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Eulogizing James Baldwin, whom he had sharply criticized earlier in their lives, Amiri Baraka said he

reported, criticized, made beautiful, analyzed, cajoled, lyricized, attacked, sang, made us think, made us better, made us consciously human.

Having received many fellowships, Baldwin was able to move to Paris, France, where he did his best writing.  There, he declared, he was better able to understand who he was and from where he had come.  There, too, he began his struggle for individual fullfillment.  This struggle is what Baldwin wrote about in his novels and the short story, "Sonny's Blues."  According to C.W.E. Bigsby, editor of The Black American Writer, central to the conflict of much of Baldwin's writing is to show that

the job of ethnic renewal [lies] in individual fullfillment rather than racial separatism or political revolution.

In his story "Sonny's Blues," there is, indeed, much of James Baldwin.  The son of a preacher in Harlem, Sonny himself preached when he was young; as a result, biblical allusions echo throughout this story as well as many other works.  Additionally, in his youth, Baldwin perceived Harlem as a "dreadful place...a kind of concentration camp."   It was also the place where his mother, like Sonny's mother, said that no child was safe.  At the age of twenty-four, Baldwin left New York in order to avoid what he called "the fury of the color problem," but he wrote about the dehumanizing--"the killing streets"--of Harlem in his narrative of Sonny's struggles.

The jazz-blues motif that moves the story is also a part of Baldwin's culture as Harlem was the site of the famous Cotton Club and home to many accomplished musicians.  This motif is the driving force of the conflict, the theme, and the epiphany of Sonny's brother and final resolution of conflict.