Frequently anthologized, James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" tells the story of two brothers who come to understand each other. More specifically, it highlights, through its two main characters, the two sides of the African-American experience. The narrator has assimilated into white society as much as possible but still feels the pain of institutional racism and the limits placed upon his opportunity. Conversely, Sonny has never tried to assimilate and must find an outlet for the deep pain and suffering that his status as permanent outsider confers upon him. Sonny channels his suffering into music, especially bebop jazz and the blues, forms developed by African-American musicians. "Sonny's Blues" was first published in 1957 and was collected in Baldwin's 1965 book, Going to Meet the Man.
The story also has biblical implications. Baldwin became a street preacher early in his life, and religious themes appear throughout his writings. In "Sonny's Blues," Baldwin uses the image from the book of Isaiah of the "cup of trembling" to symbolize the suffering and trouble that Sonny has experienced in his life. At the end of the story, while Sonny is playing the piano, Sonny's brother watches a barmaid bring a glass of Scotch and milk to the piano, which "glowed and shook above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling." As Sonny plays, the cup reminds his brother of all of the suffering that both he and Sonny have endured. His brother finally understands that it is through music that Sonny is able to turn his suffering into something worthwhile.