James Baldwin’s 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues” explores the dynamic between two black brothers living in Harlem. The two brothers are Sonny, a heroin-addicted jazz pianist, and the unnamed narrator, a sober high school algebra teacher who is seven years older than Sonny. Baldwin’s story illustrates how someone internalizes anger and attempts to cope with it. By having one brother be younger and drug-addicted and the other being older and sober, it creates the dynamic of frustration between the siblings and themselves.
“Sonny’s Blues” takes place in Harlem, New York and is the source of many of the brothers’ problems. The story takes place after World War II or the Korean War. The time period is unclear because World War II ended in 1945, but the Korean War ended in 1953. Regardless, Harlem was a predominantly African-American, poverty-stricken neighborhood. There was rampant drug use in Harlem, and many like Sonny and the narrator wanted to leave before they got addicted themselves. Additionally, jazz was incredibly popular in this time, and in the jazz scene, it was common for musicians to use drugs like heroin to play. Unfortunately for Sonny, he is a jazz pianist that was exposed to heroin and got addicted.
This story opens up with the narrator shocked to discover one morning in the newspaper that his brother Sonny was arrested for drug use. The narrator is leaving the high school he teaches at and runs into one of Sonny’s friends that revealed to the narrator that all Sonny would do is go to rehab, get released, and return to using drugs in a vicious cycle. The narrator does not why Sonny would do something incredibly harmful and killing himself at such an early age, and the confusion that the narrator feels sets the tone of the short story.
This story is told in time skips, moving back and forth between the past and the present to reveal why their relationship is strained beyond their age gap. Chronologically speaking, the story would technically begin with their father dying in war and their mother explaining to the narrator why their father insistently told the children that the world was never safe, and it was due to seeing his brother being run over and killed. She tells the narrator this so he will do his best to protect his brother for their mother’s sake because she knew she would be passing away very soon. The narrator marries a girl named Isabel two days later, and the brothers’ mother passes away shortly after.
Their mother’s passing caused the two brothers to talk, and at this time, Sonny is seventeen while the narrator is twenty-four. Sonny explained that he wants to be a jazz pianist, and the narrator, being older and aware of the difficulty of being a working musician, tried to steer him away from that profession, but Sonny refused. The narrator then revealed while he was in the war, he was going to make Sonny live with Isabel and her parents so then Sonny would be able to finish high school. Isabel’s family had a piano in their house, and Sonny would constantly practice for days on end, not realizing that the family was annoyed with the noise. Isabel’s parents found Sonny’s truancy letters, and when confronting him, he explained that he would skip school to play piano. Isabel’s parents then go on to accuse him of taking them for granted, and Sonny internalizes their comments to the point that several days later, he leaves to join the navy which takes him to Greece.
After the war is over several years later, Sonny and the narrator are living together again in Harlem, and they are constantly fighting because the narrator disapproves of Sonny’s lifestyle since he went back to being a working jazz pianist with friends and an attitude the narrator didn’t like. This tension erupts one night in a massive fight with the narrator telling Sonny that “he might just as well be as dead as live the way he was living,” leading to Sonny stepping out of his life (Baldwin 428). It is not until two years later he reconnects with Sonny after reading about Sonny’s addiction and imprisonment in the newspaper. The narrator’s daughter died of polio at two years old, and he wrote a letter on the same day his daughter was buried. They keep this correspondence until Sonny gets out of jail and moves back to Harlem to live with the narrator and Isabel once more.
The narrator felt guilty for bringing him back into the neighborhood that was the root of Sonny’s problems, and one Saturday afternoon, Sonny finally explains why he used heroin. Sonny clarified to his brother that the only time he would feel alive and really feel the music he was playing was when he was high. Sonny got to the point that he believed no one understood the turmoil he was going through due to his tendency of internalizing his problems and viewing his brother as self-righteous. Sonny desperately wanted to leave Harlem because of the drugs, and he thought that running away from everything could relieve him from that lifestyle but he got trapped. The brothers come to an understanding that while they had very notions of happiness and how to achieve it, they also had different coping mechanisms for their own struggles.
The story ends with the siblings going to a nightclub where Sonny played the piano with the live band there. This nightclub is Sonny’s home where he can play the piano and release all of the emotions he bottles up, and when Sonny plays, the narrator finally understands that what Sonny cannot say verbally, he says musically. This piece concludes with a biblical allusion of the cup of trembling, symbolizing the moment where all of the pain and suffering they have been through has been momentarily taken away.