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James Baldwin's story "Sonny's Blues" focuses on the struggle for recognition and suffering of the African American artists living in Harlem in the early to mid nineteen century. He attempts to remove the readers' racial prejudices and biases against other alienated individuals living in the society by "listening" to their painful cries as they reach out to be heard. Sonny is an addict, a misfit and a high school dropout; however, Sonny in truth is a complicated character, a struggling yet determined Artist, a private introverted person as well as a caring and deeply sensitive individual.
Sonny fits James Joyce's definition of an artist in his "A portrait of an artist as a young man", as a private, introverted, alienated and highly sensitive yet caring individual who "marches to the tune of a different beat." Sonny's brother finally notices, "He has a slow, loping walk, something like the way Harlem hipsters walk; only he's imposed on this his own half-beat. I had never really noticed it before."
The speaker shows Sonny as a very "private" person, a trait that is a constant in his nature throughout his life. His brother mentions, "When he was a boyâ€¦He had wonderfully direct brown eyes, and great gentleness and privacy." Later, as he meets Sonny when he is a young man he says, "Yet when he smiled, when we shook hands, the baby brother I'd never known looked out from the depths of his private life, like an animal waiting to be coaxed into the light." When Sonny visits the brother's family the brother mentions, "Sonny has never been talkative." Again, he mentions this fact when he remembers how Sonny was their dead father's favorite where he says, "Sonny just moves back, inside himself, where he can't be reachedâ€¦Daddy was big and rough and loud-talking, just the opposite of Sonny, but they both had - that same privacy." After his mother's death, Sonny wants to join the army and leave Harlem. The brother says, "There was something in his eyes I'd never seen before, some thoughtfulness, some worry all his own."
Sonny like many Artists is alienated from that part of society, which does not share his taste in art or music. The brother points this out when he says, "Isabella finally confessedâ€¦it wasn't like living with a person at all, it was like living with soundâ€¦Sonny was some sort of god, or monsterâ€¦moved in an atmosphere which wasn't like theirs at all." "He certainly wasn't nasty or unpleasant or rudeâ€¦all wrapped up in some cloud, some fire, some vision all his own; and there wasn't any way to reach him." As children, the brothers lacked mutual understanding as the speaker points out, "when he was around fourteen, he'd been hipped on the idea of going to Indiaâ€¦walking barefoot through hot coals and arriving at wisdom. I used to sayâ€¦getting away from wisdom as fast as they couldâ€¦he sort of looked down on me for that." Sonny is determined to pursue a career as a musician, which the older brother disapproves. Sonny falls in with the wrong crowd, which leads to conflict between the brothers and Sonny ostracizing his brother from his life. The brother reconnects with Sonny after he learns about Sonny's drug addiction and need for rehabilitation in the newspaper. Apparently from an early age there was an internal struggle for self-discovery, peace and wisdom distil within Sonny that his brother failed to sympathize. In this regard, those closest to Sonny let him down several times in his life when he needed their support. Yet Sonny is comfortable and social among musicians. The speaker conveys this when he calls the nightclub as Sonny's "kingdom" and later mentions, "The face I saw on Sonny I'd never seen before. Everything had been burned out of it, and, at the same time, the things usually hidden were being burned in, by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up thereâ€¦Then they all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family againâ€¦"
Like most artists, Sonny's sensitivity to society brings him suffering that leads to his addictions while on the other hand it also makes him highly empathetic to those around him. This is evident when he visits his brother's family and "remembered to bring something for each one of themâ€¦" or when he expresses his sympathies on the sad demise of his niece to his brother. He tries to communicate his guilt later in his life when he says to his brother, "I feel like a man who's been trying to climb up out of some deep, real deep and funky hole and just saw the sun up there." "â€¦ I swear if I knew what I was doing I would never have hurt you soâ€¦andâ€¦other people who were nice to me and who believed in me."
Baldwin presents Sonny as a neglected and misunderstood artist whose sensitivities and weakness of will power led to despair. The struggles that the African Americans in Harlem faced in the nineteenth century deeply affect Sonny. Where his brother manages to ignore them, Sonny wants to find a solution to the suffering as he says, "But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it." His brother finally understands Sonny's predicament when he admits, "I had held silence - so long! - when he needed human speech to help him." He finally "listens" to Sonny who then finds a release in his music that also gives hope and "light" to others in "darkness." He finally manages to find peace with the artist within and in turn progress in his career as a musician, perhaps true to his name making his dead parents proud.