What was the struggle of racism in "Sonny's Blues" and why?

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jmj616 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Sonny's Blues," by James Baldwin, is about two brothers who grew up in the black neighborhood of Harlem, NYC, in the 1930's-1940's.  The story contains a good deal of description of the challenges that confronted these boys and their friends.

The narrator of the story is the older brother, who has gone to college, become a math teacher, married, and started a family.  His younger brother, Sonny, is a jazz musician.

As the story begins, Sonny has been arrested for "peddling and using heroine."  Although the narrator is surprised about his brother, he realizes that kids can turn "hard, so quick, so quick, especially in Harlem."

He describes the life of black kids in Harlem:

they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low celing of their actual possibillities.

In other words, racism limited the potential for these boys to succeed in life and to escape from the harsh conditions in their ghetto neighborhood.

Sonny tries to escape through music and drugs, a combination which rarely works.  The narrator has tried to succeed and escape in a more conventional way, through education and assimilation.  But even he has only been partly successful.  Although he has a decent job, he lives in a housing project that is "really just like the houses in which Sonny and I grew up."