The story “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin talks about Sonny who lives in Harlem in the 1950’s. The story, is centered about Sonny who is a talented musician, lives a life full of struggles and was trapped in drug addiction which got him in jail while trying to attain success in life. The narrator, Sonny’s brother has a very hard time understanding Sonny and believes his brother’s choice of being a jazz musician is bad and tries to convince him to finish school “you got to finish school.” (107). Sonny loves jazz music and he’s very talented in it, and despite his brother’s rejection of that as a career, he doesn’t want to do anything else because it makes him happy, “I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?” (107). While some have limited the scope of the story to the conflicts that existed between the two brothers and how Sonny was able to resolve the relationship between him and his brother through jazz music, the author explores a broader theme of “how society and family influence can adversely affect or limit one’s dreams and aspiration in pursuit of success and happiness”. The author takes us through several plot in the story, in understanding this theme by reflecting on several characters that lives in Harlem, New York in the 1950s. As Kelly May stated that literatures enable us “experience difficult situations and human conundrums in all their complexity” (8). The narrator describes Harlem as a place where kids are disrespectful, festered by drugs, a ghetto environment that is dangerous for kids, “between the green park of the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood.” And that the streets haven’t changed much since he was a kid, “But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape” (101).
All around, humans’ tendency towards success is shaped by their family interactions and societal influences, for a poor person becoming rich is the height of success, for the oppressed, freedom is invaluable, a kid born into a family of lawyers often tends towards doing law, with aspiration of being a judge. This is the very case in Harlem as Baldwin paints this picture in the Sonny’s blues. The story started with the narrator reading about Sonny’s arrest for heroin addiction, he has had his suspicions but think Sonny was wise enough not to get to the use of heroin. He is wrong, the career choice of Sonny has been an influence on him especially because he stays in Harlem where most of the young people there doing jazz were doing drugs, “It ain’t only the bad only the bad ones, nor yet the dumb ones that get sucked under.” (Mom, 103). At the time when Sonny’s mom was alive, she was able to help Sonny stay focused amidst the drug use and that helps him “if anything happens to me he ain’t going to have nobody to look out for him.” (Mama, 103), but when she died, he wanted to get away “I couldn’t tell you when Mama died-but the reason I wanted to leave Harlem so bad was to get away from drugs”, (Sonny, 114). In fact a lot of people try to leave Harlem or at least, live a life which was void of Harlemy mores, “Some escape the trap most didn’t. Those who got out always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap.” (101, Narrator). Harlem lacks opportunity, Sonny’s friend mentioned by the narrator has been hanging around blocks and spends hours on the street corners. He often begs around for quarters and fifty cents, he didn’t do heroin, yet he was not able to change his social status and he his into other drugs that makes him high and often raggy.
Sonny’s uncle is a musician like Sonny, he likes to perform on Saturday nights. He was a little drunk on one of the Saturdays alongside Sonny’s dad and was running down a hill on to the highway, a car full of white men driving on the road aimed and killed him. Alongside the heroin abuse in Harlem, racism was evident too, “and he heard them white men shouting, and the car kept on a-going and it ain’t stopped till this day.”, (Mama, 104). This affected Sonny’s dad till he died, he relates every white man he sees to the one the drove the car that killed his brother. “Oh yes, Your Daddy never did really get right again.”, (Mama, 104). The narrator also talks about how on Sundays, church folks and relatives gather together to wine and dine “together talking about where they’ve come from, and what they’ve seen and what’s happened to them and their kinkfolk”. (103, Narattor). They try to avoid discussing in front of their kids to keep their horrible experiences from their kids. The narrator was better off the other characters referenced in the story, he was able to enlist in the Amry, got deployed and become a teacher, while this in itself is a form of success to him, in reality this should have just been the norm and success will have been defined greater if he grew up in a better neighborhood. Despite his achievement he still settled in a government subsidize apartment in Harlem, “A few days after it was up it seemed uninhabitably new, now, of course, its already a rundown. It looks likes a parody of the good, clean, faceless life-God knows the people who live in it do their best to make it a parody.”, (101 -102, Narrator). Finally, through his jazz music, Sonny was able to make his brother realize success is a personal goal not some destination set by others. Baldwin uses this story to communicate to readers the importance of family and neighborhood in the development of mankind throughout generations especially on the hindrances and set cap on success experienced by various individuals.
- James Baldwin. “Sonny’s Blues.” Norton Introduction to Literature:
- Kelly Mays, 11th edition, 95 – 118.
- Kelly May. “Norton Introduction to Literature”:
- Kelly Mays, 12th portable edition.