At a Glance

  • 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. 

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(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a new form of jazz music was being developed. The style, called "bebop," "bop," or later, "hardbop," centered on a very complex and abstract type of soloing during familiar tunes. Often in the solo, only the chords of the original melody would remain the same, and the tune would bear no resemblance to more traditional versions. The soloist would also play at blistering speeds. The earliest bebop musicians were trumpet players Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, pianist Thelonious Monk, and saxophonist Charlie Parker. Parker is often credited as the originator of the genre.

Bebop became very controversial at a time when jazz was gaining respectability, and many of the traditional jazz musicians opposed it. Where traditional jazz music and its more popular subform, swing, encouraged audiences to dance and enjoy themselves, bebop focused attention on the soloist and on his technical virtuosity. In this way, it was akin to other forms of modernist art, which exalted difficulty and formal experimentation. The English poet Philip Larkin expressed this association between bebop and modernist art when he condemned what he considered the three main figures of modernism, "Picasso, Pound and Parker," referring to artist Pablo Picasso, poet Ezra Pound, and musician Charlie Parker. Bebop was intellectualized where jazz and swing were pleasant and sensual, and the emotions that bebop expressed were often dark and brooding.

Contributing to bebop's somewhat dangerous and seamy reputation were the highly publicized drug problems of many of bebop's central...

(The entire section is 3,500 words.)