Sonny’s Blues, Author James Baldwin

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In the story Sonny’s Blues, author James Baldwin opens unfolds the story of a younger brother in search of overcoming his tribulations with drugs and challenges of a toxic neighborhood in Harlem. The overview of the story focuses on two brothers, a high school teacher and an aspiring Jazz musician who’s determined to escape his past actions of heroin use to find his passion for/in playing music, with the guidance of his maturing older brother, who helps direct his life for a better future. The journey in fact was a challenging race in both their lives with a constant clouded darkness defining each other characters and themselves through of his addiction to drugs that lead to incarceration, the narrator’s daughter death which impacted him heavily, the lack of acknowledgement towards Sonny from his brother initially, and the sorrow related to the passing of their parents that was essential for healing.

Before we go deep into the analysis of the story and the understanding of events between the brothers, we must first acknowledge where and who the story was based off for a better comprehension. James Baldwin, both playwright and writer, birthed in Harlem, New York City, August 2nd 1924 is the man responsible for a collection of writings including “Sonny’s Blues,” which reflects of his experiences of being black in America. The story “Sonny’s Blues,” speaks on the challenges of living in Harlem from the use of the light and darkness he mentions, “The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure.” (Baldwin 256) He highlights the challenges the African-American people have experienced throughout their lives, however Sonny struggles with similar negativities from his environment, which eventually motivates him to seek a better route for brighter days. He chose the paths of drugs use and the passion to awaken his ability to become a jazz musician. In relation to the thesis of the essay, the darkness represents the scenarios in their life, his weakness and addiction, and the difficulty of rehabilitation. It contributes to all the negativity that is taking place leading the narrator and Sonny in a depressing state from drugs, death, and repairing relationships. Which helps us to recognize through all the challenges that life brings you can still find a remedy to repair happiness and stable conditions in your life, which Sonny did through the actions of focusing on becoming a professional musician. Although the darkness both hinders and benefited sonny, he manages to gain access into the light, the light of which he prevails and prove his brother wrong through hard work, and the help of his guidance.

The most recognizable aspect of the story is Sonny’s use of drugs and the transition he made, which carried him into an even more challenging period of his life fill with his darkness, leading up to his jail sentence he described as unbearable. However he was able to take charge of his life away from a toxic environment before he came back out. His use of drugs eventually affected his brother’s life also, even though he tried to give a blind eye, Sonny mention “if I’d known what I was doing I would never have hurt you so, you and a lot of other people who were nice to me and who believed in me.” (Baldwin 254) The relationship weren’t always as strong as we saw eventually, they had a seven years age difference which made it hard to relate. But that changed when the narrator realized he had to help his brother down a better direction, his mom trusted and showed him the value of his involvement in Sonny’s life. He also took him in after his release, where he had to grow a relationship with sonny and manage his patience towards him as he was determined to become a musician. But this addiction he once had for drugs would turn towards his passion to be a pianist, taking every opportunity he get to play as stated, “Sonny’s addiction doubles in his equally fanatical devotion to the piano.” (Claborn 95) Sonny was making a transitional step that his brother wasn’t to confidence about until he took the opportunity to take it further to prove to him wrong. With the differences in vision amongst the brothers that resulted in separation and a distant relationship. But Sonny was slowly becoming more conscious of his situation went and find himself the peers essential to his career as stated, “The narrator's major source of discontent has been his selfish desire to assimilate and lead a "respectable," safe life as a high-school.” (Albert 178) The way that we were able to see him focus towards his “mastery” level really portrayed he was putting in the effort to escape his pass and prove to his brother that he was indeed serious of making his future decisions. But through the light of what his brother lived, he was very ignorant to Sonny choices since he believe that his life was already successful enough to follow in the footsteps. Both men suffered at some point in their lifetime and not all are willing to share such an experience with others. Sonny saw his situation as something he wouldn’t be proud enough about, it took him a while for him to write his brother as he was ashamed of his addiction and how it hurt his close ones. But he was growing enough to recognize this is the way out, forming a relationship with his brother and a relationship with a distraction of something that would benefit his life. The loss of connection of something valuable in both the characters life on helped them to become closer by a method which was strange for each of them.

The narrator played the position of someone who constantly maturing throughout the passage, if wasn’t for the death of his daughter, we wouldn’t have felt the way he did about Sonny after feeling the way he did. The narrator daughter went by the name of grace, a religious representation of renewal, forgiveness, which we saw with the new attitude he expressed towards Sonny. It took the loss of value in one relationship to gain value in another and that’s what Grace did for her dad in the story he mentioned, “I think I may have written Sonny the very day that little Grace was buried.” (Baldwin 262) This experience draw him to gain a closer relationship with Sonny, which made it easier for him to accept Sonny’s difference and pay better attention to him to resolve conflicts and provide guidance, subjects mainly associated with raisings your kids. The uses of the word “Grace” and “buried” may have a connection we didn’t recognize, the love and affection he once thought he lost was able to be restored, accepting this blessing from God to allow himself through the representation of his daughter, to reconstruct his brotherly hood with Sonny. With the support of external use of information author stated, “The narrator, a successful, “moral” man compared to those around him, cannot abide his own brother’s failing, and this leads to an inability to extend grace to others.”(Stone 252) The death was heart breaking after hearing of it, but God does everything for a reason, he creates and destroy, the narrator 2 year old daughter name chosen by author Baldwin knew he needed the buildup of love for someone he cared about. This quickly shifted to Sonny and his wellbeing and felt that he needs to help his brother since they are connecting by blood just like his daughter. The author Baldwin considered the Christian concept which resulted in him choosing such name to represent the twist in the narrator’s situation. This was one form of guidance and operation used to rebuild what was broken down between the brothers throughout the past years.

The relationship between the narrator and Sonny wasn’t anything near of what you would expect a functional connections to be among brothers who grew up together. James highlights the loopholes and the disconnection that may have caused the negative impact on sonny’s life from the lack of communication. The seven year difference in age may of lead to the struggles, difference in understanding that resulted in failures, and the rehabilitation to come about to create a success story in the end. The narrator being the older brother, somehow feels responsible for the troubles in Sonny’s life from his lack of presence, “Then I kept in constant touch with him and I sent him whatever I could and I went to meet him when he came back to New York.” (Baldwin 254) After the narrator learns more his brother Sonny situation, he some feel responsible for the outcome, and gains sympathy to regenerate what was missing in his connection with his little brother. He became considerate towards him, and from the words of his letter he sees that he’s willing to make progress again in his life and develops motivation to understand and help develop Sonny after his release. Both of the brothers grew up in the same environment but their personality separates the perception of life, “The unnamed narrator has chosen the safe family life of a school teacher. However, Sonny’s life parallels the tragic life of their father’s brother, a guitar player.” (McParland 134) The narrator lacks the views that Sonny has besides his faults, Sonny wants his brother to comprehend his differences and that everyone can’t have the same path in life as he opposes all the ideas he suggest for his future occupation. He allows himself to gain the ability to accept Sonny for who he is and chooses to learn more, stated here “Inviting Sonny into his home, the school teaching narrator is unprepared for a jazz education, or for Sonny’s lifestyle.” (McParland 134) He is now in a position in his life that he is trying to accept Sonny, and seek his best interest by being closest to him and keeping the promise he made to his mom. Also his mentality as a teacher may account for his attitude, “the school teaching narrator,” from his choices he made in his life, he figures Sonny should follow the path he took in order to gain a successful future. His occupation as a teacher shows that he is trying to teach Sonny the right ways to travel through life as he now plays the role of a father figure in Sonny’s life like the kids at his school but soon realizes he must change his ideology to understand the path to success his brother is taking. It is clear that he don’t know how to guide Sonny through his differences, and thinks that his knowledge of life is best and disagrees with all the suggested plans thinking he knows what is standard. But he shows a transitional change to improve and become more compassionate to accept Sonny’s life choices and his goal as a musician through communications with those closes to him.

The flashback story of which the narrator mother uses to help him understand the importance of his responsibility to look over his brother was heart breaking an hard to accept, which also takes place in time of darkness. The narrator is taken down memory lane to learn a family secret of a tragic incident including his uncle on his father side, used by his mother to guide and protect her kids. She highlights the pain and grief her husband had to endure because of the loss of his brother, she states “Daddy was like a crazy man that night and for many a night thereafter. He says he never in his life seen anything as dark as that road after the lights of that car had gone away.” (Baldwin 257) She portrays her husband challenges after the accident and how much of an emotional impact it had on him and how painful it was for him to deal with. The use of “dark as that road” symbolizes the period of darkness Sonny experienced before finding his way away from the drug use and weakness he once experienced. Around this period of time he started gaining compassion to value sonny even though he was different, “The narrator’s major source of discontent has been a respectable, safe life as a high school algebra teacher.” (Albert 178) The narrator in the beginning of the story was very demanding in choosing a future for sonny since he was able to live a better life from the one he chose. But from communicating and becoming open minded to accept that sonny is passionate and may seriously consider music, he changes for the better. As the brother’s mother died, he realized he was now responsible for Sonny since he was the older one and promise his mom that he would. These processes were able to change the mindset of the narrator and supports his brother accepting the invitation to witness him play in from of others.

In the article “The Jazz Blue-Motif in James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s blues,” author Sussana Lee showed us how Sonny was able to have an unbearable love for music, eventually finding one of the route direction. Sonny had a challenging past, from his drug addiction, to the lack of bond with his older, he was able to find his happiness and individuality through the use of creating music. He started on the piano and didn’t stop till he had what he wanted, he made up his mind up to choose what made him happy in relations to him from gaining the respect he needs. We witnessed that he mentioned before, a little amount of time also plays, the ones who really care would shot it, “Sonny flounders about, Baldwin brings into play two key references that lead and inspire Sonny to finally find himself through his music:”(Albert 181) Noticeably mentioned were the “key references,” these are the steps taken by the narrator and Sonny to avoid any bad vibe and what was essentially require for his growth and musical talent. Although he began to see what was taking place, he didn’t allowed the past experiences to interfere with him and his music he played. But many may reject this interpretation so we must take interest into understand the guidelines of other critics in order to give the best remedy to overcome.

Even though Sonny was able to choose a future for himself independently, this cause problems between him and the family that supported him. The narrator play a huge role in the family, as the older one who had to fight the battle of his environment and the negativity it had, made him realized that he was strong enough to survive unlike sonny. The challenges that both of the brother’s experience was different and had little similarities that made the growth more effective. If the narrator wasn’t so different from Sonny he wouldn’t have had the ability to guide him after the loss of their parents, from this they were both able to show how they can come to an agreement that may favor the both of them. The fact that the brother was able to grow in the same neighborhood made him confident in the choices he made and think that the same would of work best for Sonny. But he was wrong, Sonny was to passionate and interested in being a performer from the ability to accept that he needed to focus on something different to help his wellbeing. The traumas that the darkness bring took Sonny through a transitional phase, Baldwin mentioned “All they really knew were two darkness, the darkness of their live.” If the darkness that surrounded Sonny in his early life wasn’t present, he wouldn’t have gain the motivation to become jazz musician. From the performers in the streets, to the drug addiction, and the peer pressure he met living in Harlem he would have never been the same person.

The main aspects of the story we must consider were the difference in character amongst these two individuals, which brought us to the climax of the story. A misunderstanding that was clear, the old brother not really know who his brother is fully, and being hesitant to accept his personal choices that resulted in conflicts among the two, but they didn’t knew that it would be best for the entire issue. The narrator seems to be trap in his own darkness and happens to gain freedom from Sonny and his music. Little that they know they would benefit from these little debates, learning more about each other, which changes the narrator views to give Sonny a chance. In life we are often visited by a darkness that weakens us for the better, which helps us to grow in character and chase the light we always want in our life, Sonny found it for the better outcome.

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Sonny’s Blues, author James Baldwin. (2020, Apr 06). Retrieved December 1, 2023 , from

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