The human condition refers to the obstacles, important incidents, and occurrences people are faced with that is crucial to human existence. Aspects of human existence that includes childbirth, maturation, feelings, struggle, and death. Due to internal and external forces such as anxiety and living in poverty. In ”Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, these forces makes people’s identities change as they begin to mature. Sonny and the narrator in the story discover and express their identities from their bad experiences living in Harlem, New York. Bad experiences such as growing up around a drug culture and living in poverty, helped shape both Sonny and the narrator’s identity and how they lived their lives.
In ”Sonny’s Blues”, the main protagonists of the story are both Sonny and the narrator. Sonny would be described as someone who is irresponsible, receptive, and naive. Sonny in the story is a troubled man. Sonny fell into the Harlem drug culture and was arrested and did time in jail for selling and using heroin. The narrator finds this out when he reads the newspaper: “He had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment downtown, for peddling and using heroin”(Baldwin 17). This shows Sonny got caught up into drugs. Sonny also did not enjoy going to school and found it to be a waste of time. Sonny stated “I ain’t learning nothing in school,” he said. “Even when I go.” (Baldwin 34). He shows he doesn’t like school event though the narrator has told him to keep going to school. He also wants to get out of Harlem due to the terrible environment he’s lived in. Sonny says this in a discussion with the narrator, “Look, brother. I don’t want to stay in Harlem no more, I really don’t”(Baldwin 33). In this Sonny believes that he will change his ways if he leaves Harlem. He also wants to find something he enjoys doing which comes through becoming a jazz musician. When the narrator wants to know what Sonny wants to do in the future, Sonny says “I want to play with jazz musicians”. He stopped. “ I want to play jazz,” he said (Baldwin 31). Sonny has decided he want to be a jazz musician.
The narrator would be described as someone who is closed minded, conventional, and cautious. The narrator is a man with a strict moral code. He is a algebra teacher and served in the army. He is cautious in the environment he is surrounded in, knows that Harlem is plagued with a drug culture, and many people live in poverty. The narrator states this, “all they really knew were two darknessess, 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”(Baldwin 18). The narrator says that the environment the kids in Harlem live in might catch up to them. He also notices this when he’s teaching the kids at school. The narrator observes, “here I was, talking about algebra to a lot of boys who might, every one of them for all I knew, be popping off needles every time they went to the head, Maybe it did more for them than algebra could”( Baldwin 18). The narrator is afraid that the students might fall into the drug culture the same way his brother Sonny did. He knows that this is how Harlem is as an environment. He is closed minded when it comes to the decisions Sonny wants to make. The narrator says,”I didn’t like his friends, and his music seemed to be merely an excuse for the life he led” (Baldwin 36). It shows the narrator did not support Sonny for trying to be a jazz musician.
Sonny and the narrator’s family environment shaped the way they went through life living in Harlem. Sonny did not get along with his father who was an alcoholic. The narrator states, “the principal reason that they never hit it off is that they were so much alike. Daddy was big and rough and loud talking, just the opposite of Sonny, but they both had that same privacy” (Baldwin 26). This shows Sonny did have a good overall family life but did not have a good relationship with his father. It did not help Sonny when his father passed away when he was 15. Sonny did not have the father figure that would guide him to the right path. Also he had a good relationship with his mother. The mother was the wise one of this story who was always looking out for them. The narrator recalls, “Mama suggested trying to move to a neighborhood which might be safer for children”(Baldwin 26). Sonny loved his parents and when they were gone it changed him. It made him stray away from the right path. The narrator remarks, “he hopes the hand which strokes his forehead will never stop will never die. He hopes that there will never come a time when the old folks won’t be sitting around the living room” ( Baldwin 27). Sonny was still a kid during that time and when his parents passed there wasn’t anybody to look after him. The narrator’s life was shaped by living with his family and being cautious about the outside which he refers as the darkness. The narrator says, “You can see the darkness growing against the windowpanes and you hear the street noises every now and again” (Baldwin 26). This shows where he lives it’s very quiet and can listen to what is happening on the streets. The narrator also feels guilty that Sonny has ended up this way now that his little brother is older. His mother says, “You got to hold on to your brother,” she said,” and don’t let him fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you gets with him”(Baldwin 30). The narrator made a promise to his mother that he would look after Sonny and he ended up forgetting and went to live his life. This is why the narrator feels he has failed as a brother.
Sonny went through multiple ways to make changes in his identity. One way is that the way he thinks he can get his life back together is to somehow get away from Harlem. Sonny tells the narrator, “the reason I wanted to leave Harlem so bad was to get away from drugs” (Baldwin 43). This shows how much Sonny wanted to get away from all the bad influences in Harlem. A way he used to get out of Harlem was to join the army. The narrator recalls, “He went as far as the navy would carry him”. “He finally sent me a postcard from some place in Greece and that was the first I knew Sonny was still alive”(Baldwin 36). This proves Sonny wanted to do anything possible to get out of Harlem and that meant even enlisting in the army. In his struggle, he also uses jazz as his calling to get away from those bad experiences. Sonny starts to play the piano, listening to jazz artists’ records, and eventually finds people to play jazz with. When he plays jazz, Sonny feels respected and praised by the audience he plays to. The narrator notices, “A woman’s voice called Sonny’s name and a few hands started clapping.” “And Sonny, also being funny and being ceremonious, and so touched, I think, that he could have cried” (Baldwin 45). This shows Sonny’s life is much more happier now that he plays jazz with others and to an audience. Sonny went from a troubled man who spent his time with drugs into a jazz musician.
The narrator also is able to change his identity and becomes more accepting towards Sonny’s decision. Before the narrator wanted Sonny to be like a normal person. A normal person as someone who went to school, and get a real job. He wanted Sonny to be someone that would be accepted into society. Also before he didn’t really understand Sonny and that why he didn’t support Sonny’s passion for jazz at first. Sonny suggests, “sure, I can make a living at it.” “But what I don’t seem to understand is that it’s the only thing I want to do” (Baldwin 32). Sonny here tells the narrator that he’s trying to convince him that being a jazz musician is the only thing Sonny wants to do in the future. Then towards the end of the story, when the narrator sees Sonny play the piano, the narrator accepts Sonny’s decision and understands why Sonny wants to be a jazz musician. The narrator observes, “it turned out everyone at the bar knew Sonny, or almost everyone; some were musicians, working there, or nearby, or not working, some were simply hangers-on, and some were there to see Sonny play”(Baldwin 44). With this it showed the narrator that Sonny is thought highly of as a jazz musician. It also made the narrator realize that Sonny is apart of a community and that he is happy there. The narrator went from being closed minded and old fashioned to being much more open minded and not afraid of change.
In conclusion, both Sonny and the narrator struggle past the environment they grew up in and change their identities by the end of the story. Sonny who struggled past addiction and become a jazz musician and the narrator who is more old fashioned and stubborn become more open to change thanks to Sonny. From this, the environment people grow up in can determine their identity, but it is up to them to make the necessary changes to themselves for a better life.