In In-depth Analysis of 'Sonny's Blues' by James Baldwin

Baldwin's Story Was Published in the Height of the Civil Rights Era

James Baldwin
James Baldwin is one of America's treasures. Ruby Washington / Contributor/Archive Photos/Getty Images

"Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin was first published in 1957, which places it at the heart of the civil rights movement in the United States. That's three years after Brown v. Board of Education, two years after Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus, six years before Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech and seven years before President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Plot of "Sonny's Blues"

The story opens with the first-person narrator reading in the newspaper that his younger brother -- from whom he is estranged -- has been arrested for selling and using heroin. The brothers grew up in Harlem, where the narrator still lives. The narrator is a high school algebra teacher and he is a responsible husband and father. In contrast, his brother, Sonny, is a musician who has led a much wilder life.

For several months after the arrest, the narrator does not contact Sonny. He disapproves of, and worries about, his brother's drug use and he is alienated by his brother's attraction to bebop music. But after the narrator's daughter dies of polio, he feels compelled to reach out to Sonny.

When Sonny is released from prison, he moves in with his brother's family.  After a couple of weeks, Sonny invites the narrator to come hear him play piano at a nightclub. The narrator accepts the invitation because he wants to understand his brother better.

At the club, the narrator begins to appreciate the value of Sonny's music as a response to suffering and he sends over a drink to show his respect.

Inescapable Darkness

Throughout the story, darkness is used to symbolize the threats that menace the African-American community. When the narrator discusses his students, he says:

"All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness."

As his students approach adulthood, they realize how limited their opportunities will be. The narrator laments that many of them may already be using drugs, just as Sonny did, and that perhaps the drugs will do "more for them than algebra could." The darkness of the movies echoed later in a comment about watching TV screens rather than windows, suggests that entertainment has drawn the boys' attention away from their own lives.

As the narrator and Sonny ride in a cab toward Harlem -- "the vivid, killing streets of our childhood" -- the streets "darken with dark people." The narrator points out that nothing has really changed since their childhood. He notes that:

"… houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air, and found themselves encircled by disaster."

Though both Sonny and the narrator have traveled the world by enlisting in the military, they have both ended up back in Harlem.

And though the narrator in some ways has escaped the "darkness" of his childhood by getting a respectable job and starting a family, he realizes that his children are facing all the same challenges he faced.

His situation doesn't seem much different from that of the older people he remembers from childhood.

"The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It's what they've come from. It's what they endure. The child knows that they won't talk any more because if he knows too much about what's happened to them, he'll know too much too soon, about what's going to happen to him."

The sense of prophecy here -- the certainty of "what's going to happen" -- shows a resignation to the inevitable. The "old folks" address the imminent darkness with silence because there's nothing they can do about it.

A Different Kind of Light

The nightclub where Sonny plays is very dark. It's on "a short, dark street," and the narrator tells us that "the lights were very dim in this room and we couldn't see."

Yet there is a sense that this darkness provides safety for Sonny, rather than menace. The supportive older musician Creole "erupt[s] out of all that atmospheric lighting" and tells Sonny, "I been sitting right here … waiting for you." For Sonny, the answer to suffering may lie within the darkness, not in escaping it.

Looking at the light on the bandstand, the narrator tells us that the musicians are "careful not to step into that circle of light too suddenly: that if they moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would perish in the flame."

Yet when the musicians start to play, "the lights on the bandstand, on the quartet, turned to a kind of indigo. Then they all looked different there." Note the phrase "on the quartet": it's important that the musicians are working as a group. Together they're making something new, and the light changes and becomes accessible to them. They haven't done this "without thinking." Rather, they've done it with hard work and "torment."

Though the story is told with music rather than words, the narrator still describes the music as a conversation among the players, and he talks about Creole and Sonny having a "dialogue." This wordless conversation among the musicians contrasts with the resigned silence of the "old folks." 

As Baldwin writes:

"For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.

There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness."

Instead of trying to find individual escape routes from the darkness, they are improvising together to create a new kind of light. 

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Sustana, Catherine. "In In-depth Analysis of 'Sonny's Blues' by James Baldwin." ThoughtCo, Nov. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/analysis-sonnys-blues-by-james-baldwin-2990467. Sustana, Catherine. (2017, November 3). In In-depth Analysis of 'Sonny's Blues' by James Baldwin. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/analysis-sonnys-blues-by-james-baldwin-2990467 Sustana, Catherine. "In In-depth Analysis of 'Sonny's Blues' by James Baldwin." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/analysis-sonnys-blues-by-james-baldwin-2990467 (accessed November 23, 2017).