James Baldwin believed that art is a powerful way to ease or relieve one’s suffering, and in his short story Sonny’s Blues, suffering is a major theme for the main characters. Set in Harlem circa 1950’s, the story explores the ideas of failure and redemption, along with addiction and poverty. Baldwin also alludes to the negative effects of segregation and racism on African Americans post Jim Crow laws. We get to know Sonny, a piano-playing addict, through his older brother who is narrating the story, and we see his struggle in grappling with his brother’s addiction to heroin and their emotional distance. Although Sonny falls deeply into the traps of drug-addiction, his older brother never demonizes him for it, and through Sonny’s suffering the narrator is able to begin to understand the weight of his own.
Sonny’s “blues” derives from the stifling conditions he is forced to live in as an African American. The struggle he faces every day in a worn down poverty stricken neighborhood leads him to find an escape through jazz playing and heroin. In approaching the laments of Sonny's situation, we are able to see a bigger issue in society: the segregated world of Whites and Blacks. What Baldwin reveals is the social stigma Blacks face, and the pursuit to attain a better life is nearly nonexistent. What is compelling about Baldwin’s story is the way he disseminates an important issue without downright explicitly saying it. We can assume that the narrator is Baldwin and in accessing the emotional trauma that racism has on Blacks we can begin to come to grips with what is inherently wrong in our society.
The theme of failure comes into play when we see that it is not Sonny’s fault that he is the way he is, it is the world around him that aids in his belief that he has failed himself and his family. One aspect of Sonny that makes him a relatable character is his ability to access his pain through a form of art: his piano playing. Even though a racist white society views him as a failure, he is the truth bearer of what they cannot even begin to face: their own limitations in their interactions with the world around them. Sonny is not a typical hero, but his redemption is an undertaking that allows him to stay true to himself and others around him despite his status in society. Baldwin also brilliantly touches on the subject of drug addiction, and how that is perceived by Blacks. Heroin words as an antidote for the pain felt from the way that society ostracizes people due to their race. What Sonny seems to be saying by his drug addiction is that he is making a choice to counteract that poison: racism. By “poisoning” himself he acts as the mirror to the oppressive state he and Blacks face every day.
This is the third story I have read from Baldwin and to me he has always been a powerful writer who tackles painful issues that are still relevant and resonate in the modern-day consciousness.