In James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," the theme of family relationships runs throughout the story. Thematically, we also see reference to the artist and his art. While the family relationship between the brothers is a strong thematic element that impacts Sonny as a musician and a person, what draws me more is the concept of the struggle between the artist and his art. While there is a great deal of controversy between the brothers (which cannot be ignored), the struggle is at the core of understanding Sonny, the artist.
Sonny has certainly taken a dark and difficult road in his life. Substance abuse seems to have dogged his every step. And while his brother has been able to dodge the same fate by getting an education and moving out of the old neighborhood, his desire to leave his past behind has robbed him of the ability to see how the past has affected and haunted Sonny. It is completely understandable in that Sonny's brother wants what is best for his sibling, the brother he promised their mother he would watch out for.
Sonny represents those members of society that struggle to find their place when that place is not a part of the mainstream. Music is Sonny's life. The "blues" are not just what he plays, but also what he experiences based on his life choices and his struggle to pursue music with those choices.
The question of what Sonny wants, what he lives for, comes up in a letter he writes to his brother from prison. Sonny is ashamed; he feels as if he has disappointed everyone. He cannot even verbalize how he has ended up at such a terrible place in life. However, he shows how much music means to him by assuring his brother that it is not the reason for his current situation:
I don't want you to think it had anything to do with me being a musician.
The brothers keep in touch. When Sonny gets out of prison, he asks his brother to drive him past the old neighborhood. This demonstrates how closely tied Sonny is to the past—a past of suffering that still affects him.
His brother notes, as the taxi goes by the old neighborhood, that they pass the "killing streets of our childhood."
Sonny's brother can only see the world he is in and wish that world for Sonny. However, Sonny has not left the old neighborhood—not as his brother has—and he does not know how to survive in his brother's world. The primary reason may be because his brother's life has no room for Sonny, his music and what drives that music. Music is at the core of Sonny's existence.
Sonny tells his brother:
—well, yes, sure, I can make a living at it. But what I don't seem to be able to make you understand is that it's the only thing I want to do...I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?
Sonny tells his brother that in the pursuit of music—with true art—one must suffer. This is not an experience his brother understands. Sonny is aggravated because he believes his brother wants Sonny to suffer in a way his brother understands, but it is not Sonny's way. Sonny thinks the drugs may have helped him to survive his suffering, with the [illusion] of control over his life.
Ultimately, it is only after Sonny's brother hears Sonny play that it all seems to make sense. In Sonny's music there is sorrow born of suffering, but there is also a freedom—freedom born out of Sonny's music for all those who have suffered.
If I were to write about "Sonny's Blues" about the theme of the relationship between a man (or woman) and his art, I would concentrate on the contradiction art creates in the artist. With Sonny, suffering is necessary in order for him to play; but at the same time, it is only through his music that he experiences any freedom (however temporary) from his suffering. And that for those not living in his world, they cannot understand it, nor should they try to change it. It is futile because these elements are an integral part of Sonny's music and his life.
My thesis statement would be:
In James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," suffering is a part of the human condition. Sonny suffers from addiction, incarceration and his brother's lack of understanding; but the very things that cause Sonny to suffer are the same things that allow him to create music in order to transcend that suffering.