“Sonny’s Blues” is set in Harlem, a historically African American neighborhood in New York City. Despite the cultural revival known as the Harlem Renaissance, which bloomed in the 1920s, the neighborhood remained impoverished and oppressed in the 1950s when “Sonny’s Blues” takes place. It plays an important role in the short story, Harlem is depicted as a trap from which the narrator and his brother must struggle to escape. The narrator moves back in forth in time as he is informed of Sonny’s imprisonment, reminisces about their shared past, and then moves to the present for the story’s climax. The story’s setting influences the way the boys grew up because of the influences they had around them and the expectations that they were given.
Growing up the narrator wanted to live a different life that the one he had experienced. He aspires to conform to white culture and live a ‘safe’ lifestyle; in doing so separates himself from his family and parts of the wider African American culture. When he learns of his brother’s imprisonment, he cannot feel compassion toward Sonny. Likewise, he is unfamiliar with contemporary African American culture: he admits to not knowing Charlie Parker, a famed jazz musician. He even treats aspects of his heritage with disdain: when he sees a barmaid dancing to something “black and bouncy” and is overcome with contempt.
Music plays a tremendous and complex role in “Sonny’s Blues”. Perhaps the most obvious is in the title. Although, Sonny is a jazz musician, not a blues musician. The narrator explains that the blues are the story “of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph.” Jazz, then, simply “represents a revision of the blues”. It is one of the “new ways” of expressing the same old blues. Thus, in playing jazz, Sonny is still playing the blues. Both blues and jazz are important African American musical forms and as such are appropriate to the story’s focus on community. But it is not just Sonny who uses the blues to express himself. Given Baldwin’s understanding of the blues, “Sonny’s Blues,” the story itself, is a form of the blues. It follows the same essential structure: it begins with a lost and anxious man, follows two brothers growing together, and ends with a moment of redemption. Baldwin uses the blues to shape his short story, paralleling Sonny’s musical use of the blues. For both men the blues are a means for expressing themselves.
Music is the only way for Sonny to express himself. Throughout the story he struggles to communicate with a brother who refuses to hear him. The narrator rejects outright his passion for music and his desire to leave Harlem. The first time in the piece that the narrator truly hears Sonny is during the conversation the brothers have after witnessing the street revival. Listening to the honest and beautiful singing of one of the women has opened the brothers to each other and allowed them to communicate. The narrator’s moment of redemption occurs while finally listening to his brother play; Sonny’s music allows him to understand his brother’s struggles and through them understand his own. The darkness that menaces Harlem is a symbol for the suffering borne by the community. The narrator describes the darkness as what his parents “endure[d]” and what he is destined to “endure.” The darkness is everywhere, waiting outside a subway car, leaking in through the windows, reflected in a pair of lost eyes. Suffering is, as Sonny explains to his brother, inescapable. Sonny’s addiction, Grace’s death, and the murder of the narrator’s uncle all seem to support this assertion. Yet suffering has both “humanizing power and redemptive potential.” Suffering allows an individual to understand the suffering of another, creating true compassion and humanizing the other. The narrator cannot understand Sonny’s plight until he has suffered similarly after the loss of his daughter. It is only then that he contacts Sonny. Music in this story offers a path to redemption.
If suffering is represented by darkness then redemption is represented by light. The narrator explains the redemptive nature of the blues by describing them as “the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” Similarly, the bandstand where Sonny plays is bathed in a bright spotlight.
Another psychological element in this story is the added element of being part of a minority group while living in the projects in Harlem. Good examples of this are present when the author talks about how, no matter what he had accomplished in life, he still lived in the projects in Brooklyn, just as he had growing up. He had signed up with the army, become a school teacher and regardless of his efforts to move forward he still lived with his wife and children in the projects. Another example appears as the author is describing the cab back after picking his brother up. As they pass by the projects, he notes that even when a new building is built, no matter how nice and new it is, in less than a year, it too, will look just like all the rest. Old and run down, blending into the background of all the others.
Sonny’s struggle during his first set may not only represent past struggles, but struggles to come. As he reminded his brother, his addiction could return. Whether Sonny’s suffering has ended is unclear.