While the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must always be heard," writes James Baldwin in his short story, Sonny's Blues. "There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness." This might be called the theme of Sonny's Blues, and it comes at the end of a long descriptive passage about the playing of music -- of the blues, in particular -- and how truly playing music is difficult, dangerous, beautiful, and deep; that being intimate with one's instrument is akin to being intimate with one's life. Sonny's Blues is about being lost, and trying to be found, within the context of being a black man in this society; and of finding oneself as so many black men have, through the blues -- both as music, and as storytelling.
Sonny's Blues is ostensibly a story of two brothers, told in first person by Sonny's brother, whose name we never learn. The setting of this story is New York City's Harlem, a ghetto where most black men are living in virtual prisons, caught in poverty and marginalized by a society that hardly notices them.
The narrator is a schoolteacher and has just learned that his younger brother, Sonny, has been arrested in a heroin raid. "It was not to be believed....and at the same time I couldn't doubt it," the narrator says. "I was scared, scared for Sonny. He became real to me again." Sonny's trouble brings him smack into the center of his brother's life, and triggers a cascade of memories. (The novel does not follow a straight storyline, but intersperses past and present.) The narrator feels at time as if "my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream. This would always be at a moment when I was remembering some specific thing Sonny had said or done."
After their parents had died, while Sonny was still a teenager, he'd decided to become a pianist, "playing for his life." But even with music, even while playing his piano, Sonny couldn't bear the rage and grief inside of him. He wasn't able to heal himself with music, and so he turned to heroin. Sonny tries to describe his emotional pain: "It's terrible...you walk these streets, black and funk and cold, and there's really not a living ass to talk to." This expresses the alienation of being black in this society.
In turn, the redemption and recognition of the jazz clubs is just the opposite. When the narrator goes with his brother to a club where Sonny will play, he receives an amazing welcome. "It turns out that everyone at the bar knew Sonny, or almost everyone; some were musicians...some were simply hangers-on, and some were there to hear Sonny play...I was in Sonny's world. Or rather: his kingdom. Here, it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood." Black and funky and alone on the streets of a white man's world; royalty in the jazz clubs, where blacks play in the black of night.
But if blacks recognize each other in the rarefied smoky atmosphere of the jazz clubs, black society at large often doesn't even honor its own. It's sometimes impossible to earn a living as a musician -- something the narrator warned Sonny about after their mother died. The narrator doesn't even know who Charlie Parker is -- perhaps the greatest jazz musician of all time. If blacks themselves can't recognize the geniuses among them, what chance does Sonny have? "You'll have to be patient with me. Now. Who's this Parker character?" The narrator asks Sonny, who becomes sullen and turns his back. "He's just one of the greatest jazz musicians alive." Sonny, too, will turn out to be a creative genius.
After their mother died, the narrator felt responsible for his younger brother. But he doesn't understand Sonny's music, and tries to influence him to lead a practical life. Sonny says, "I ain't learning nothing in school. Even when I go." He then slams the window and says, "And I'm sick of the stink of these garbage cans." The garbage cans represent the poverty they are forced to live with.
Very literally, this is a story of the blues -- the blues as pain, and the blues as redemptive music -- in the context of being a black man. Both brothers are seeking some kind of redemption, some way in which to find themselves in lives in which they feel lost. The narrator remembers the two of them riding in a cab and thinking "that what we both were seeking through our separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind." When he brings Sunny to his home after prison he feels dread as he watches his brother for signs of heroin addiction.
Part of the reason Sonny turns to drugs is his own inner pain; another big part is society. Both music and heroin are answers to pain. He hates being invisible, unrecognized, even by his own brother. In turn, his brother is attempting to help the children in the ghetto by being a schoolteacher. At the same time, he hates his own kind when they reflect the sordid aspects of African-American life. When he meets a drug addict who was formerly associated with Sonny, he finds the boy's grin "repulsive." The boy says, "Maybe he'll even think he's kicked the habit. Then they'll let him loose' -- he gestured, throwing his cigarette into the gutter. 'That's all.'" A life is like a cigarette -- tossed into the gutter.
Sonny's arrest rends the careful life his brother has put together, and brings the past into the present. Both the narrator and his brother must find their own place in a culture that is hostile to them. The narrator tries to create a conventional life: with a job, a family, and responsibilities. Sonny tries to forge an unconventional life -- through blues and jazz. But neither can escape the horror of life. The narrator doesn't want pain like Sonny's to become part of his own life, and so he doesn't even write to Sonny in prison until his own little girl dies of polio. At that point he reaches out to the only human who can understand his torment -- his own brother. "My trouble made his real," says the brother. This is a profound sentence. These two brothers -- and all of us -- are linked through our shared trouble. That is what truly makes us compassionate. For, although Sonny's Blues is seemingly about Sonny, it is really the narrator who most needs the blues -- to feel them, and to hear them, and to be healed by them. This narrator may through his namelessness, and intimate first person voice, be meant to imply every black man.
Amidst all this hardship, family and community connection, especially the remembered warmth of times past, is a source of hope and comfort. The narrator remembers his mother on a Sunday afternoon, "when the old folks were talking after the big Sunday dinner...she'd be sitting on the sofa. And my father would be sitting in the easy chair, not far from her. And the living room would be full of church folks and relatives...maybe a kid is lying on the rug, half asleep...he hopes that the hand which strokes his forehead will never stop -- she will never die. He hopes there will never come a time when the old folks won't be sitting around the living room, talking about where they've come from and what they've seen." Before his mother died, she told the narrator he needed to be there for Sonny. But what this means is not to save him, protect him, or rescue him. It means to hear him, and recognize him, as a full human being. Their mother had said, "You may not be able to stop nothing from happening, but you got to let him know you's there." This story is the telling of how long it took the narrator to live up to that promise, how difficult and brave an act it is to be there for someone else.
Through his blues, Sonny can tell about the struggle he and his audience experience every day: the grim realities of poverty, drug addiction, crime, and oppression in a white man's society. This story emphasizes the African-American community's economic and social struggle. If one can't remove oneself physically from Harlem, then one has to create another way to soar. Music is possibility. Music allows one to go into deep water without drowning. Music allows one to face pain, poverty and despair, and emerge intact. And the music of the black experience, not surprisingly, takes place in dark, smoky nightclubs, often underground. When the narrator is willing to listen to Sonny, he is also willing to listen to himself…