James Baldwin' "Sonny's Blues" is a story that essentially describes a deep misunderstanding between two brothers. The story is about Sonny and his inability to escape the pressures of his Harlem community to make something great of himself. Unlike his brother, his brother, the narrator, Sonny struggles to find his place in the society. Thus, "Sonny's Blues"is a story of the coming together of two worlds; the world of his brother, which represents social mobility and success, and a world of Sonny and most black youths in Harlem, who represents moral decadence and failure. Though the narrator provides a glimpse of his own life, Sonny is the main character because the story is essentially about Sonny's struggle to overcome those elements in his community that prevents him from achieving his dream of becoming a pianist. In a sense, Sonny's life is used as a mirror for the challenges that face most black youths in economically depressed inner-city neighborhoods across America.
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The theme of "Sonny's Blues" is one of two brothers' inability to understand each other, which is based on the fact that they represent two very distinct social class within the black community. According to Suzy Bernstein Goldman in "James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues': A Message in Music," in the story, "theme, form, and image blend into perfect harmony and rise to a thundering crescendo . . . [it] tells of two black brothers' struggle to understand one another" (Goldstein 231). In the onset of the story, the narrator, a school teacher is thinking about what has become of his brother Sonny who "had been picked up, the evening before, in a raid on an apartment downtown, for peddling and using heroin" (43). Here we are presented with two very different images of the brothers: one is a school teacher who seems to be rational, and is the image of success, and the other a drug dealer and addict, whose future seems to begin with drugs and ends with jail time. The narrator is presented as a concerned brother, however, who worries about the bleak outlook of Sonny's future. He reminds himself, "I didn't want to believe that I'd ever see my brother going down, coming to nothing" (43), a powerful revelation which causes him to even question whether his teaching of algebra will save the youths in his class from coming to ruin like Sonny.
"Sonny's Blues" is primarily about Sonny because his experience as a struggling black youth is used as a reflection of the struggle most black youths face everyday and fail to overcome. In a sense, the story reflects the guilt of successful blacks at the fact that they achieve some degree of success in their lives while the majority of people they know, including close relatives, are unable to escape the pressures of drugs and other forms of temptation and degradation affecting the blacks in inner-city America where opportunities for social upward mobility are sparse. In "Words and Music: Narrative Ambiguity in 'Sonny's Blues," Keith E. Byeman "tells of the developing relationship between Sonny, a musician and drug addict, and the narrator, his brother, who feels a conflict between the security of his middle-class life and the emotional risks of brotherhood with Sonny" (Byerman 367). Thus, Baldwin uses the story to demonstrate how the individual can be made a slave by his own community and its lifestyles. The narrator talks about how the realities of the black community often limit the potential of black youths, such as Sonny. As the narrator teaches his students, he compares their lives to the life of the average black youth in the community where he grew up: "These boys, now, were living as we'd been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities" (44). The narrator's anger and frustration with how the world is divided in classes is seen by his anger at the drug addict who peers into the school courtyard and eventually tells him about Sonny's blues. His appearance reminds the narrator of Sonny, but goes to show how many black youths with limited opportunities to get out of the ghetto, can only dream about mainstream America's cultural lifestyle and achievements, a reason why the narrator argues that these youths are angry and full of rage. Before Sonny got his piano, his world was limited to using and selling drugs.
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Incidentally, the comparison between the slave trade and Sonny's deep down addiction to drugs is subtle but evident. His constant physical and mental fight to escape his addictive and deadly society is similar to the agony a victim of slavery must have felt in his quest for deliverance from his torment. This is expressed in Sonny's letter to the narrator, where he says, "I wanted to write you many a time but I dug how much I must have hurt you and so I didn't write. But no 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, outside. I got to get outside" (46). This explains why Donald C. Murray in "James Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues': Complicated and Simple," points out that this story "deals with man's need to find his identity in a hostile society and, in a social situation which invites fatalistic compliance, his ability to understand himself though artistic creation, which is both individual and communal" (Murray 353). This idea is revealed in Sonny's letter to the narrator, where he says, "I can't get anything straight in my head down here and I tried not to think about what's going to happen to me when I get outside again. Sometime I think I'm going to flip and never get outside, and sometimes I think I'll come straight back. I tell you one thing, though, I'd rather blow my brains out than go through this again" (47). Thus, while the narrator has seen the light of success, Sonny remains in the darkness, not because he wants to but because his society clouds and impairs his vision of success. Sonny and the narrator are two strong-willed brothers who had different motivations as children: Sonny was not an unruly child by virtue; "but it was as though he were all wrapped up in some cloud, some fire, some vision all his own; and there wasn't any way to reach him" (55). Therefore, while the narrator takes to school, Sonny seems to find an escape in playing the piano, but not even Sonny's artistic drive could have saved him.
To conclude, Sonny and the narrator are like two different worlds rotating in different orbital formation and with different societal gravitational pull. Though they are so much alike in their endeavors, failure to communicate increased their awareness of how different they were. Their obvious ignorance about each other's beliefs and motivations was the major cause of their dislike for each other.