"Sonny's Blues" depicts the universal struggle of human relationships. The narrator has always longed for Sonny to achieve greatness and happiness—by the narrator's standards. Sonny instead longs to be a musician, but this goal isn't one his older brother finds value in. Thus, the two are locked in an emotional tug-of-war which many families know well, regardless of race. There is misunderstanding and blame on both sides, and this builds a wall between the brothers for years. Eventually, they come to a new understanding of each other.
Suffering is also a universal human experience that is depicted throughout the story. Sonny reaches for and is arrested for dealing drugs, causing suffering for both himself and the brother who loves him. The boys lose both of their parents and are left with only each other as a source of support. The narrator tragically loses his baby daughter. Sonny struggles with addiction. Their struggles show that life is hard and suffering is universal.
The setting provides a distinctly African American view of these struggles. The boys grow up in Harlem, which at the time of the story was not only an African American community but one plagued with difficulties. Thus, the narrator escapes Harlem to become a teacher and Sonny longs to escape from it, too, as he tells his brother near the end of the story:
I couldn't tell you when Mama died—but the reason I wanted to leave Harlem so bad was to get away from drugs. And then, when I ran away, that's what I was running from—really.
There is also the history the brothers share of their father's brother who was murdered by white men who ran him over with their truck. This horrendous and racist act shows the struggles that African Americans faced in this setting and the history which becomes part of their family's unique story.