Sonny's Blues Analysis
by James Baldwin

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Sonny's Blues Analysis

  • James Baldwin set "Sonny's Blues" in Harlem in the 1950s. The Harlem Renaissance was coming to a close, and Baldwin describes "two Harlems": that of the poor and that of the successful.
  • "Sonny's Blues" is steeped in the African-American music traditions of blues, bebop, and jazz. Sonny draws his material from his life, and his emotional pain comes through in his music.
  • Baldwin wrote "Sonny's Blues" in part to illuminate how racism has limited the options for African-American men. Sonny and the narrator represent two of the different paths available to African-American men at that time: drug addiction or higher education.

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“Sonny’s Blues” was first published in Partisan Review in 1957, at which point James Baldwin was already a controversial writer with two novels and the essay collection Notes of a Native Son to his credit. The story is set in Harlem, where Baldwin himself grew up, and deals with family conflicts similar to those that he experienced. Underlying this domestic conflict is the racial conflict one might expect of a story written and published in the midst of the struggle for civil rights—after Brown v. Board of Education and the Rosa Parks case but before the Civil Rights Act and the Black Power Movement. The narrator hears from his mother about how a group of white men intentionally aimed their speeding car at his uncle, psychologically shattering his father, who, for the rest of his life, looked at every white man as the potential murderer of his brother. In the world of “Sonny’s Blues,” contact with white people, however apparently benign, is always cause for concern. Musicians, however, are more inclined to be color-blind and to mix freely than other members of the community. It is in a white girl’s apartment in Greenwich Village that Sonny meets with his fellow jazz musicians. This is the revelation (rather than the fact that he has not been attending school) that most upsets the family of the narrator’s wife, Isabel, and causes her mother to start screaming at him. This reflects Baldwin’s own experience of his father’s angry reaction when a white teacher wanted to take Baldwin to the theater when he was ten years old.

The chronology of “Sonny’s Blues” is complex and nonlinear, moving back and forth in time with the narrator’s memory. This emphasizes the continuity in the brothers’ relationship and in their social situation. When Sonny returns to New York and the narrator sees him for the first time after his arrest, he thinks at first that Sonny has been greatly changed by the life he has led. Then he recognizes that time has only “deepened the distant stillness in which he had always moved.” When Sonny smiles, he sees that his brother has remained essentially the same. They drive past the park to the narrator’s house, and he reflects that little has changed in the neighborhoods they pass either. Most of the houses in which they grew up have disappeared, but the people are still living the same type of lives and having the same experiences, including those in the new housing project where he lives. Both brothers have fought in a war—likely the Second World War or the Korean War—and traveled far from their neighbourhood. The narrator is educated and has a responsible job. Neither of them, however, has altogether escaped his origins.

A striking feature of the story is the way in which two normally reticent and uncommunicative people, first Sonny’s mother and then Sonny himself, finally open up to the narrator and talk intimately at some length about their experience of life. One might include a third character, Sonny’s boyhood friend, who, at the beginning of the story, confesses his guilt at what has happened to Sonny. However, readers do not know whether he is usually disposed to reticence—only that his manner is furtive and disreputable. These dialogues, which include lengthy and revealing monologues, bring variance to the first-person point of view of...

(The entire section is 4,803 words.)