When it came to social inequalities, the African American community relied on drugs and music to overlook their struggles. “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin was a short story about living in poverty in Harlem. In the beginning of the story, the narrator discovers that his brother Sonny was imprisoned for selling and possessing drugs and mentions the lack of communication between them. The narrator begins to have flashbacks of their childhood and his parents throughout the story.
Before Sonny’s imprisonment, his brother feared Sonny’s desire of becoming a musician and tried to lead him to a better ath. Overwhelmed, Sonny departed and began to use drugs to escape his reality of his suffering. After being released from prison, Sonny was picked up by his brother and they headed to his family’s apartment in Harlem. After living together for a while, the narrator struggled to trust Sonny and wanted to search his room to see if he was using drugs again which he ultimately didn’t do. Sonny walked into the apartment and invited his brother to watch him perform at a jazz club.
While watching him greet everyone, then perform, the narrator realized that Sonny created a family at the jazz club and onnected with the audience giving them a sense of freedom. The narrator finally accepted Sonny’s dream of being a musician. The story implies that living in poverty can create a state of darkness and the use of drugs in the African American community. As a result, the characters were able to rely on music and family as a way to escape reality and manage these inequalities. Living in poverty affected the narrator and his brother Sonny from growing up to their present day.
When they were young, their mother believed living in Harlem wasn’t safe and their father thought otherwise. Their mother wanted to move to a better place where her children would be safe. This can be seen when the narrator states, “Safe! my father grunted, whenever Mama suggested trying to move to a neighborhood which might be safe for children” (Pg. 113). Shortly after their father passed away, their mother feared Sonny would have trouble growing up or would become murdered like their unfamiliar uncle and pleaded to the narrator to always look out for him.
The narrator was able to succeed by becoming an algebra teacher and tried to create a better life for Sonny, but ltimately he rebelled and started to use drugs. Present day, the narrator had no choice but to still live in Harlem in a housing project due to not being far from where he taught and for his children. The narrator and his family moved in when it was new, but after a few days it was already rundown. The narrator mentions that living in the housing projects became similar to the houses in which Sonny and he grew up in.
After Sonny’s imprisonment, the narrator feared that Sonny living with them in the housing project would cause him to fall back again and rely on drugs. This can be seen when the narrator states, “The moment Sonny and I started into the house I had the feeling that I was simply bringing him back into the danger he had almost died trying to escape” (Pg. 112). The narrator began to look out for Sonny and would worry that at any moment Sonny would use drugs again to escape reality. The narrator wanted to make sure that this time he would complete his promise to their mother and help Sonny into a better future.
For Sonny, he no longer wanted to live in Harlem because he foreshadowed how it would create a state of darkness for him. Sonny was reserved and didn’t bother to express himself to his family. After living with his brother, the narrator, he finally opened up and revealed to his brother why he wanted to leave Harlem. This can be seen when Sonny states, “I couldn’t tell you when Mama died- but the reason I wanted to leave Harlem so bad was to get away from drugs. And then, when I ran away, that’s what I was running from- really” (Pg. 127).
Being isolated from his brother, young Sonny felt constrained living with Isabel. He felt running away was his only option of escaping darkness. When the narrator as young, he recalls a moment where his parents and his neighbors were in the living room sitting and not conversing. It was becoming dark and the narrator would notice how they were taking a moment and soon someone would turn on the light and everything would go back to reality. This can be seen when the narrator states, “The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about.
It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure” (Pg. 114). In every person, the narrator saw the darkness that haunted them. Darkness represented their past, isolation, struggles, and living in poverty. Moreover, the African American community and Sonny were able to manage the inequalities through music. Sonny invited his brother to watch him perform at a jazz nightclub and show him how music was his new way of escaping reality. During his performance, the narrator realized Sonny also helped the audience escape theirs too.
This can be seen when the narrator states, “Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seem to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others” (Pg. 131). The narrator realized that his brother loved performing and the audience loved to hear him play the piano. The music helped them cope with their everyday struggles. Another example is when the narrator also notices that Sonny playing the piano gave a sense of freedom.
This can be seen when the narrator states, “Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did” (Pg. 131). The music made the audience feel freedom from their pain and suffering of living in poverty, discrimination and segregation. The narrator began to ear what Sonny had gone through and was glad that music instead of drugs was his escape from reality. Family was another choice for the African American community, the narrator and Sonny to cope with the inequalities.
Since Sonny and the narrator had a distant relationship and were trying to connect after Sonny’s imprisonment, at the nightclub the narrator realized Sonny created a family with the musicians. This can be seen when the narrator states, “They all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell from his face” (Pg. 130). Sonny loved performing and was able to form family with Creole and the rest of the musicians who helped others escape and cope with their struggles.
Sonny was able to show his brother his passion for music and the narrator finally accepted him. On the other hand, the narrator began to have flashbacks of his deceased parents, daughter and uncle. In that moment he realized that everyone had their struggles, but with hope and family, one can overcome them. This can be seen when the narrator states, “And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the ky” (Pg. 131).
The narrator acknowledged that everything was going to be good as long as his wife, children and Sonny were with him. Pain and suffering were a reflection of the African American community, but with family by their side, they were able to overcome the inequalities. The social inequalities in the African American community were demonstrated through Sonny, the narrator, and their neighbors. Living in poverty can create a state of darkness and the use of drugs, but fortunately the characters were able to rely on music and family as a way to manage these inequalities.