Criticism of ‘Sonny’s Blues’

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Sonny’s Blues is a short-story reflecting on the struggles of African-American youth in America and especially Harlem. The short story centers on the life of the narrator whose brother Sonny is a drug user caught in a drug raid. Baldwin creates an image of how culture can affect the struggles of individuals causing suffering to those believed to have a better hope of escaping life’s cruelties. He presents hope however for everyone which for Sonny was through music.

The story focuses on suffering and hope as we learn more about Sonny, a gentle and bright individual with a passion for music. The narrator and Sonny, both brothers, lost their parents and the responsibility of taking care of Sonny befalls the narrator, which was their mother’s last wish. Their mother knew the potential that struggles had on individuals making them get lost in the rot of society which she says the narrator would soon come to understand (Sherard 698). The narrator’s mother informs him that he should care for his brother regardless of how he ends up, she says to him, “and don’t let him fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you get with him” (Baldwin 118).

Often, when a family member becomes involved in drugs, they are resented when sometimes it is a cry for help. As seen through the narrator’s sudden resentment of someone who looks like Sonny shows the narrator’s disappointment in his brother and his ignorance towards Sonny’s plight. The narrator is even quoted saying that Sonny’s troubles were none of his business.

At the beginning of the book, the narrator speaks of the darkness he felt. This darkness Sherard argues Sonny was reminding the narrator of their rough childhood. She further adds that this darkness he felt was sadness and his denial of Sonny was his attempt not to get lost in the sadness (697). Sonny, while writing to his brother from prison describes trying to be free saying, “”I guess I was afraid of something or I was trying to escape from something and you know I have never been very strong in the head (smile)” (Baldwin 109). Lobb refers to this ‘something’ as the darkness in Sonny’s life and the bleak life of Harlem (143).

The death of Isabel – the narrator’s daughter made him come to realize the struggle that Sonny had been going through in Harlem. The narrator mentions that while he sat down after Isabel’s funeral, he mentions that he “suddenly thought of Sonny. My trouble made him real” (Baldwin 127). Isabel’s death made the narrator examine himself and understand how he had shut out his brother by avoiding the darkness (Sherard 697).  Stakach argues that the narrator’s lifestyle as a married teacher shielded him from the same problems that Sonny experienced (113).

Sonny once recounts to his brother the feeling that heroin gives him, comparing it with that of listening to a gospel singer performing, “warm and cool at the same time” (Baldwin 131). This shows how Sonny tries to escape the suffering turning to drugs and the narrator fears it may kill him. However, the narrator is reluctant to allow Sonny to go and sing, especially after hearing his interest is jazz. Sherard believes that the narrator had a certain perception of jazz musicians not being consistent in life (699). The narrator, knowing his brother’s bright nature, hopes that his brother would make more of himself.

The narrator, however, comes to understand the influence music has on Sonny, that it is his escape from the drugs that he desperately needed. When they visited Greenwich Village where Sonny regularly escaped doing music, the narrator realizes the impact Sonny has as he receives a warm reception for being Sonny’s brother (Sherard 700). This new environment is Sonny’s world, “Or, rather: his kingdom. Here, it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood” (Baldwin 136).

In conclusion, the narrator finally begins to understand his mother’s words and her reason for asking him to take care of his brother. He realizes that his brother is emotionally sensitive and greatly affected by the world around them, Harlem (Ayres, N.p). The drugs are but a temporary escape from the darkness around him causing him pain. Through jazz, the narrator realizes that Sonny finds others like him who face the same struggles of racism and addiction and that jazz is more of a family than Isabel’s parents or him.

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  1. Ayres, Dana. “Sonny’s Blues” By James Baldwin: A Critical Analysis.” hub pages. N. p., 2017. Web. 5 May 2017.
  2. Baldwin, James. Sonny’s blues. Ernst Klett Sprachen, 2009.
  3. Lobb, Edward. “James Baldwin’s Blues and the Function of Art.” International Fiction Review 6.2 (1979).
  4. Sherard, Tracey. “Sonny’s Bebop: Baldwin’s” Blues Text” as Intracultural Critique.” African American Review 32.4 (1998): 691-705.
  5. Tackach, James. “The Biblical Foundations of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.”” Renascence 59.2 (2007): 109-118.
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