I first encountered Baldwin’s 1957 story “Sonny’s Blues” fifteen years ago, when I was an adjunct in the English Department at Hunter College. I was preparing to teach it as part of an introductory writing class. As I reread it just now, thinking about writing this, every scene in it, every set piece, came back to me the way something does when you’ve read it a hundred times to think about ways to teach it. Also what came back to me was the ways my students grappled with it, most likely with the aid of Spark Notes, looking for bits of symbolism to write about in their papers, expounding, for example, on why the narrator’s mother always wears blue (which always seemed kind of beside the point).
I cannot read this story, then or now, without starting to cry halfway through. Or even before halfway. Usually it’s the moment when the narrator confesses that he made no attempt to write to his younger brother in jail until his little girl, Grace, dies of polio. That loss shakes something loose in him, propelling him towards his estranged younger brother, who, as the story opens, has been arrested for dealing heroin—something the narrator finds out about by reading about it in the newspaper. For the reader, too, something is shaken loose here.
What is it about this story that is so powerful? Partly it is Baldwin’s genius in describing the visceral effects of emotion: when the narrator learns of his brother’s arrest, his pain, fear, and dread is “a great block of ice” in his belly that “kept melting there slowly all day long.” It is partly the author’s skill in taking us forward and backward through Sonny and the narrator’s story: growing up in prewar Harlem, the intervention of history in the form of World War II, which takes the older brother away at a time when the younger brother needs him, and, always, the precarity and isolation of being black in America.
The latter theme is illustrated most powerfully by the story the narrator’s mother tells him the last time he ever sees her, before he goes overseas. There was an uncle that the narrator never knew about, his father’s brother, loved by his father the way as he loves his own brother, and he was run down by a group of drunk white men in a truck on a country road, left dead in the road before his brother could get to him. “Your Daddy was like a crazy man that night and for many a night thereafter,” the narrator’s mother tells him. “Till the day he died he weren’t sure but that every white he saw was the man that killed his brother.” And, “I ain’t telling you all this to make you scared or bitter or to make you hate nobody. I’m telling you this because you got a brother. And the world ain’t changed.”
This story, this loss that the narrator never knew about, stands in for all the other losses, the long history of darkness and fear that Baldwin presents so palpably in the scene where the “old folks” sit around in the living room after church, children scattered around the room listening to the old folks talk but not really understanding anything, understanding only that they don’t want the talking to stop. And then, when it does stop, as evening falls and someone remembers to turn on the light, the narrator remembers, or imagines, a child being “filled with darkness. . . . The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure.”
In the final scene of the story, which takes place in the present, the narrator goes to a nightclub to hear his brother play jazz, an act that in itself speaks of forgiveness, of wanting to heal the chasm between them. As Baldwin does elsewhere (notably in his novel Another Country), here, he writes about jazz brilliantly, in a way that makes us hear the music and its “laments” (to use his word): “Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. . . . I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever.” The darkness is here, yes, but also a hint of redemption, a redemption found in listening, in music, in knowledge of the past, in the facing of loss, and in community: “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and we are delighted, and how we may triumph is ever new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell; it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” In “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin offers a story that is breathtaking in its generosity—offering us that same light in the midst of pain that his blues musicians impart to his narrator.
“Sonny’s Blues” is a perennial favourite with literature anthologies and a personal favourite for many readers, but although critics and readers alike agree that Baldwin is a major African American writer, they do not agree about why.
Learn more about how different critical periods define Baldwin and his work for their own purposes in The Critical Reception of James Baldwin. Get 40% off The Critical Reception of James Baldwin during our Short Story Month Sale, using promo code BB741 at check out through May 31st.