In James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," the most dominant conflicts in the story are those faced by each brother with his personal demons (man vs. self), those that arise between the brothers (man vs. man), and the difficulties both of the brothers face to survive in the world (man vs. society).
The narrator believes that in order to endure (as his parents had before him) in the white, male-dominated society of the 1950s, he must be educated and find a job that is socially acceptable for a black man. He becomes a teacher. Sonny is a different man and cannot take the same path as his brother. He is a musician; unfortunately, life becomes much more difficult when he becomes addicted to heroin. The brothers separate for many years (man vs. man).
In this regard, society presents each man with a choice: conform and survive, or refuse and suffer.
The narrator and Sonny face the conflict of man vs. society. The narrator views conformity as something that will guide him and allow him to subsist in the America of the day. Because of this choice, the narrator has little freedom. In fact, it is not until the story ends that the narrator recognizes the absence of freedom. The narrator's decision has put him at odds with Sonny, and the narrator does not understand how Sonny has made such different decisions.
Sonny carries a darkness in him from his childhood. He is unable to conform to society's expectations. Instead, he pursues a life playing jazz and becomes addicted to heroin. Sonny cannot accept the role society offers him; he cannot find meaning in conforming to a society that does not understand him or foster his desire to be different. Playing jazz doesn't offer much success or relief from the pain of his past, growing up in Harlem amidst the invasive darkness of the lives of his parents and their friends. While the narrator represses his pain inside, Sonny is unable to face it or ignore it and resorts to the use of heroin.
In an era when a black man has no control over any aspect of his life, Sonny starts using heroin because, as he says,
It makes you feel—in control. Sometimes you've got to have that feeling.
Sonny's view of life differs from his brother's; he is unwilling to adjust to a society that makes few provisions for people of color. (This causes the conflict of man vs. man.) Sonny's choice against conformity creates inner turmoil (man vs. self). His drug use allows him to survive emotionally and mentally (though he spends time in jail for dealing drugs). He struggles to find meaning in life through his music—not a view of life fostered by society. Sonny's decisions create conflict because he is unable to make a living from playing jazz, and the drugs take their toll as well.
However, through Sonny's music, his brother (who has never been able to understand Sonny) is awakened to the victories Sonny experiences in his life decisions. Where the narrator feels unable to communicate with his brother and struggles with pain from the past, Sonny finds a place, if only temporarily, that allows him for short periods of time to return to a time in younger life where the world was kept at bay by "the older folks," as they hid the darkness of their lives and their meager existence from the awareness of their children. Jazz takes Sonny on a journey; by the end of the music, it has set him (and his brother) free:
Then he began to make [the melody] his. It was very beautiful...it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. 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...I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in the earth.
The men are presented with a choice: assimilate or make your own way. However, both assimilation and non-conformity come with a price. The narrator's choice creates an inner-conflict as he represses the pain of his past and feels guilt as he struggles with the responsibility of watching over his brother. Sonny chooses to create his own path. He goes to jail (man vs. society); he is estranged from his brother for a number of years (man vs. man); and he struggles with the demons of addiction and his painful past (man vs. self).
Ironically, however, while the narrator might appear to make the better decision, it is actually Sonny who rises above the circumstances thrust upon him by taking the "road less traveled." His choice provides the narrator with a consciousness of the lament that is the thread of music weaving itself through his life, as well as the knowledge that he can now stop grieving. Sonny's music is also responsible for crafting a place of understanding where his brother can truly see him. Finally, it gives Sonny and his brother the ability to experience freedom, even if only for a short time, pushing all the conflicts momentarily away and creating a place where only the music has true meaning in their lives of struggle.