An Effective Use of Flashbacks in Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin

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Sonny’s Blues

In the short story “Sonny’s Blues” the writer, James Baldwin, uses flashback to help better understand what is going on in the present. Sonny is an African-American man that is currently in jail for using and selling heroin. The narrator of the story is Sonny’s brother, whom we never get the name of. They grew up in Harlem, New York, a city with a high population and a high drug volume.

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The first time the author uses a flashback is to show what Sonny was like when he was the same age as his students. “…his face has been bright and open, there was a lot of copper in it; and he’d had wonderfully direct brown eyes, and great gentleness and privacy. I wondered what he looked like now (pg. 74).” This helps the reader show that Sonny hasn’t always been a dull soul; he used to be very gentle and shy. The reader now wants to know what made him this way, questions that can be answered within a flashback.

Sonny’s brother then begins to talk about those who have passed away which include their mother, father, and also the narrator’s daughter (Sonny’s niece). This then leads to the development of flashbacks about their parents. “You got to hold on to your brother,” she said, “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” (pg. 84)’. Sonny’s brother did exactly what the mother said not to do. The brothers lost contact and Sonny was taken over by “evil”. The father’s brother was killed by a group of white men driving drunk. Sonny’s mother is telling the narrator to keep Sonny close to him so nothing happens to him as it did to his uncle. I believe that this flashback is the most crucial to the story. Sonny and his brother didn’t have much of a connection because of the age gap, but the fact that he almost lost his brother made him open up his eyes.

Sonny mentions that the music did not make him a drug addict. There was something that music and heroin had in common that attracted Sonny to heroin. There was a flashback where Sonny told his brother that he wanted to become a jazz artist, which the narrator did not approve of. Music was something that Sonny was passionate about and his brother shot him down. He then moved out of his brothers place, joined the navy, and moved as far away as he could. The author currently feels ignorant to the fact he did not accept his brothers passion. The reader then begins to understand why his brother became a drug addict on. “It makes you feel-in control. Sometimes you’ve got to have that feeling.” The two brothers now have a bond that they have never had before. They realize that they now need each other.

The flashbacks in “Sonny’s Blues” helps give the reader background information to understand why Sonny is the way he is. We now get how heroin came into his life and why it took over. The flashbacks were affective for the reader and the author. The author didn’t have to explain why Sonny got addicted to drugs; the reader is able to use context clues from their neighborhood and the flashbacks to infer what happened to Sonny.

Questions pg. 100 1-3

  1. Baldwin achieves mystery and is able to include flashbacks by beginning the story in medias res. The order of events are related later in the story affect my experience of reading and interpreting the meaning because we have to get the background information as the narrator touches upon each issue that has occurred in their families life leading up to his brother going to jail.
  2. The external conflict depicted in the story in Sonny and the narrator. This is resolved by the letter that Sonny sent to his brother. They have spoken for the first time in a long time. The internal conflict is Sonny and himself and also the narrator and himself. This is resolved by both of them accepting the past and moving forward together.
  3. The story that seems to be told through and about music in “Sonny’s Blues” is that many people have different passions and what you truly love should be what you are doing. You don’t want to live your life suffering to make someone else happy, you want to do what you love to make yourself happy. If this person cares about you they will learn to accept everything about you.
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An Effective Use of Flashbacks in Sonny's Blues by James Baldwin. (2022, Dec 07). Retrieved February 3, 2023 , from
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