Familial connections are part of what makes us human. They can also be what makes us successful in life. In the short story "Sonny's Blues", James Baldwin shows us the true importance of family through the lives of Sonny and his brother. Baldwin uses their dad and his brother as a mirror for their own relationship, and shows Sonny's struggle to find family when he can no longer find it in his brother. The narrator initially sees his role in Sonny's life as the parent, then he begins to reinvents his broken relationship with his brother. The outcome is the core lesson that Baldwin is trying to teach, that familial relationships can make all the difference in someone's life.
Baldwin creates a parallel to Sonny and the narrator's relationship when he reveals the story about their father and his brother. Sonny is comparable to his father's brother in that they were "maybe a little full of the devil, but didn't mean nobody no harm", and "like all young folks, (they) just liked to perform on Saturday nights"(Baldwin, 132). Likewise, the narrator reflects his father; the older, wiser brother. His mother recounts the story of the night her brother-in-law was killed not to make her son "scared or bitter or hate nobody" but urges him, "you got a brother, and this world ain't changed... you got to hold on to your brother, and don't let him fall" (133). The mothers believes that the narrator's role in his brother's life is vital. It is clear that she fears for her youngest son's life. This creates a parallel that grabs you by the shoulders and doesn't let go until the final scene of the story.
With the last promise to his mother lingering in his mind, the narrator gets hitched and heads off to war. He admits "I pretty well forgot my promise to Mama, until I got shipped home on a special furlough for her funeral" (133). Now, the narrator sees himself as the only family member left for Sonny, and therefore his new parental figure. This misunderstanding of his role is Sonny's life ultimately leads to an epic falling out between the brothers. "What kind of musician do you want to be?' He grinned. 'How many kinds do you think listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny's witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing -- he had been there, and he knew" (146). Creole is able to do what the narrator couldn't; listen to Sonny and provide genuine support.
The turning point that creates Baldwin's message emerges in the last scene of the story. When the brothers walk into the nightclub, the narrator says "It was clear that, for them, I was only Sonny's brother. Here, I was in Sonny's world. Or, rather: his kingdom" (145). As the narrator steps into Sonny's "kingdom" he begins to develop an understanding of his younger brother. Through this new understanding, the narrator recognizes that what Sonny needed was someone to listen and be supportive, not someone to dictate his future. The transition of the narrator seeing himself as Sonny's father figure to understanding his role as a brother is key to the new, healthy relationship that arises between the brothers. With the newfound support from his brother, Sonny will be able to confidently go after what he wants most, to be a musician.
The roller coaster that is the relationship between Sonny and his brother in James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" reveals the importance of family in one's life. Sonny struggles with growing up after his parents pass away, and later struggles with drugs. Throughout this struggle, he lacked the support he needed from his brother. Their mother urged her eldest son to watch after Sonny before she died, because she knew that in order for Sonny to be successful, he would need to feel loved. It is not until the end of the story that the brothers gain an understanding of each other's lives, and are then able to have a healthy relationship.
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