Frequently anthologized, James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" tells the story of two brothers who come to understand each other.
More specifically, it highlights, through its two main characters, the two sides of the African-American experience. The narrator has assimilated into white society as much as possible but still feels the pain of institutional racism and the limits placed upon his opportunity. Conversely, Sonny has never tried to assimilate and must find an outlet for the deep pain and suffering that his status as permanent outsider confers upon him. Sonny channels his suffering into music, especially bebop jazz and the blues, forms developed by African-American musicians.
"Sonny's Blues" was first published in 1957 and was collected in Baldwin's 1965 book, Going to Meet the Man.The story also has biblical implications. Baldwin became a street preacher early in his life, and religious themes appear throughout his writings. In "Sonny's Blues," Baldwin uses the image from the book of Isaiah of the "cup of trembling" to symbolize the suffering and trouble that Sonny has experienced in his life. At the end of the story, while Sonny is playing the piano, Sonny's brother watches a barmaid bring a glass of Scotch and milk to the piano, which "glowed and shook above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling." As Sonny plays, the cup reminds his brother of all of the suffering that both he and Sonny have endured.
His brother finally understands that it is through music that Sonny is able to turn his suffering into something worthwhile. Sonny's Blues"James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" is told from the viewpoint of the title character's brother, a schoolteacher, who lives a much different life than Sonny himself. As the story opens, the unnamed teacher has just learned that his younger brother has been arrested for possession and sale of heroin: "It was not to be believed and I kept telling myself that, as I walked from the subway station to the high school. And at the same time I couldn't doubt it. I was scared, scared for Sonny. He became real to me again.
A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra. It was a special kind of ice. It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less.
Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream. This would always be at a moment when I was remembering some specific thing Sonny had said or done."What is remarkable about that passage is the way Baldwin is able to describe a feeling we have all had when we've been extremely upset for a protracted period of time. The "ice", of course, is nature's attempts to numb the terrible shock and pain of learning about Sonny's arrest, and the fear that the narrator feels for his brother's future. The feeling of the ice melting and trickling through his veins is similar to the sensation of goosebumps, or having a chill run up one's spine.
The fact that the narrator has to continue to teach his classes despite being in the most intense emotional anguish intensifies the symptoms he experiences internally.Ice is seldom mentioned in the remainder of the story; but it is still there, if only in its absence. The narrator tells us that after he finishes teaching his classes for that day "my clothes were wet — I may have looked as though I'd been sitting in a steam bath, all afternoon." Just as all his distress about Sonny is locked inside him (in the form of "ice") so that he can continue to stand in front of the class and teach, his "warmth" is all on the outside, and manifests itself in the form of sweat.
Because he cannot deal with Sonny's pain — because he doesn't want pain like that to become a part of his life — the narrator does not write to Sonny in prison until he has experienced a loss of his own. The narrator's little girl dies of polio, and at that point he reaches out to the only person who might be able to understand that kind of anguish — Sonny.When he gets Sonny back home, he momentarily feels "that icy dread again" as he watches his brother for signs of drug addiction, hating himself for being so suspicious but unable to prevent it. The narrator recaps the story of Sonny's life — how their parents had died when Sonny was a teenager, and how Sonny decided to become a jazz pianist, practicing at the piano at the narrator's inlaws' house as he were "playing for his life" — which he was.Baldwin implies that Sonny got addicted to heroin.