Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" takes place in the pre-civil rights era in Harlem, which was and still is a largely African-American part of New York City. The title of the story is a play on words, since "blue" is a synonym for depression and the blues is a form of music based upon people's problems, a form generally credited as African-American in origin. The narrator tells the story of his younger brother, Sonny, who is a gifted pianist, but who has struggled with drug addiction and has been incarcerated as a result. We learn of the boys' early lives and the tragic legacy of the boys' father, who watched his guitar-playing brother get run down and killed by a group of drunken white men. This is a story of despair and hope that has a great deal to teach us about darkness and pain, about the failure and endurance of fraternal love, about the curse of drug addiction, and about the gift of musical genius.
The boys' early lives are lived in poverty, and the narrator still lives in a "project," which is housing subsidized by the government. While the narrator is now a teacher, he remains in the same area where he and Sonny have grown up, and he understands that drugs and crime are still out there, tempting the boys he teaches, as Sonny was tempted and succumbed. The neighborhood offers little in the way of opportunity, and its youth are angry at their limitations. This is a community of "mean streets." Life is a struggle that does not end well for many. It is important to understand this snapshot of history, if only to understand that in many ways, while it would seem that the civil rights era addressed these problems, the United States remains filled with such communities still. We might have made some progress, but measured against this story, it is clear that there is a long way to go.
The narrator distances himself emotionally from Sonny for many years, and he maintains this distance until Sonny writes to him from prison saying he needs him. The narrator feels a great deal of guilt because his mother has asked him to look out for his brother, to learn from what happened to their father's brother, essentially, to not fail Sonny the way the father believed himself to have failed his brother. So the narrator has let down his mother and his brother until he resumes contact with Sonny, takes him in when he finally leaves prison, and apparently really tries for the first time as the story ends to understand his brother and give him real emotional support. We are meant to be our brothers' keepers, and if one lives in a world of darkness, this duty is even greater. If we have a sibling with a disability, is it not incumbent upon us to look after that sibling? Sonny is disabled by his early life and a disease that has crippled him.
What saves Sonny is his gift, a talent for playing the piano, blues and jazz. This gift may very well arise out of his pain, as gifts like this sometimes do, in music, writing, and art. Van Gogh created great art out of his curse of mental illness, for example, and Tchaikovsky was bipolar. At the very end of the story, as the narrator finally hears Sonny perform at a club, he begins to understand that Sonny's gift can transport Sonny out of the darkness, along with those who hear him perform. The narrator says that Sonny "could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did" (Baldwin 148). It is Sonny's performance that allows the narrator to see his brother as a complete and beautiful person, not just an addict or a younger brother, but someone who is fighting to transcend his pain and his beginnings and bring light to himself and to others. It is as though the narrator had opened Pandora's box, and finally hope has come out into the room.
This is a story rich in learning, about the darkness of its time and place, a kind of darkness with us still, about brotherly love and family obligation, about the gift of music that can transform and transcend the pain of life. Baldwin wrote "Sonny's Blues" in 1957, over fifty years ago, and it holds up well as a lesson in so many ways.