James Baldwin?s story ?Sonny?s Blues? is a deep and reflexive composition. Baldwin uses the life of two brothers to establish parallelism of personal struggle with society, and at the same time implies a psychological process of one brother leaving his socially ingrained prejudices to understand and accept the other's flaws.
The story is narrated by Sonny?s older brother whom remained unnamed the entire story. Sonny's brother is a pragmatic person, a teacher, husband, and father. He is a typical middle class Joe whose life?s purpose is to conform to society?s rules. He is a conservative person who seldom takes risks, and accepts the majority?s judgment over his. Sonny?s brother has assimilated into white society (mainstream) as much as possible, but still angers at institutional discrimination and the limits placed upon his opportunities.
Contrastingly, Sonny has never tried to assimilate any model. He is looking to vent the deep pain and suffering that his status as permanent outsider confers upon him.
Both brothers grew up in Harlem (this story elapses from the early 50?s to late 60?s), surrounded by parents carrying psychological scars of discrimination and struggle. Is here at the family?s nest where the brother?s personalities started to split: though the narrator and his parents are physically there for most of Sonny?s childhood, they never really hear him or listen to him, so Sonny drew himself inwards, with disdain for social rules. Sonny?s older brother saw himself as the one bound to take the helm at the light of his father drunkenness.
After their parent?s death, Sonny is propelled by his older brother to stay with Isabel?s family (Sonny?s brother?s wife), an effort of Sonny?s brother to rail him into social conformity. Sonny is desperately trying to express himself, first, by telling his brother his wishes to become a Jazz musician, second, through music, restlessly practicing piano lessons at Isabel?s house. Neither Sonny?s brother nor Isabel?s family understand him. So he seeks more of his kind. He runs out the house, joins the navy, travels for a while, and comes back to New York as a Jazz pianist.
Sonny?s brother, following a conservative path, uses denial as mechanism of defense. He refuses to accept Sonny for what he is: ?I didn?t like the way he carried himself, loose and dreamlike ...
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...r has, as a ?real musician.? In the nightclub?s environment he is the unfit. When music starts to be played, he begins to understand the language of Jazz; the way in which it helps artists express their torment and their fear.
While Sonny was performing, he feels how Sonny?s pain and suffering was exiting his body through his finger tips to the piano?s ivory, to the wooden hammers, to the piano wires, and finally airborne in music notes engulfing everybody as communion between the performer and the audience. Sonny internalizes and then expresses all the anguish and joy of the audience.
When the music stops, older brother was in tears, because Sonny?s music also made him go deep inside himself and find the pain of his daughter?s death; the pain of broken promises, and the pain of denying his own kind.
The end is a triumph for both: Sonny showed his brother his world, his purpose, his bitter-sweet happiness, even with the always present lure of addiction. Older brother found respect and acceptance for Sonny, and such acceptance transformed his view of everything around him.
Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues" in Vintage Baldwin. New York: Vintage, 2004.
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