testament cup of justice and the New Testament cup of Gethsemane, or mercy. The Old Testament allusion to the “cup of trembling” leads directly to the scapegoat metaphor and the idea of pain and suffering of a people. The New Testament story of hope is carried in Sonny’s name which suggests Christ symbolism and leads to the New Testament message of the ’cup of trembling’ as the cup of Gethsemane which Christ drank, symbolizing the removal of sins for all who believe and hope for eternal life through belief in him. Sonny’s name echoes this special relationship. Sonny, the scapegoat, is the hope of his particular world.
The power of guilt and suffering is revealed in Sonny’s tenuous relationship with his own brother and in his immediate empathy with the revivalists; it has been foreshadowed in the anguish of the young friend who still feels a connection with Sonny. Through these people’s responses we come to understand that brothers—literal or metaphorical — rescue, redeem, bring righteous anger, and act as scapegoats to open up the world of suffering; the friend begins this for Sonny’s brother, the revivalists for Sonny, and Sonny for his brother and for us.
Further, the scapegoat metaphor is strengthened and enriched by the metaphor of shared suffering carried through music—either by a young boy’s whistle, by the revivalist’s hymns, or finally and most significantly by Sonny’s hot piano on which he plays the blues. The blues metaphor also involves suffering and the sharing of suffering that supercedes race and time and cements us all together within our shared humanity. Sonny’s music—the blues—has power to transform both his and our pain; through his sharing, Sonny becomes the ultimate scapegoat.
The term ’scapegoat’ means ’sharing of pain’; it implies a true understanding of another’s suffering. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, the scapegoat, the caper emissarius, or azazel, was originally “a goat over the heads of which the high priest of the ancient Jews confessed the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement, after which it was allowed to escape.” More secularly and popularly, the scapegoat is “a person, group, or thing upon whom the blame for the mistakes or crimes of others is thrust.”
Baldwin, himself, defines for us the scapegoat metaphor when he asserts “That all mankind is united by virtue of their humanity.” He writes elsewhere, “It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself.’” In another context, Jack Matthews, in Archetypal Themes in the Modem Story, asks “When is a person not himself?” He answers, “When he reminds you of someone else and you can’t see the living presence because of the remembered image. Or when, through accident or muddled design, he begins to embody our own secret fears. In psychology, this is termed projection; in a story or folktale, it is a celebration of the Scapegoat theme.” Thus the literary scapegoat, through his own personal suffering or by his metaphorical sharing of his own sorrow, may allow us to see into life and into ourselves and thus vicariously transfer our guilt and pain through him and his suffering.
In this story music is the thread that accompanies and develops the brotherhood/scapegoat metaphor. For in his music Sonny reveals both his suffering and his understanding of others’ pain. His music becomes a mystical, spiritual medium, an open-ended metaphor simultaneously comforting the player and the listener and releasing their guilt and pain. No words could have expressed so well what Sonny’s music conveyed effortlessly. For, according to Cirlot [in A Dictionary of Symbols],“Music represents an intermediate zone between the differentiated or material world and the undifferentiated realm of the ’pure will’ of [German philosopher Arthur] Schopenhauer.” The power of this emotional transfer is seen in the brother’s response. For through Sonny’s music his brother comes to understand his own life, his parents’ experience, his daughter’s death, and his wife’s grief. The brother recapitulates his own, Sonny’s, and the family’s suffering here at the end of the story. But as [Danish philosopher Soren] Kierkegaard says, in Repetition,“repetition” replaces “the more traditional Platonic term anamnesis or recollection.” This is “not the simple repeating of an experience, but the recreating of it which redeems or awakens it to life, the end of the process. . .being the apocalyptic promise: ’Behold, I make all things new.’” Sonny’s awakening is done through his blues, and its effect is revealed through the brother’s sudden understanding, conveyed in the final image of the Scotch and milk drink, “the very cup of trembling.” This central biblical image reverberates with life and reinforces the scapegoat metaphor. This recreation of life is also what the blues are all about. We come full circle.
The scapegoat metaphor is first presented very quietly when Sonny’s childhood friend offers to become a scapegoat, insisting upon his symbolic action when he tells Sonny’s brother, “Funny thing, . . . when I saw the papers this morning, the first thing I asked myself was if I had anything to do with [Sonny’s arrest for using and selling heroin]. I felt sort of responsible.” The young man offers to take the blame for Sonny’s fall, but his hesitant plea is offensive to the brother who, like us, does not understand the symbolic significance of the act. For, instead of accepting and sharing the man’s guilt, the brother becomes angry at the friend’s panhandling. He feels superior to him and rejects his offer and his sympathy.
Just prior to this meeting with the old friend a boy’s whistle echoes through the school yard. The whistle is “at once very complicated and very simple; it seemed to be pouring out of him as though he were a bird, and it sounded very cool and moving through all that harsh, bright air, only just holding its own through all those other sounds.” But this music creates a central abstract image, a tone poem carrying the sadness and guilt of the brother, a simple yet complicated sounding of pain.
This first subtle pairing of music with guilt and pain sets the tone for the story. This young man, this emotional ’brother,’ cannot comfort Sonny’s brother, but paradoxically his sincere concern increases the brother’s understanding of Sonny’s problems. Further, this sad young man illustrates the community’s desperate need for a savior as well as setting up the scapegoat metaphor. For the brother sees in the friend as in a mirror the great sadness and courage of Sonny. He says “All at once something inside gave and threatened to come pouring out of me. I didn’t hate him [the friend] any more. I felt that in another moment I’d start crying like a child.” This emotional release is the first step toward understanding and the first presentation of the Old Testament scapegoat motif so delicately interwoven in this story.
The scapegoat metaphor is next presented and perfectly symbolized by the street revival. The street people are a paradigm of life, a kind of representative cross-section of humanity. All sorts of people watch and listen to the street revivalists— working people, children, older folks, street women, Sonny, and Sonny’s brother who watches from above at the window. At this “old fashioned revival meeting” there are “three sisters in black, and a brother. All they [have are] their voices and their Bibles and a tambourine.” These people sing “‘Tis the old ship of Zion’. . . .it has rescued many a thousand! ”
The listeners hear nothing new, only the old pain and suffering and the offer of relief from three sisters and a brother, mortals like themselves; yet these four make suffering real. Their music acts as a mirror for the watchers whose response illustrates the scapegoat metaphor in action: “As the singing
“In this story music is the thread that accompanies and develops the brotherhood/scapegoat metaphor.”
filled the air the watching, listening faces underwent a change, the eyes focusing on something within; the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them; and time seemed, nearly, to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last.” These spirituals are an amalgam of joy and the blues, touching everyone who listens and helping them share the guilt and pain of the human condition.
The revival, central to the brother’s awareness since it incorporates music, religion, and suffering, helps Sonny to articulate the relationship between suffering and human understanding. Also, for Sonny, the woman revivalist serves as a scapegoat; she helps him to understand his own suffering just as she had helped those who listened and contributed to her cause. For Sonny, this insight into the woman’s suffering makes his own pain bearable, makes it possible to reach out to his brother. For Sonny understands this scene. Touched by their pain, he alone articulates its universal meaning—suffering. New Testament echoes of brother and savior are palpable in his response: “It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much.” But ironically, the biblical scapegoat metaphor suggests group suffering as well as individual suffering.
Sonny’s own pain has been personal and private. He had tried to tell his brother about his suffering in the letter from prison, but he was almost inarticulate. His suffering went beyond words. Now, after the brothers have experienced the revival, Sonny tries again to communicate with his brother by explaining his relationship with music: “you finally try to get with it and play it, [and] you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen,” to distance the pain, to look at despair and deal with guilt in order to live. To play this way requires brutal honesty and empathy with the suffering of others. Sonny says, I “can’t forget—where I’ve been. I don’t mean just the physical place I’ve been, I mean where I’ve been. And what I’ve been. . . .I’ve been something I didn’t recognize, didn’t know I could be. Didn’t know anybody could be.” But the painful rendition of the revivalists shows him musically that others have been there too.
Significantly, Sonny invites his brother to hear him play right after the street revival when they talk for almost the first time. Sonny understands his own need and his brother’s suffering because someone else’s suffering mirrors his own, effectively causing his confession and his sharing of his own pain through his music, mirror of man’s soul. Music is able to heal wounds, for when Sonny is in perfect harmony with himself and with his environment, when he understands, he plays the piano effortlessly. Now Sonny’s confession of failure also prepares for the final scene where Sonny plays the blues, an appropriate musical form based on folk music and characterized by minor harmonies, slow tempo, and melancholy words. The blues, like the tuneless whistle and the melancholy spirituals sung by the revivalists, reinforce the idea of human suffering carried by the scapegoat metaphor. For the blues, sad and melancholy jazz, are a mood, a feeling, a means of escape and entertainment; the blues, especially, are a way of sharing suffering, a way of strengthening the idea of community. The blues, the tune without the words in this instance, help the inarticulate young pianist to communicate with his brother and with the world. Thus he enriches the central metaphor for the story. For according to C. W. Sylvander, “Art can be a means for release from the ’previous condition’ when it is heard, listened to, understood.”
The linkage between the scapegoat motif and the music is clearly revealed when Creole has the group play the blues and signifies that this particular rendition is ’Sonny’s blues.’ L. H. Pratt notes that “Once the narrator draws near to listen, the blues becomes the means by which Sonny is able to lead his brother, through a confrontation with the meaning of life, into a discovery of self.” Through the blues the brothers can communicate. The blues become the last and greatest reinforcer of the scapegoat metaphor. For through the music something magical happens.
The narrator comes to understand that “not many people ever hear [music]. [But]. . .When something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations.” The same thing is true of our suffering and our alienation from others. Until we understand another’s pain, we cannot understand our own. We must be transformed as the musician is. The musician, a kind of scapegoat, removes the pain of existence and helps us understand our suffering.
Sonny—the name echoes his strong New Testament scapegoat position—takes the pain away for all those who listen when he plays the blues. But as Baldwin says, Sonny cannot be free unless we listen and we will not be free either until he removes our pain—or until we believe in his ability to remove that suffering; Sonny thus serves to free those who listen as the cup of Gethsemane serves to free those who believe. Sonny’s name echoes this special relationship and speaks of him as the ultimate scapegoat.
The brother, then, represents us also as he vividly illustrates our human response to the scapegoat offer. We accept, as understanding and insight come through the music; we change, for the function of the scapegoat is vicarious death. The ancient scapegoat was presented alive and allowed to escape; but metaphorically he represented the death of sin and pain for those covered by his action. Metaphysically what happens when we hear, as Sonny knows, is a death of our old understanding or the old ways and a recreation of a new way of being. So finally, at the end, in the image of the Scotch and milk drink, an image so unprepared for as to be startling, we see Sonny’s symbolic value as the scapegoat. The transformation occurs as the music plays, because for the musician “What is evoked . . . is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”
Only in music can Sonny truly tell all and fulfill his function as a scapegoat. Only in music can he reach our hearts and minds. Thus the last and clearest presentation of the scapegoat metaphor comes at the end of the story. Here “Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. . . . It was no longer a lament.” This is a clear expression of the scapegoat metaphor. For Sonny’s sharing through music transforms the pain. As the narrator says, “Freedom lurked around us and I understood at last that he could help us be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.” This freedom is the Black’s escape, the reader’s escape, Sonny’s escape. It is the scapegoat metaphor in action, a release for Sonny’s brother and for us too. For Sonny “was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever.”
The reversal of the situation at the end is important. The blues which Creole guides Sonny to play are central. For to play the blues one must first have suffered; then one creates the form to hold the pain, a fluid changing style where, according to John Reilly, “One uses the skill one has achieved by practice and experience in order to reach toward others.” The narrator expresses it best: “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.”
Sonny’s brother indicates that he both understands and symbolically shares Sonny’s pain and guilt by sending the Scotch and milk drink. He affirms the religious connection with his comment, “For me, then, as they began to play again [the cup of Scotch and milk] glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.” The drink of Scotch and milk develops the image of Sonny as sinner and savior, the God/man, the scapegoat, the unlikely mixture which saves. This image conveys Sonny’s complex purpose and suggests, on an earthly level, that Sonny’s pain will continue, but his pain is shared and understood by his brother. On the second level it suggests that as God took away the pain for Israel, and as Christ takes away the pain and sin of the world for the believer, so does Sonny, the scapegoat, take away pain and guilt for his brother, for the listeners, and for us. As Keith Byerman said [in Studies in Short Fiction],“The drink itself, Scotch and milk, is an emblem of simultaneous destruction and nurture to the system; it cannot be reduced to one or the other. Sonny’s acceptance of it indicates that his life will continue on the edge between the poison of his addiction and the nourishment of his music.” But Sonny has drunk the cup of pain before; now the brother joins in, empathizes, understands. Sonny drinks the Scotch and milk and continues to suffer, but part of his suffering is removed by his brother’s understanding. For the brother, the action itself suggests increased understanding and a sharing of Sonny’s pain.
The brother’s final comment about the ’cup of trembling’ emphasizes the narrator’s understanding and reinterprets the image, making Sonny a true scapegoat for the reader and enlarging our vision as well. Only with the last image do we reflect on the biblical imagery, seeing Sonny’s linkage to Aaron and to Christ. Then we concentrate on Sonny’s name; he is transformed before our very eyes and we see in his ceremonial acceptance of the drink his function as a scapegoat, a substitute for all.
Source: Patricia R. Robertson, “Baldwin’s ’Sonny’s Blues’: The Scapegoat Metaphor,” in The University of Mississippi Studies in English. Vol. IX, 1991, pp. 189-96.
Suzy Bernstein Goldman
In the following essay, Goldman discusses the musicality of “Sonny’s Blues,” particularly the influence of jazz music, and how the form of the story echoes that of a longer musical work.
In “Sonny’s Blues” theme, form, and image blend into perfect harmony and rise to a thundering crescendo. The story, written in 1957 but carrying a vital social message for us today, tells of two black brothers’ struggle to understand one another. The older brother, a straight-laced Harlem algebra teacher, is the unnamed narrator who represents, in his anonymity, everyman’s brother; the younger man is Sonny, a jazz pianist who, when the story opens, has just been arrested for peddling and using heroin. As in so much of Baldwin’s fiction, chronological time is upset. Instead the subject creates its own form. Musical terms along with words like “hear” and “listen” give the title a double meaning. This story about communication between people then reaches its climax when the narrator finally hears his brother’s sorrow in his music, hears, that is, Sonny’s blues.
The story begins when the narrator learns of Sonny’s arrest in a most impersonal manner—by reading the newspaper. Yet this rude discovery sounds the initial note in these two brothers’ growing closeness. The shock of recognition forces the narrator to confront his past refusal to accept the miserable truths around him. For too long, he admits, he had been “talking about algebra to a lot of boys who might, every one of them . . . be popping off needles every time they went to the head.” He completes his own first lesson in understanding and takes his first step towards Sonny when he begins to hear his own students:
I listened to the boys outside. . . . Their laughter struck me for perhaps the first time. It was not the joyous laughter which . . . one associates with children. It was mocking and insular, its intent to denigrate. It was disenchanted, and in this, also, lay the authority of their curses. Perhaps I was listening to them because I was thinking about my brother and in them I heard my brother. And myself.
“In this story of a musician, four time sequences mark four movements while the leitmotifs of this symphonic lesson in communication are provided by the images of sound.”
One boy was whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple, it seemed to be pouring out of him as though he were a bird, and it sounded very cool and moving through that harsh, bright air, only just holding its own through all those other sounds.
This last boy particularly suggests Sonny, the young man who makes himself heard and transcends the disenchantment, the darkness, with his song. Then immediately the narrator encounters another surrogate brother in Sonny’s old friend who has come to the school to bring the news. Conversation between the two is guarded and hostile until the narrator, although he has never liked his brother’s friend, begins to hear the boy and to feel guilty for never having heard him before, “for never having supposed that the poor bastard had a story of his own, much less a sad one.” Standing together outside a bar while a juke box sounds from within, the friend confesses that he first described to Sonny the effects of heroin. Again the narrator psychologically retreats. Fearful of learning about heroin and too anxious himself to help Sonny, he timidly asks what the arrest means. The friend’s reply is telling. “Listen,” he shouts. “They’ll let him out and then it’ll just start all over again. That’s what I mean.” The two part after the friend, pretending to have left all his money home, plays upon the narrator’s guilt and basic kindness to the tune of five dollars. Thus the first movement ends.
The second movement opens with the narrator’s first letter to Sonny. Sonny’s answer, equating drug addiction with prison and both with Harlem, shows his need to reach his brother. Finally the two men have begun to communicate with one another. The letters continue until Sonny’s return to New York when the narrator, who has started at last “to wonder about Sonny, about the life that Sonny lived inside,” takes him home. The narrator is awkward here, wanting only to hear that Sonny is safe and refusing to accept the fact that he might not be. He is still unwilling to see Sonny on Sonny’s terms; like an overly anxious parent he must make Sonny conform to his own concepts of respectability.
The word “safe” is the note that takes us into the third movement, to time past when Sonny’s father claimed there was “no place safe.” In the flashbacks the narrator recalls events that fuse past, present, and future. Parallels are drawn between the father and Sonny, between the Harlem of one generation and the Harlem of the other. Images of darkness mingle with those of sound. For each generation, however, the tragedy is new, for the older people are reluctant to inform the young ones of the condition of the Black race. The old folks who sit in the dark quit talking, because if the child “knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon about what’s going to happen to him.” Thus even in the past, silence was preferable to expression.
We learn also of another pair of brothers, Sonny’s father and uncle. The uncle, like Sonny, was a musician, but he got killed one night when some drunk white men ran him over in their car. The narrator’s mother tells her older son this story to make him look after his brother, but her death, occurring shortly after this conversation, only shows the immeasurable gulf between the two boys. The narrator, recently married, thinks he is taking care of Sonny by forcing him to live with his wife’s family, but Sonny, already on drugs though unable to admit it, could not want anything less. Their failure to communicate is at its peak. When Sonny announces his ambition “to play jazz,” the appalled narrator is totally unresponsive. The most he can promise is to buy Charlie Parker’s records, although Sonny insists he doesn’t care what his brother listens to. Certainly he doesn’t listen to Sonny, urging him only to be respectable and stay in school:
“You only got another year . . . Just try to put up with it till I come back. Will you please do that? For me?”
He didn’t answer and he wouldn’t look at me.
“Sonny, you hear me?”
He pulled away. “I hear you. But you never hear anything I say.”
The narrator, though he didn’t know what to say to that, reminds Sonny of the piano at his inlaws, and Sonny gives in. Later we learn of Sonny’s obsession with the piano. Because he has no one to communicate with, the piano becomes his only source of expression:
As soon as he came in . . . , until suppertime. And, after supper, he went back to that piano and stayed there until everybody went to bed. He was at the piano all day Saturday and all day Sunday. . . .
Isabel finally confessed that it wasn’t like living with a person at all, it was like living with sound. And the sound didn’t make any sense to her, didn’t make any sense to any of them—naturally. . . . He moved in an atmosphere which wasn’t like theirs at all. . . . There wasn’t any way to reach him. . . .
They dimly sensed, as I sensed, . . . that Sonny was at that piano playing for his life.
They succeed in reaching him, however, when they discover he has not been in school but in a white girl’s Greenwich Village apartment playing music. After that Sonny enlists. When he returns, a man, although the narrator “wasn’t willing to see it,” the brothers fight, for to the narrator Sonny’s “music seemed to be merely an excuse for the life he led. It sounded just that weird and disordered.” At this point they cut off all contact.
The fourth movement begins by recapitulating and developing the first. “I read about Sonny’s troubles in the spring. Little Grace died in the fall.” We move through time easily now, perceiving the connection between the narrator’s first letter to Sonny and his daughter’s death: “My trouble made his real.” He has begun, finally, to sympathize, to understand.
The last movement then begins its own theme, the new relationship between the brothers. A subtly presented but major change in this relationship occurs when they watch a street revival meeting:
The revival was being carried on by three sisters in black, and a brother. All they had were their voices and their Bibles and a tambourine. . . .
“Tis the old ship of Zion,” they sang. . . . Not a soul under the sound of their voices was hearing this song for the first time, not one of them had been rescued. . . . The woman with the tambourine, whose voice dominated the air, whose face was bright with joy, was divided by very little from the woman who stood watching her, a cigarette between her heavy, chapped lips, her hair a cuckoo’s nest, her face scarred and swollen from many beatings, and her black eyes glittering like coal. Perhaps they both knew this, which was why, when, as rarely, they addressed each other, they addressed each other as Sister.
There is a greater brotherhood among people than mere kinship. Moreover, the narrator realizes that their music saves them, for it “seemed to soothe a poison out of them.” The narrator’s simultaneous recognition of the meaning of brotherhood and the power of music leads directly to Sonny’s invitation. He asks his brother to listen, that night, to his own music. That street song is thus a prelude to the brothers’ first honest talk and carries us to the finale when Sonny plays for the narrator.
Sonny now tells his brother that the woman’s voice reminded him “of what heroin feels like.” This equation of music and drugs, recalling the narrator’s discussion with Sonny’s friend outside a bar, explains why the one could be a positive alternative to the other. We better understand Sonny’s desperate commitment to the piano. Sonny is “doing his best to talk,” and the narrator knows that he should “listen.” He realizes the profundity of Sonny’s suffering now and sees also his own part in it: “There stood between us, forever, beyond the power of time or forgiveness, the fact that I had held silence—so long!—when he had needed human speech to help him.”
The narrator’s epiphany allows Sonny to continue, and he makes explicit now the connection between music and his own need to be heard:
There’s not really a living ass to talk to, . . . and there’s no way of getting it out—that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you ’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.
Playing his own song, Sonny finds a way to listen, though he confesses that heroin sometimes helped him release the storm. Now he wants his brother to hear the storm too.
And he finally does. When Sonny, his voice barely audible, says of heroin “It can come again,” the brother replies, “All right . . . so it can come again. All right.” For that first true acceptance of himself, Sonny tells the narrator, “You’re my brother.”
The finale brings our two themes of interpersonal communication and music together. Baldwin arranges a discussion between the musicians and their instruments using the language of ordinary conversation. Creole, the leader of the group, is guiding Sonny as they begin to play. “He was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny.” Then they work towards the climax:
The dry, low, black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horn insisted, . . . and Creole listened, commenting now and then. . . . Then they all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family again. . . .
Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. . . . 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.
Finally Creole steps back to let Sonny speak for himself:
Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues. . . .
Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. . . . Sonny . . . really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. . . . I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.
Sonny’s music stirs special memories in the brothers’ lives, but these blues belong to all of us, for they symbolize the darkness which surrounds all those who fail to listen to and remain unheard by their fellow men.
Source: Suzy Bernstein Goldman, “James Baldwin’s ’Sonny’s Blues’: A Message in Music,” in Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 8, no. 3, Fall, 1974, pp. 231-3.
Bigsby, C.W.E. Introduction to The Black American Writer, Vol. 1, Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1969.
Howe, Irving. “Black Boys and Native Sons,” in Dissent, Autumn, 1963.
Macebuh, Stanley. James Baldwin: A Critical Study, Third Press, 1973.
Pratt, Louis H. Twayne’s U.S. Authors Series: James Baldwin, G.K. Hall & Co., 1978.
Reilly, John M. “‘Sonny’s Blues’: James Baldwin’s Image of Black Community,” in James Baldwin: A Collection of
Critical Essays, edited by Keith Kinnamon, Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Albert, Richard N. “The Jazz-Blues Motif in Baldwin’s ’Sonny’s Blues’,” in College Literature, Spring, 1984, pp. 178-85.
This article discusses the use that Baldwin makes of music in “Sonny’s Blues,” and explains the role that jazz and blues play in the African-American tradition.
Bone, Robert A. The Negro Novel in America Yale University Press, 1958.
A classic, if somewhat dated, historical evaluation of the place of the novel in the African-American literary tradition and the place of African-American novels in American literary history. A “Postscript” concentrates specifically on James Baldwin.
Hakutani, Yoshinobu, and Robert Butler. The City in African-American Literature, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.
Containing two essays specifically about James Baldwin, this collection traces the use of the image of the city in African-American literature from Frederick Douglass to the present day. One of the Baldwin essays, by Fred L. Standley, holds that Baldwin viewed the city as far superior to the countryside, and discusses Baldwin’s trips to the South.
O’Daniel, Therman B., editor. James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, Howard University Press, 1977.
O’Daniel has compiled the works of others that provide an assessment of Baldwin as an essayist, playwright, and fiction writer. It deals extensively with Baldwin’s principal works and less with his short stories.
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