Sonny’s Blues of Hatred, Misery and Love
The story Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin (1957) explores the theme of suffering experienced by Black Americans as individuals fettered by discrimination, unemployment, housing problems, drug addiction, imprisonment, and suicide. It features the struggle of two brothers separated and caught in the entanglements of time, space, and ideals.
The unnamed Narrator who is relatively well-off between the two siblings struggles to understand his suicidal yet talented brother Sonny while the latter finds difficulty in coping up with the mediocrity that engulfs him. Effective communication is crucial in the story of two brothers with different visions in life where rage and fury may explode at split seconds to put an end to one dear life of a prodigy.
Readers are then invited to journey with the Narrator as he reveals his discoveries through memories of their childhood, of their mother and father, and of their Harlem community. In the first part, when the Narrator heard of his brother’s imprisonment due to drugs abuse, floods of memories came rushing in and he trembled upon thinking what his brother could have been getting through. He asks, “…why does he want to die?” He was very scared. Thus in paragraph 2: “A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long.”
His reflection is extended in the street as he wonders what most of the young could be doing secretly in the ground. It was a hint of a decaying life and destructed future. The Narrator is a witness to all problems that affected his brother, he tends to be indifferent to all of these if not possessing a strong character in meeting the challenges in his community and of his race.
As the speaker fetched Sonny who is finally freed after seven years of incarceration and long silence, they passed through the “killing streets of their childhood… streets that hadn’t changed.” It is quite nostalgic and seems an awkward moment for the speaker. Moreover, while the Narrator observes that “though housing projects jutted up… houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape.” This brings to the fore the question of change. In the Narrator’s mind is the anxiety whether Sonny can ever change his perspective of a future. In the past, he saves his patience treating his brother as merely a child who will someday mature and realize things over to himself. The Narrator understands him the way he would understand him or herself as a child or a growing man or woman who may possess a strong character but may easily be swayed and confused by a rather unhealthy environment such as of their childhood.
Eventually, the Narrator’s new life in marriage separated the two brothers and brought them together again upon their mother’s death whose will was for the Narrator to take care of his brother. Once, in a gathering of church people, his mother shared about the death of his uncle that his father struggled for quite long. His uncle was not merely a victim of hit-and-run but a victim of bigotry. He died in the street because he was a Black drunk man poked fun about by White drunk men. The mother reminded the speaker that her revelation is not meant “to make you scared or bitter or to make you hate anybody” but purely for the sake of a younger brother Sonny. Unconsciously, it is an epiphany that the Narrator would later acknowledge. The memory is as vivid as in her mother’s own narrative: “His brother got killed when he was a little younger than you are now.” His father does not speak about it because it was too painful. Death because of the color of one’s skin is just a terrible fact in the contemporary times.
Thus, when the mother died, the Narrator assumes the responsibility of taking care of Sonny but one of his regrets would be not listening enough to Sonny who is all too passionate with music the way he believes “one must have much suffering to be able to sing beautifully” and thus, any human being must listen more attentively to music. In the end, the Narrator realized that “All I know about music is that not too many people ever really hear it.”
It takes for Sonny to run away to manage things on his own at the same time for the Narrator to build his trust upon his brother that he can handle himself and in fact make a successful career out of his passion that he and his wife Isabel as well as Isabel’s folks supported by providing Sonny the facility of home and a piano. Of course, his rebellious action then gravely hurt Isabel, her folks and most importantly, his brother not out of humiliation but of frustration in understanding his thoughts, attitudes, and character.
For Sonny, music was his way of expression, communication, and redemption. In the past, his brother thought it was something not serious and which does not promise a good living. Sonny was consistent with such dream while his main frustration then in Harlem was “to get away from drugs.” He was caught in this self-destructing world though many times he thought “I needed a fix, I needed a place to lean, I needed a clear space to listen… and I couldn’t find it.”
The story therefore employs suffering as a general experience but which has particular impact in every individual. Like any familial relationship, the two brothers experience the fears of separation, academic challenges, and career search in stages of life from childhood to adulthood. The Narrator wants to be carefree and protective as much as possible with his brother while the latter is more expressive of his fury but not his deeper desires. In a way, they are both naïve of each one’s feelings although in the end, they would reconcile to each one’s experiences, forgive one’s self as well as forgive the past.
To conclude, both characters grew in the same problematic community but travailed two different paths. The Narrator is happy in both his career and relationship with a teaching position, a wife, and children. However, he is haunted by his seeming failure in taking his brother out of trouble. Meanwhile, Sonny is unable to articulate his hatred and love of his family and the society at large in a way that his brother would easily understand.
The interesting resolution in the end of the story is weaved by a touch of musical education and appreciation: how feelings are manifested in music and why good music is born. This documents how repressed feelings of marginalized sectors are translated in music and song. Albert sees such music particularly blues as “a state of being and as music” that is the bone of the story. This reminds us of the historicity and wealth of Black music and artistry that even White Americans later would hail and emulate.
Listening is a simple skill yet a hard one for humans. It entails the discipline of valuing others and paying deeper attention to other’s feelings, thoughts, and opinions. Individuals may have tendency to be egocentric that sometimes they are not aware that they have not been listening or are not listening enough to others. Instead, they are more drowned in their own pathetic world. This leads to miscommunication and misunderstanding as well as petty quarrels to suicidal acts that may have been prevented in the first place.
To quote Sonny’s musical reference of the Black people’s humanity: “…all that hatred and misery and love. It’s a wonder it doesn’t blow the avenue apart.” The Narrator could have not narrated how music is played in the bar the way he is able to send the details of the phenomena if he is not listening enough to his brother Sonny. Sending him a drink whereby his brother responded with a nod was a brotherly moment of finding unity and peace at last.
Albert, Richard N. “The Jazz-Blues Motif in James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues”. Jstor. College Literature, Vol.
11, No. 2 (Spring, 1984), pp. 178-185. Web. 13 July 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25111592
Baldwin, James. Sonny’s Blues. Southwest Career and Technical Academy. Web. 13 July 2013. PDF File.