Sonny's Blues Analysis

  • James Baldwin set "Sonny's Blues" in Harlem in the 1950s. At that time, the Harlem Renaissance was coming to a close, and Baldwin described the "two Harlems": that of the poor and that of the successful. Baldwin was born in "the hollow," the roughest part of Harlem, and later became famous as a writer. The main characters of "Sonny's Blues" represent the two different versions of Harlem that Baldwin experienced.
  • "Sonny's Blues" is steeped in the African American music traditions of blues, bebop, and jazz. Like many musicians, Sonny draws his best material from his life, and the emotional pain comes through in the music. Though Sonny's music would best be categorized as blues, the story itself is set in Harlem, the jazz center of the 1950s.
  • Baldwin wrote "Sonny's Blues" in part to illuminate the African American experience. Sonny and the narrator represent the two different paths available to African American men at that time: drug abuse or education. Through their characters, Baldwin shows readers how racism has limited options for African American men. 


Style and Technique

Baldwin emphasizes the theme of opposition between the chaotic world and the human need for community with a series of opposing images, especially darkness and light. The narrator repeatedly associates light with the desire to articulate or give form to the needs and passions that arise out of inner darkness. He also opposes light as an idea of order to darkness in the world, the chaos that adults endure, but of which they normally cannot speak to children.

The opposition of light and darkness is often paired with the opposition of inside and outside. Sonny’s problem as an artist is that inside himself he feels intensely the storm of human passion; to feel whole and free, he must bring this storm outside by gaining artistic control over it, by articulating it for some listener. Inside is also the location of the family, the place of order that is opposed to outside, the dark and predatory world.

These and other opposing images help to articulate Baldwin’s themes of opposition between the meaningless world and the meaning-creating community. The artist, by giving voice to the inner chaos of needs and passions, unites humankind in the face of the outer chaos of random and continuous suffering. The artist helps to create a circle of light in the midst of surrounding darkness.