As James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” begins, the titular figure’s brother is describing Sonny’s pubescent descent into drug addiction—a phenomenon not uncommon in the narrator’s current environment. The narrator of Baldwin’s story is a teacher whose students, he assumes, find the departures from reality offered by heroin more practical than the algebra to which he subjects them. Sonny was arrested the night before in a drug raid, and what follows is the narrator’s description of their lives together and apart; it also includes his belated realization that Sonny’s road to inner peace laid not in the older brother’s path of professional responsibility, but in the music he played on his piano.
Sonny’s brother had been forced following their parents’ death to become a father figure to the younger boy. Reflecting on Sonny’s nature following news of his arrest, the narrator remembers his brother’s fundamentally kind nature: “I told myself that Sonny was wild, but he wasn’t crazy. And he’d always been a good kid, he hadn’t ever turned hard or evil or disrespectful, the way kids can, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem.” As “Sonny’s Blues” continues, it becomes very apparent that the two brothers had clashed over which path the younger brother should travel. A part of the narrator’s recollections, however, require his own contemplation of the sorrows to which he, as a law-abiding, educated adult, had been forced to contend with. As the older sibling continues to relate the brothers’ history, he emphasizes his ultimately failed efforts at directing Sonny down the path of maturity and responsibility. As Sonny tries in vain to explain the intrinsic importance of music, the older brother tries equally in vain to keep Sonny focused on the importance of holding a more conventional job:
“Well, Sonny,” I said, gently, “you know people can’t always do exactly what they want to do—”
“No, I don’t know that,” Sonny said, surprising me. I think people ought to do what they want they want to do, what else are they alive for?”
“You’re getting to be a big boy,” I said desperately, “It’s time you started thinking about your future.”
There is a certain universality to this exchange between older sibling/father-figure and younger sibling/child. Many parents in more affluent communities have had the same conversations with their children. The difference in Baldwin’s story is the serious shortage of hope inherent in the environment in which they live. These brothers grew up very poor in Harlem, New York—an environment that bred much societal dysfunction. The option of escaping reality through heroin was often the only path young African Americans could see for themselves, and it was into this abyss that Sonny sank. As “Sonny’s Blue’s” comes to its conclusion, the narrator is finally awakened to the overwhelming importance music, and, especially, the blues, plays in not only Sonny’s life, but also in the lives of others. Making the pilgrimage to the nightclub where Sonny is known, respected, and loved, the narrator finally sees his brother in his natural milieu, and his perspective changes radically. Watching his brother perform alongside the other musicians, the narrator observes, “Sonny’s fingers fueled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others.”