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 trueart—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 wayhis 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.
Art plays an important role in "Sonny's Blues", acting as a bridge between the estranged brothers. Sonny's inability to speak and the narrator's inability to listen prevent the brothers from truly communicating with or understanding one another throughout their lives. Music becomes a channel through which Sonny can make himself understood. Witnessing the music of the street revival brings the brothers closer, prompting their first honest conversation in the work. More remarkably, at the climax, Sonny's music helps the narrator finally understand his life and trials. The connection art facilitates becomes the catalyst for a genuine epiphany in the narrator. As one critic explains, "By understanding Sonny's pain and accepting his humanity, his brother understands and accepts himself" (Nelson 28). Art then functions as a means not only for communication, but ultimately for redemption. Baldwin's commentary about the importance of stories suggests that writing, like music and other forms of art, serves this purpose.
Suffering is a constant presence in "Sonny's Blues." From the death of the narrator's daughter to Sonny's drug addiction to the cold-blooded murder of the narrator's uncle, suffering dominates the community. Suffering is, as Sonny passionately argues, inescapable. This suffering is symbolized throughout the work by darkness, which encroaches upon the lives of the narrator's family and community, something to be borne and endured. Sonny explains that his heroin usage is an attempt to cope with suffering that would otherwise paralyze him.
Yet suffering, for all the pain it causes, is essential to both art and redemption. Sonny comments on "how much suffering [the revival singer] must have had to go through" in order to sing so beautifully (132). One can imagine that Sonny's music comes from similarly dark experiences. Suffering and darkness, if used creatively, can produce works of unparalleled beauty. Suffering also confers the ability to understand and feel true compassion for others, which is essential for redemption. Indeed, it isn't until the painful death of his daughter that the narrator begins to walk down a path that leads to his salvation.
Racism is the dark undercurrent that flows through "Sonny's Blues". It is rarely referenced directly but its pull can be felt continuously. For example, Baldwin mentions decrepit housing projects that rise out of Harlem like "rocks in the middle of the boiling sea" (112). The result of local and federal segregationist housing policies, the projects represent the impact of racism on a down-trodden community. Likewise, much of the narrator's anxiety on behalf of his students can be attributed to the fact that they, like Sonny, are young African American men living in a system that ruthlessly and endlessly discriminates against them.
Much of the darkness and suffering in the story referred to can be attributed to the effects of racism; the narrator speaks of suffering as something inherited from one generation to the next in the African American community. The constant and vague influence of racism finally becomes explicit and clear when the narrator's mother explains how drunken white men murdered her brother-in-law. She warns the narrator that a similar fate could befall Sonny, demonstrating her concern that racism is still a very real threat to the family.
Harlem, the setting of "Sonny's Blues," is packed with barely-contained anger. The community is forced to live in an oppressive and painful world; as a result, many are left deeply angry. The narrator describes the neighborhood as a "boiling sea" (112) and comments that his students are "filled with rage" (104). He then speaks of the "hidden menace" that permeates Lenox Avenue (112). Even the narrator's family has been impacted: the narrator's mother describes how the death of the narrator's uncle led his father to harbor a smoldering rage against white men. The anger and resentment of the community have built up to dangerous levels. Sonny senses the explosive potential of Harlem, when, looking down from the window, he wonders aloud how the anger and hatred "don't blow the avenue apart" (135). Through these examples, Baldwin attempts to communicate the anger and desperation that plague Harlem and the wider African American community.
"Sonny's Blues" is a story about pain, suffering, alienation, and anger; however, it is also a story about redemption. At the beginning of the work, the narrator is lost, disconnected from his family and isolated from his community. A painful act of grace--the death of his aptly-named daughter, Grace--allows him to begin to understand the depth of his brother's suffering. In that moment of pain, he contacts his brother, starting the long path to redemption. The brothers begin communicating and eventually Sonny is released from prison and stays with the narrator. When he finally listens to his brother play, the narrator understands and accepts the meaning of his brother's life. In accepting his brother, the narrator accepts himself and his heritage. The climax is a moment of discovery and redemption, in which the narrator is pulled back to his heritage and community, back to his brother and back to himself. He who was lost is now found.
Imprisonment is a recurring and persistent theme in "Sonny's Blues." Sonny is physically imprisoned when he is jailed for the sale of heroin. Being in prison is a devastating experience for Sonny, who longs for freedom. Yet much of the imprisonment in the story is abstract. The narrator refers to Harlem several times as a trap which individuals must struggle to escape. He comments that even those who successfully leave the neighborhood "always left something of themselves behind, as some animals amputate a leg and leave it in the trap" (112). A pit of poverty, crime, depression, and anger, Harlem traps the individuals who call it a home. When Sonny pleads with his brother to leave Harlem for the military, the narrator notes that he looked "trapped, and in anguish" (123). Sonny's desperation to escape prison is reflected in his desperation to escape Harlem. Even the narrator fails to truly escape his neighborhood; despite his middle-class position he must still live in a decrepit tenement in Harlem.
Despite the story's title, evidence in "Sonny's Blues" strongly suggests that it is jazz, more specifically bebop, that Sonny plays. For Baldwin, the blues are not a specific genre of music, but rather something more universal. The narrator explains that the blues are "the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph" (139). Given this definition, the story "Sonny's Blues" is itself a blues piece: it begins with the suffering of two brothers, follows their growing sense of communion, and ends with the triumph of brotherly love over alienation and pain. The narrator admits that this formula isn't innovative, but claims that "it's the only light we've got in all this darkness" (139). The story "Sonny's Blues" is an attempt, much like Sonny's actual music, to commune with its audience and, through that bridge of understanding and compassion, to relieve suffering. Baldwin is not playing, but writing the blues. The title "Sonny's Blues" refers not to the specific genre of music Sonny plays but to Sonny's story of suffering and triumph, of loss and redemption through music.