How does James Baldwin convey drugs, music and cuture in the short story Sonny's Blues?

t-rashmi | Student

‘Sonny’s Blues’ shows that suffering is a manifestation of the general chaos of life and cannot be avoided. One can struggle against it and one can support others in their struggles. James Baldwin has also emphasized the importance of having someone to talk to when one is suffering.

Drugs, music and culture are conveyed in the story ‘Sonny’s Blues’ as follows:

The story opens by telling us that the main protagonist Sonny is addicted to heroin and that he will be sent to a treatment facility to be “cured.” Sonny is unable to comprehend the change in his father’s behavior after the death of his uncle in an accident. To take control of the inner chaos and to find shelter from outer suffering he starts taking drugs.

But here Baldwin has shown the way out of this habit. Sonny realizes drugs are not a solution to his pain and suffering. He decides to find an alternate way to deal with the same. Sonny announces at his mother’s funeral that he intends to be a jazz pianist. To teach himself piano he decides to live with his brother’s wife’s family while the brother is away at war. Later when Sonny is unable to learn piano, staying at his brother’s place, the brother is afraid that Sonny may go back to drugs.

But Sonny decides that he will use music as a way to mitigate his suffering. He invites his brother to listen to him play piano with a group in a Greenwich Village club. This way he may succeed in dealing with “the storm inside” by means of his music. Listening to him play, the brother understands that music is an authentic response to Sonny’s problems as the one who creates music “is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air.” Sonny’s music gives the narrator and all people a way of finding meaning in their pains and joys. 

"Sonny's Blues" takes place in Harlem during the early 1950s. Poverty, prostitutes and an inherent danger lurked in the streets of the city. Family, brotherhood and the relationship between these two brothers in this setup is explored in the story. The culture of the city is highlighted: “he hadn’t turned hard or evil or disrespectful, the kids can, so quick, so quick especially in Harlem.” Or “towards the vivid killing streets of our childhood.” Or “some escaped the trap, most didn’t.”

The story thus gives us a perspective of life, relationships and overcoming pain and suffering.

Read the study guide:
Sonny's Blues

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