James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” is a unique and fascinating tale full of history, tangible drama, and pressing insights into the plight of African Americans during the early 20th century. Telling the tale of two brothers – the unnamed narrator and Sonny – Baldwin’s work explores the nature of suffering, and how it is filtered through many different outlets (denial, judgment, drugs, music). The result is a well-written tale that offers the audience one of the most intriguing statements about the American experience, drawing on history and people’s perception of it to come to its concise conclusion.
The story’s flexible timeline allows Baldwin to look at many different facets of history, especially how we look at it. On a surface level, the short story gives us a glimpse of the many trials and tribulations of Jim Crow-era America, and the tumultuous black experience there. Sonny is a miserable man, suffering constantly, while the narrator simply tries to brush off his suffering and move forward like he knows he is meant to. Both characters (and the other black characters in the story) must tackle the racism of early 20th-century America, which is a significant contributor to many of their troubles. Independent of racial issues is the stress and fear brought on by an unnamed war, which both of them end up fighting in. The popularity of the Jazz Age is also very present, particularly the clash of cultures between the straightforward nuclear-family approach to American life compared to the free-wheeling, drugs-and-jazz life of Greenwich Village. Sonny and his brother represent both of these extremes, and the way in which they both deal with similar problems (racism, the war, human suffering) is the crux of the short story’s argument.
The story’s own treatment of history is also intriguing – the narrator tells the story in a non-chronological fashion, skipping back and forth between time periods as needed. While this can sometimes make for confusing reading, its overall effect was to trace the relationship and the narrator’s thoughts between he and his brother. To that end, it became less about an objective assessment of world history than it was about these two characters reacting to that history. By making family the anchor for the story instead of time, we get a much more fascinating picture of how the narrator’s views about Sonny and his family change and shift. The story treats history as ephemeral and unimportant, choosing instead to emphasize the timeless bonds of family and the universal nature of human suffering.
If an alien, who was unfamiliar with our world, were to read “Sonny’s Blues,” they might come away with a fascinating look into our own personality, as well as a glimpse of American and world history. The story, first and foremost, shows the bonds of family and how we are obligated to one another even when we might not like each other. This is evidenced through the narrator’s sense of loyalty to his brother, even when their meetings are infrequent and Sonny causes constant frustration with his apparent inability to deal with his suffering. The guilt that he often feels when he fails Sonny – like when he tells him to think of him as dead after an especially bad fight – is paid off when he keeps watch over him as he kicks his heroin addiction. These constant shifts in attitude toward Sonny shows our changing, flexible human nature, where the bonds of family ultimately bring us together regardless of circumstance.
Another interesting thing aliens might learn about the world of “Sonny’s Blues” is our ability to lose ourselves in other pursuits, especially music. Music, especially jazz, is crucial to Sonny, as the story reveals that this is the one thing that actually helps him alleviate his suffering. The constant use of various ‘prisons’ that people keep getting into (literal prison, military service, racial discrimination, drug addiction) illustrates the chaotic and ruthless nature of human existence. By extension, it also shows our desire to escape from these prisons and find some sort of salvation. For Sonny, this is revealed to be his music; at the end of the story, when he plays for that club and the narrator finally seems to understand himself, both brothers are given that salvation. It is these concepts and ideas behind the human condition that this story illustrates quite well.
“Sonny’s Blues” is an incredibly important story for someone’s education, and should be included in future syllabi. For one thing, the story provides an accessible and emotional way to read stories that do not follow chronological storylines, and introduce younger readers to first-person narration. As one of the most prominent black essayists and writers of the 20th century, it is important for students to be exposed to his work in order to track the progress of civil rights and the literary discussion of 20th century American social tensions; his work is effectively in the canon of civil rights literature.
Many students can relate to the feeling of helplessness and emotional imprisonment as they go through adolescence and young adulthood; their futures are uncertain, and they are being confronted with a plethora of tensions – from family troubles to peer pressure regarding drugs to the possibility of poverty and being misunderstood, and so on. This story in particular allows the reader to understand the perspective of people who also don’t have it figured out, and so it can be very emotionally fulfilling for them. Young adults feel this pressure to belong and figure themselves out all the time, and so Sonny and the narrator’s varying approaches may ring true for anyone who reads this in an educational context.
Furthermore, this story also provides incredible insight into various aspects of American history, from the racism of early 20th-century America, to the beginning of the Jazz Age, to the problems of war, prison and drugs and more. While the central core of the story is about family and two brothers’ search for understanding, these tertiary themes can help readers understand a bit more about what America was like, particularly for those who experienced prejudice and discrimination on a level they may not be familiar with. For nonblack audiences, in particular, this book may be extremely valuable as a way to introduce readers to the black perspective. Not many stories feature predominantly black characters, or take place in black neighborhoods and communities – to that end, a white reader may gain some understanding of what it is like to be discriminated against through Baldwin’s artistic expression.
On a personal level, “Sonny’s Blues” really spoke to me on several levels. I very much relate to Sonny as an individual; Sonny seems to be in a lot of emotional turmoil, often unsure about how to go about his life. I definitely know what that feels like, with that kind of uncertainty hanging over you about who you should be and what you should do. Life in Harlem seems incredibly unfair, with the vast majority of characters living there doing everything they can to stave off their incredible anger at their situation. While I have been privileged enough to not have troubles that bad, I absolutely relate to that sense of rage. As an American, this story allows me to gain a glimpse of these particular tensions – learning what it was like for blacks in Harlem in the mid-20th century is incredibly enlightening and maddening, as it makes the ongoing struggle for civil rights and social justice even more important. I have read about the Civil Rights movement and America’s struggle with racism, but to see these anxieties expressed so artfully puts it in a perspective I have never imagined before. As a world citizen, this story also allowed me to better understand the perspectives of people who aren’t me; while this story takes place in America, I feel that the story’s glimpse into a world that I am not familiar with allows me to make the transition more easily into empathizing even more with people outside my own sphere of influence. By diving into the world of Sonny and his brother, I feel better able to understand the perspectives of people in many other kinds of societies and communities as well, no matter where they are. To that end, reading “Sonny’s Blues” has been an intriguing and reflective experience, exposing me to points of view I have never before examined in such depth.
Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” In Going to Meet the Man. Dial Press, 1965. Print.