The story Sonny’s Blues, written by James Baldwin, is narrated by an African-American man working as an algebra teacher, whose name is not revealed by the author. At the beginning of the story, the narrator is worried after reading the newspaper, from which he finds out that his brother, Sonny, has been imprisoned for using and selling heroin. This news makes the narrator recall his childhood experiences and make sense of them. This incident also influences the narrator’s personality and makes him undergo changes. In the story, the narrator learns to feel compassion, accept the African-American culture, and understand jazz music.
One thing the narrator learns is to understand people’s sufferings and feel compassion. In the beginning, the narrator does not seem to be concerned about other people’s sorrows. For example, when Sonny’s friend says that he should have committed suicide long ago, the narrator replies: “‘Don’t tell me your sad story, if it was up to me, I’d give you one.’ 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” (Baldwin, 2009, p. 20). The narrator also does not bother to keep in touch with his brother while he is in prison, despite his mother’s request. Only when the narrator’s daughter dies of polio, he feels deep suffering, which reminds him of his brother’s sorrow. He decides to write to Sonny, and Sonny’s reply, in which he tells how much he needed to hear from his brother, makes the narrator “feel like a bastard” (Baldwin, 2009, p. 22). Thus, it is not until the narrator himself suffers a great loss that he develops compassion for other people’s hardships.
Another thing that the narrator learns throughout the story is to accept his African-American origins and culture. In the beginning, the narrator seems to struggle to lead a decent life: he works as an algebra teacher and has a family with children. When he learns about his brother’s imprisonment, he refuses to accept this news: “I couldn’t believe it: but what I mean by that is that I couldn’t find any room for it anywhere inside me. I had kept it outside me for a long time. I hadn’t wanted to know” (Baldwin, 2009, p. 17). This quote shows that the narrator refuses to accept his African-American identity. However, it changes when the narrator and his brother see a street revival meeting. For the first time in his life, the narrator pays attention to the lives and culture of his fellow countrymen: “It was strange, suddenly, to watch, though I had been seeing these street meetings all my life” (Baldwin, 2009, p. 38). After witnessing this meeting, the narrator accepts his African-American identity and learns to listen to his brother’s experiences.
Finally, the narrator learns the meaning of jazz music and tries to understand it. Jazz music is Sonny’s passion since he wants to devote his life to playing jazz. Sonny admires Charlie Parker, whom he considers the greatest jazz musician. However, no one in the narrator’s family knows Charlie Parker or understands Sonny’s music. They can hardly stand him practicing: “Isabel finally confessed that it wasn’t like living with a person at all, it was like living with sound. And the sound didn’t make any sense to her, didn’t make any sense to any of them—naturally” (Baldwin, 2009, p. 35). In the end, after Sonny is released from prison, the narrator agrees to listen to Sonny’s playing jazz. When the narrator hears his brother play the piano, he understands that jazz is the way Sonny expresses the sufferings of his own and of African-American people.
In conclusion, Sonny’s Blues is a story that shows how the narrator’s character develops over time. Various bitter experiences, such as the brother’s imprisonment and the daughter’s death, change the narrator’s attitudes toward himself and other people. Over the course of the story, the narrator learns to feel compassion, accept his African-American identity, and understand the meaning of jazz music as part of the African-American culture.
Baldwin, J. (2009). Sonny’s blues. In S. Feinstein & D. Rife (Eds.), The jazz fiction anthology (pp. 17-48). Indiana University Press.