Surviving and Suffering:
A Historical and Ethical Look at James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”
“Sonny’s Blues”, written by James Baldwin, was first published in 1957 in Partisan Review and was later published again by Baldwin in a collection of short stories called Going to Meet the Man. (Reilly 56) “Sonny’s Blues” is the story of two brothers, one an Algebra teacher in Harlem and the other a jazz musician turned heroin addict and drug dealer, both suffering from the inequalities faced by African Americans before and during the Civil Rights Movement. The story does not begin with background information, but instead begins with the narrator discovering his brother’s arrest for heroin usage and drug dealing while on his way to his average job as a school teacher. It is necessary to not only analyze the relationship between the brothers and Sonny’s drug use, but also the historical setting of the story in order to understand James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” The historical context, relationships among characters, and the questionable choices made by Sonny combine to shape James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues.”
As listed in James Baldwin’s biography, he was born on August 2, 1924 in Harlem to a single mother. His mother later married, and he was adopted by his stepfather David Baldwin. Although he was intelligent and obedient both at home and in school, he was never accepted the way that his siblings were. Because of this, his literary works often contain similar situations where one child is favored over another. “Sonny’s Blues” in some ways follows this expectation. The unnamed narrator speaks of Sonny and his father not getting along well, but stated that he believed “Sonny was the apple of his father’s eye” and says that “he loved Sonny so much and was frightened for him” (Baldwin 130), but never speaks of his own relationship with his father.
Furthermore, Baldwin also suffered many of the misfortunes and alienation that the characters of the story underwent. In 1948, he fled from the United States to France, where he felt he could experience some relief from the racial atmosphere that he was living in. Baldwin lived in France for the remainder of his life, but would often return to the United States to speak at colleges or participate in the ongoing activities of the Civil Rights Movement. (World Biography) James Baldwin had a long list of literary accomplishments of plays, essays, and novels that focused on the struggles of people in America including “Sonny’s Blues.” According to his biography, Baldwin died of cancer in late 1987 after a successful career as an author.
In many ways “Sonny’s Blues “describes the experiences of Baldwin’s childhood and young adulthood in America and specifically Harlem. Baldwin was born and raised in Harlem, and it is the main setting throughout the story. “Sonny’s Blues” takes place during the mid- twentieth century, in or near the early 1950’s. In “Who Set You Feelin? Harlem, Communal Affect, and The Great Migration Narrative in James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’”, John Claborn argues that Baldwin’s vision of Harlem in the 1950’s shows a time of great personal trauma in a place that is encapsulating and inescapable.
The narrator and his brother have grown up in a predominantly black and very poor neighborhood in Harlem. The housing projects they lived in were a life full of poverty with no sense of hope in sight for African Americans. It is important to understand the historical context of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” because it conveys the hardships African Americans faced in regards to racism, the poor choices of drug and alcohol abuse, and the impoverishment that Harlem meant for many families during the Great Depression, the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, World War II, and the Civil Rights Movement. (Sherard 691–694)
The Great Depression and World War II changed Harlem greatly from the place that it had become during the Harlem Renaissance. As explained in the the Georgia Public Broadcasting’s description of the Harlem Renaissance in the Jim Crow series, artists were free to be themselves and creative art forms such as writing and music flourished during the 1920’s and 1930’s. However, due the effects of the war and the depression, the town’s prosperity turned to poverty and sorrow. This is portrayed throughout “Sonny’s Blues” in many different ways. First, the narrator and his family continuing to live in housing projects similar to those he grew up in and his children now have a similar experience. While the narrator has done everything right in life, his material life and circumstances have not changed. He has served in the military, returned to complete college, and is now an algebra teacher at a local school, but his family still remains in the housing projects.
In addition, Baldwin often speaks of the darkness of the events, people, and Harlem itself, which represents the poverty and sorrow that the narrator and his brother are forced to live in. Images of darkness are present from the very beginning of the story when the narrator is surrounded by it when learning of his brother’s arrest. He says he feels “trapped in the darkness that roared outside.” (Baldwin 122) The theme continues on in the first flashback when the families’ normal Sunday activities are being introduced. While one would expect it to be a happy and fulfilling time, the narrator often refers to the “darkness” that has settled over everyone as the adults speak of their past and where they have come from.
Baldwin reiterates the idea of entrapment in Harlem by stating that with the child overhearing the conversation, “he’ll know too much too soon, about what is going to happen to him.” (Baldwin 131) The narrator and his brother continue to suffer many tragedies throughout their lives that keep the darkness hanging over their heads. Their parents pass away, Sonny develops a drug addiction, his addiction lands him in jail, and the narrator’s daughter passes away. Indeed, by the showing of tragedies, “Sonny’s Blues” may epitomize the process of the black Harlem people giving into the darkness and remaining in the same situation as the generation before (Claborn 92).
James Baldwin often wrote of the inequalities faced by African Americans. In Understanding Others: Cultural and Cross-Cultural Studies and the Teaching of Literature, Pancho Savery argues in his article “Baldwin, Bebop, and Sonny’s Blues” that Baldwin was essentially mummified into the “Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” a historical relic of the 1950’s through the 1970’s that pushed for equal rights and inclusion for blacks instead of the currently accepted “separate but equal.” While the Civil Rights Movement was just beginning during the time of “Sonny’s Blues” it was important in shaping the setting and historical aspects of the short story.
Moreover, music is often known as the cornerstone of African American culture. A new jazz called bebop revolutionized during the early 1950’s. Savery tells us in his article that bebop fans appreciated the new sound of music and the new attitude of the African American community. (Savery 170) Those who listened to bebop were in looking for a replacement for the music Sonny called “old-time down home crap” such as Louis Armstrong. Musically, bebop was to a large extent a revolt against swing and the way African American music had been taken over, and diluted, by whites. (Savery 169) Bebop became a way of expression for the new self-awareness in the ghettos by a strategy of nonconformity. (Reilly 57)
In regards to “Sonny’s Blues”, the narrator relates more to the old Jazz music while Sonny admires the new and upcoming version of bebop. Sonny was almost offended when his brother mentioned Armstrong’s name, and he immediately corrected him to say that he was a Charlie Parker fan. However, as Savery states the difference between Armstrong and Parker represent something much more than just a different type of music in “Sonny’s Blues.” (Savery 168) It is normal that Sonny would prefer someone such as Parker being that he suffered a similar demise as Sonny with drug and alcohol abuse.
When evaluating the text from an ethical aspect, it is important to look at the moral values of the characters and the implications of their actions. John Reilly points out in his article “Sonny’s Blues”: James Baldwin’s Image of the Black Community” that a prominent theme throughout many of Baldwin’s works is the discovery of identity, and there is no story that this is presented more successfully than in the story “Sonny’s Blues” where both the narrator and his brother, Sonny, both discover not only more about themselves but also each other through the cycle of their lives. (Reilly 59) The most prominent poor decision and questionable moral action of Sonny throughout the text is his drug usage. He does not only suffer the consequences of being a drug addict on the streets, but also must serve jail time in which he tells his brother he would rather “blow my brains out than go through this again.” (Baldwin 127) It is, however, a result of his time served that he is able to return into society without a drug addiction and reunite with his estranged brother after years of having a strained relationship.
Moreover, the implications of Sonny’s choices to begin doing and dealing drugs not only affects his own life, but his older brother’s life also. While the narrator is not directly affected by Sonny’s choices physically, he does feel responsible for the person Sonny became because of a promise he made to his mother before her passing to look out for Sonny. Instead of helping him in his time of need of support, it appears that his brother turned his back on Sonny because he did not support his dream to become a musician. Moreover, the narrator says “I had suspicions, but I didn’t name them, I kept putting them away” (Baldwin 123) in regards to Sonny’s drug usage, but instead of accepting the fact and trying to help, he pushed him away.
In addition to assessing the characters themselves, the relationships between characters must be evaluated. The relationship between Sonny and his brother was strained from the beginning because of the seven year age difference. Because of the generational difference, there was also a lack of common interests between the brothers. It is through the pivotal last scenes of the story that the brothers can finally relate to one another. The narrator going to the jazz club with Sonny and finally watching him play shows that not only did Sonny grow and change, but so did his brother. As pointed out by Robert P. McParland in the essay “To the Deep Water: James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”, it is in the end that the narrator has begun to feel something special with Sonny and he senses the emotion in his music making. He is finally ready to accept Sonny for the musician that he is.
James Baldwin accomplished many things through the writing and publishing of “Sonny’s Blues.” Not only does the story serve as a memoir into the lives of African Americans in Harlem during the 1950’s, but also the story portrays the struggles that are often faced in relationships in regards to ethical and moral values and responsibilities. In order to have a clear understanding of Baldwin’s short story, it is imperative to examine not only the relationships between characters and the choices made by Sonny, but also the historical context that builds the background and setting of the account.