What is Baldwin saying about suffering in "Sonny's Blues?"

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Suffering" is one of the main themes of "Sonny's Blues," by James Baldwin.

Baldwin may be pointing out that there are many kinds of suffering, and that one person's suffering is not necessarily harder or easier than another person's: it is all relative. Sometimes we may, as a part of the human condition, feel that our suffering is harder to bear than that of another, but how can we ever know, and does it matter?

In Baldwin's story, suffering affects the lives of the narrator and his family. A car filled with drunken white men ran down the narrator's uncle. His death haunts the narrator's father—brother to the dead man. In fact, the father becomes so hardened by his suffering, that he hates white people.

This car was full of white men. They was all drunk, and when they seen your father's brother they let out a great whoop and holler and they aimed the car straight at him. They was just having fun, they just wanted to scare him, the way they do sometimes, you know. But they was drunk.

The narrator's father is never the same. He carries his suffering with him everyday. His mother also suffers—in watching her husband's pain:

I ain't saying it to throw no flowers at myself...it keeps me from feeling too cast down to know I helped your father get safely through this world. Your father always acted like he was the roughest, strongest man on earth. And everybody took him to be like that.  But if he hadn't had me there—to see his tears!

She suffers, too, trying to make a life for her family in Harlem, and feeling that Sonny is more fragile than his brother. She tells the narrator, the older brother:

"You got to hold on to your brother," she said, "and don't let him fall, no matter what it looks like is happening to him and no matter how evil you gets with him. You going to be evil with him many a time. But don't you forget what I told you..."

Soon after, she dies. It's difficult to imagine the intensity of a mother's suffering for her child—but, again, Baldwin is not suggesting that this is an easier or more difficult kind of suffering— it's one of many kinds.

Sonny suffers with addiction—and over his music.

"But we just agreed," I said, "that there's no way not to suffer. Isn't it better, then, just to—take it?"

"But nobody just takes it," Sonny cried, "that's what I'm telling you! Everybody tries not to. You're just hung up on the way some people try—it's not your way!"

And then Sonny speaks of the need to play:

"Sometimes you'll do anything to play, even cut your mother's throat." He laughed and looked at me. "Or your brother's." Then he sobered. "Or your own."

The narrator suffers when he thinks of his students, knowing the potential for drug abuse and death hover so close to the school. He suffers, too, because he does not understand Sonny's need to play jazz. He doesn't understand jazz. He doesn't understand Sonny at all...until he hears Sonny play the blues.

...Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny's fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others... Then he began to make it his...it was no longer a lament...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.

And so Baldwin says there are many kinds of suffering, but perhaps, too, he notes that if we share each other's suffering, we can help to alleviate that suffering and perhaps set each other free.

Read the study guide:
Sonny's Blues

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