“Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin


James Baldwin spent most of his adult life living in France, but is widely recognized as an essentially American writer. Having been born and raised in New York’s Harlem district, he was intimately familiar with the sights and sounds that appeared in his stories even though he’d put an entire ocean between them. Born in 1924 to an unmarried woman placed a stigma on his head that would continue to haunt him and cause friction between himself and his adoptive father, David Baldwin.

Although seen to attempt following the straight and narrow course outlined for him by his father in becoming a Pentecostal preacher at age 14, by the time he was 17 Baldwin had moved to the artist’s neighborhood of Greenwich Village and was beginning his writing career. Inequality and hatred for his race and sexuality drove Baldwin to seek a more forgiving community and he moved to France, a move that would provide him with the distance required to write truthfully about the actual black experience from the perspective of the black man.

Through the experiences of his youth and the distance of his adulthood, Baldwin was able to both illustrate the unique nature of the black community as well as demonstrate its similarities to the white community while encouraging each race to listen to each other. In his short story “Sonny’s Blues,” for example, Baldwin focuses the story on the universally human concerns of providing for family and personal growth, thus creating a story that could be as easily concerned with white people as black. Through the unique sounds of the black neighborhood, though, Baldwin symbolizes how they are different and highlights the extreme importance and value of listening.


Throughout the story, the narrator establishes himself as a completely human individual as he both blames himself and pities himself for his currently life circumstances. He demonstrates again and again that he is at least partially responsible for the predicament he finds himself in, living in the housing projects of New York and supporting a younger brother who has just been released from jail following an arrest for dealing heroin.

Chronologically, this is first demonstrated in his inability to listen to his younger brother shortly after their mother dies which leads to a division between the brothers that proves difficult to overcome. It is demonstrated again in his unwillingness to consider the words of Sonny’s old friend after he learns of Sonny’s arrest. However, the seeds of change are already planted in this encounter and hope for a different future is suggested in the narrator’s willingness to listen, actually listen, to Sonny in the end.

The idea that the main concern of the story is with the growth of this narrator is supported by critics. “Baldwin’s deeper concern is with the narrator, the respectable schoolteacher, the ‘white’ Negro … The author shows that the nameless ‘I’ of his story, though older, is not wiser, and he uses both Sonny and his music as tools to help the narrator reconcile himself to his racial heritage” (Ognibene, 1971: 36).

Because of his previous inability to listen to others, the narrator created division between himself and his brother that prevented him from understanding the drug difficulties his brother was experiencing, yet his newfound willingness to try listening suggests hope for both brothers’ futures. In this progression, Baldwin presents a story that could be occurring to a black family as easily as it could a white family, but that also demonstrates the consequences of division and potentials of unity listening might provide.

The particular circumstances of life for the family in the story are undeniably related uniquely to the lower income bracket, but continue to remain focused on the strictly human elements of these characters rather than a uniquely black experience as the narrator begins his growth process. Although his early relationship with his brother is not revealed until well into the story, the narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” reminds himself that he was unable to listen to his brother many years ago, which probably contributed to his brother’s isolation and drug use.

Just after their mother died, the narrator remembers a conversation he had with his brother regarding having Sonny stay with Isabella, the narrator’s new wife, and her family while the narrator finishes out his term with the Army. Sonny begs his brother to send him out of Harlem by allowing him to join the Navy, providing several hints in the process that something is seriously wrong, but the narrator doesn’t listen to him. When Sonny tells his brother “I ain’t learning nothing in school. … Even when I go”, the narrator should have realized the hint that Sonny doesn’t often attend class. He further hints at trouble in the neighborhood when he says “At least, I ain’t learning nothing you’d want me to learn.”

The brother doesn’t stop to find out what Sonny’s learning or explore what the problems might be. Instead, he sticks to his own ideas of what’s right for Sonny in encouraging him to stay and finish school. While he obviously only has Sonny’s best interests in mind, he is blind to the particular problems Sonny is facing. This is what Sonny refers to when he tells his brother, “I hear you. But you never hear anything I say.”

In placing the scene within the vernacular of the Harlem streets, thus in the ‘sound’ of the story, Baldwin begins to highlight the uniquely black element of the story and seems to be hinting to white people to listen to the greater message. The black people, living in the district, can tell white people what is wrong so that, by working together, things can be made better, but white people continue to feel they are best capable of determining the ‘proper’ answer and thus install ‘solutions’ that lead to disaster.

After Sonny is arrested for dealing in heroin (and at the beginning of the story), the narrator mechanically drives himself through a day of teaching high school algebra and then runs into an old friend of Sonny’s outside the school, an encounter that demonstrates his changing ability to listen. As the two men talk, the old friend reveals that he wasn’t caught with Sonny because he’d rather used a pistol on himself than join Sonny’s crowd.

The narrator responds by telling the friend he’s not interested in the other’s story. “Then I felt guilty – guilty, probably, for never having supposed that the poor bastard had a story of his own, much less a sad one.” Some critics argue that the narrator refuses to listen to this friend. According to Goldman (1974), “the narrator psychologically retreats. Fearful of learning about heroin and too anxious himself to help Sonny, he timidly asks what the arrest means” (Goldman, 1974: 231).

However, his willingness to seek answers from this individual marks the beginning of the narrator’s change from one of assuming he has all the answers to one of listening for new insight. In his profession, in his language and in his natural reactions to the events around him, the narrator comes across as white, allowing the white reader to identify to a greater degree with this man. As he begins to listen more carefully to what Sonny’s old friend has to say, the narrator begins to understand those around him at a greater depth than he has before, which is symbolized by the inclusion of music, uniquely black jazz music, in his narrative.

He looks in at a barmaid as the old friend is talking and notices her interacting with other people in the bar. “And I watched her face as she laughingly responded to something someone said to her, still keeping time to the music. When she smiled one saw the little girl, one sensed the doomed, still-struggling woman beneath the battered face of the semi-whore.” This echoes his earlier insight into the young men he teaches when he heard a single whistle rise above the angry laughter of fellow classmates and begins to establish the connections between black and white Baldwin was encouraging.

The narrator’s growth can be seen in his response to Sonny at the end of the story, a response that provides hope that the future for both brothers will be much different from the past. This is, in part, brought about by the narrator’s willingness to reach out to his brother while he’s in prison and provide him with a home following prison, but also to Sonny’s willingness to give his brother another chance at reconciliation by inviting him to come hear Sonny play.

“I sensed, I don’t know how, that I couldn’t possibly say no,” the narrator says, finally coming to the realization that he must hear his brother before he can hope to help him. Although he’s never understood Sonny’s music before, the narrator agrees to try and Sonny tells him, “There’s no way of getting it out – that storm inside. You can’t talk to it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening.

So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.” The narrator’s ability to finally understand what is being said through Sonny’s music later that evening and Sonny’s reception of the message sent through the Scotch and milk, suggests a more understanding future. As Baldwin weaves the narrative through sound and storyline, black and white readers are able to identify with it on a personal level, recognizing in the action something familiar and recognizing in the sound something strange.

As the protagonist grows to at least attempt to listen to what his brother is saying, Baldwin is encouraging both black and white readers to attempt to communicate with the other. That the black man is the victim in the relationship is not called into question as Sonny is prevented from taking the protective measures he knew he needed and continues to plead with his brother to hear him, but forgiveness is required if things are to be made better.

Throughout the story, the narrator takes at least half responsibility for the problems that the two brothers have suffered. By not listening to his brother to begin with, the narrator is unable to catch the hints Sonny was throwing his way regarding how Sonny’s life was already falling apart. His attempts to listen while he talks to Sonny’s old friend demonstrate how he is beginning to realize his own complication in the matter, beginning to see some of the story behind the people who surround him that he has never even considered before. Finally, the narrator’s willingness to try to listen to Sonny reveals an ability to finally understand his brother’s music and opens up a channel of communication between them that exists on more equal terms.

Although he’d been unable to hear his brother earlier in their lives, the narrator’s experiences after his brother is arrested begins to open his mind to the concept of other people’s stories. This finally gives him the ability to hear his brother. This growth in the character and the subsequent hope for the future this change brings about illustrates how the narrator’s ability to listen contributed greatly to the problems the two of them have experienced. Expanding this to the broader range, Baldwin calls on white and black ‘brothers’ to get together and try to listen to each other in order to build a better world.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. R.V. Cassil & Richard Bausch (Eds.). 6th Ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000.

Goldman, Suzy Bernstein. “James Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’: A Message in Music.” Negro American Literature Forum. Vol. 8, N. 3, (1974): 231-233.

Ognibene, Elaine R. “Black Literature Revisited: ‘Sonny’s Blues.’” The English Journal. Vol. 60, N. 1, (1971): 36-37.