There is an old adage that states, "Happiness was born a twin"; indeed, one must share with others his/her joyful state for that emotion to be fully realized. By the same token, sorrow must be shared for it to attain significance. For, as Joseph Conrad writes in his story "The Secret Sharer," "meaning depends upon sharing." Certainly, in James Baldwin's powerful narrative "Sonny's Blues," Sonny's sorrow--his "cup of trembling"--can only attain meaning when the brother finally understands that Sonny "plays for his life"; that is, much like the street singer who has endured great suffering, Sonny plays the blues as he does with such rich feeling because he has felt great pain, he has felt "the blues." It is, then, after the narrator has felt the angst of losing his child that he understands Sonny's blues. And, it is then, sitting in the shadows of the nightclub, that "meaning depends upon [the] sharing" of these blues, music that is solace for their two souls, freeing them.
Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.
The brothers rescue each other, they redeem each other, they open up the world of suffering and give it meaning.
James Baldwin’s 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues” is a product of a culture than should have never existed but for the legacy of racism and the depths to which some African Americans descended as the only recourse they could find from the misery in their lives. Sadly, for so many of all ethnicities, escaping from the bleak realities of their lives involves drugs, and among the most pernicious and addictive of those is heroin. Heroin is Sonny’s drug of choice in Baldwin’s story of an African American school teacher whose brother is the drug addict of the title, and whose passion for playing the blues and jazz piano provides his only legitimate release from his inner pain. For much of “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator, the aforementioned teacher, recounts the history of his estranged relationship with his younger brother, and provides crucial details regarding their alcoholic father whose premature death left the boys fatherless. The narrator and Sonny’s father had been financially destitute, pretending to a level of courage and toughness that concealed a vulnerable, weak man. In the following passage, the narrator describes his and Sonny’s father, and the complexity of the relationship between their father and the younger son:
“He died suddenly, during a drunken weekend in the middle of the war, when Sonny was fifteen. He and Sonny hadn't ever got on too well. And this was partly because Sonny was the apple of his father's eye. It was because he loved Sonny so much and was frightened for him, that he was always fighting with him. It doesn't do any good to fight with Sonny. Sonny just moves back, inside himself, where he can't be reached. But the principal reason that they never hit it off is that they were so much alike.”
The narrator can’t relate to his younger brother. A stable, law-abiding professional – although in a low-paying job that keeps him and his family mired in poverty – he simply doesn’t understand the weaknesses of his brother and the attraction to a narcotic associated with the lowest forms of human existence. He knows little of his brother as a human being, and seems to care even less. His job at a public school in a low-income community exposes him regularly to the kind of teenage boys, his students, who remind him of his brother at that age:
“I was sure that the first time Sonny had ever had horse, he couldn't have been much older than these boys were now. These boys, now, were living as we'd been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities. They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to that other darkness, and in which they now, vindictively, dreamed, at once more together than they were at any other time, and more alone.”
The final stage of Baldwin’s story exposes the narrator, and the reader, to the essence of Sonny’s existence, and it isn’t heroin. Agreeing to accompany Sonny to the Greenwich Village jazz club where the younger brother regularly performs, the narrator enters an unfamiliar world that succeeds in helping him understand Sonny’s addictions to both drugs and to the music that provides Sonny’s sustenance. It is by watching Sonny play the piano as part of a blues band that the narrator finally begins to appreciate and know his brother. In the following passage from “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin’s narrator observes the connection of Sonny to a form of music born of the hardships and horrors of the African American experience – an experience still fully prevalent during the era in which this story was written:
“Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It's made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there's only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.”
As the narrator continues to describe this eye-opening experience, including the band leader, Creole’s, role in bringing Sonny back to the world he knows and loves, his relationship with his brother can finally be bridged. Viewing Sonny in his most comfortable environment helps the narrator to find his own place in the world, and to better understand that world.